By Steve Baron • LMA Chief Strategy Officer
Just a year ago, the Texas Tribune had a large, growing business hosting free and paid live events related to politics and policy around healthcare, education, and related topics. Today all of those events are still happening, just virtually. Rather than taking a break during the pandemic, the Tribune quickly pivoted its live event business into an online one, generating new revenue, audience, and content.
Before the pandemic, the Tribune was hosting 50 to 60 live events a year around Texas, with the only online component being a live video stream.
Rodney Gibbs leads the Tribune’s Revenue Lab, funded by the Facebook Journalism Project, and says around 20 percent of the Tribune’s revenue comes from live events. Almost all of the events are for the public with revenue from sponsorships; the only paid event is a large festival attended by around 8,000 people.
When the pandemic hit, it “took the air out of live events,” said Gibbs. But the pivot to virtual events came reasonably quickly, said Gibbs, since the Tribune has its live event studio. That allows them to bring high-end production values to now-virtual events, including lower-third graphics, pre-roll ads, sponsor acknowledgments, and more.
“Lots of people get hung up on the tools, and I’m a firm believer that it’s misguided anxiety,” said Gibbs. Zoom is an excellent option to get started with a low cost and low technology barrier, and there are many ways to upgrade from there, but Gibbs said, “there is no need to get hung up on the tech.”
Gibbs’ comments came during a presentation to Local Media Association’s Solving For Chicago news collaborative, funded by the Google News Initiative and Solutions Journalism Network. Members of the collaborative have produced live events in the past but mostly paused production of them because of the pandemic, though some have experimented with virtual events.
Gibbs shared the top lessons learned so far from doing virtual live events at the Texas Tribune:
- The best production plan is a solid pre-production plan.
- Good, solid “B” work sets the table for future “A+” work.
- Technology is the easy part. You have content. Use it!
- Don’t try to recreate real-life events
- Repackage content
- Have a producer
Every event needs at least two people to produce it: one to be on-camera and host, the other to be off-camera, and make sure all technical parts go smoothly.
The Tribune considers live events to be a great source of content for articles, saying “the events are journalism” and often generate headlines because of what happens at the event.
Gibbs’ RevLab put on an “event boot camp” over the summer with more than a dozen publishers, including the Houston Defender. Publisher Sonny Messiah Jiles took part in the boot camp and used the lessons she learned to prepare for her first virtual event this fall.
The Defender’s event is free and supported by six sponsors. Jiles said she is excited about this new business, which has not historically been something the Houston Defender has done.
“Virtual events are new, and there will be mistakes. Audiences are very forgiving and are now used to seeing people in their bedrooms and not looking like they are on television,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs also encourages publishers to use live events to reach people who are not generally part of their audiences, saying the uniquely local content brings in a highly engaged crowd that is eager to be a part of something new.
Solving for Chicago is a collaborative of 20 print, digital, and broadcast newsrooms working cooperatively to cover pressing issues facing the public. The collaborative’s current focus is coverage of the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping their work and professions.