Real Times Media rebounded furloughed employees to build virtual events during COVID


By Brooke Warner • LMA contributor

Jackson

Real Times Media, LLC, owns and publishes the Chicago Defender, a large and influential African American weekly newspaper, as well as five other regional weeklies in the eastern and Midwestern United States — all focused on Black news and culture. Its CEO, Hiram Jackson, characterizes them this way:

“People come to us to stay informed and to get the information that is unvarnished and unapologetic, by and for Black people. This has been especially important to communities during COVID.”

In addition to news production for the websites and newspapers, Real Times is deeply invested in the special events business, holding 65 events across 12 cities annually, each designed to be highly engaging. In addition to enjoying the direct benefits of events to their business, the company uses that engagement to drive a lot of excitement around their print products, so COVID-19 presented a significant threat.

“First thing we did [when COVID hit] after we calmed down was come to the conclusion we weren’t going to be able to keep our special events staff, “ he said. “So, we made the tough decision — and it was really hard — to lay off that team, though luckily, that’s not the end of the story.

“We were in a situation where we had 10 events planned, we had to postpone them. Initially, we weren’t sure if it was necessary to postpone or cancel. But as the crisis deepened, it became clear we needed a Plan B,” he continued. “So we segued right into virtual events. We were concerned about our cash position, but we knew we had to make the investment in our infrastructure to be able to do virtual events. So, at that point we brought back a couple of our events folks. We received a ton of support from our corporate sponsors, partners, and advertisers.”

Company leaders knew they had to pivot, but when it came to broadcasting virtual events, they were creating and learning from scratch.

“We partnered with AVL, a video production company in Detroit. They had a pretty sophisticated studio and were already transitioning into a virtual event company when we partnered,” Jackson said.

One event, called Pancakes and Politics — a very upscale, C-suite event around community issues and politics — required an equally upscale attendee experience. “We could not give them a subpar experience. Those events are highly anticipated and always sell out. We needed something that could give them the same type of high-end quality they’ve come to expect. We were able to do that with speakers that were in-studio and it’s broadcast live.

The company does a lot of Facebook Live, and uses Crowdcast, which allows for registered, paid guests, as well as Screen Yard, a tool the team uses to put content on Facebook Live.

The team also uses a platform called Hoppin that simulates the real-world components of a conference, such as a main stage, breakout rooms, the ability to network, and direct chat.  It offers users a significant amount of flexibility to put on all types of conferences, or even a concert.

“When we come back to our regular event schedule, we’ll maintain a large virtual component. The virtual aspect allows people to watch around the world, and expands our ability to reach new audiences. It allows for a more dynamic delivery of the content and a heightened experience,” he said. “[Virtual events] live digitally forever, plus you can pre-record content, add more components, and really enhance the whole experience for real world attendees.”

At this point, Jackson feels that they’re now in a much better position to move forward.

“We want to put our energy into making an impact, we want to move the needle,” he said. “We’re ready to do just that.”


This is an excerpt from a full report, produced through the Local Media Innovation Alliance, that highlights interviews with leaders of Graham Media Group, Swift Communications, Real Times Media, Shaw Media, and Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers. They offer useful tips for managing a distributed workforce, helping employees and local businesses be sustainable, and perspectives on operating as a local media business during a pandemic. Read four takeaways from the report.

LMA member companies that subscribe to LMIA receive the report for free. Non-subscribers can purchase the report for $149.