Using events as a public service

By Courtland Jeffrey

Over the past month and a half, Dallas has dealt with one of the biggest stories of the year: Ebola. Three cases arose in the city during a fifteen-day period, and staff at The Dallas Morning News worked around the clock to cover the story.

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Microscopic view of the ebola virus. (Photo by CDC Global’s Flicker via Creative Commons) Photo: “Ebola Virus” by CDC Global via flickr, licensed under CC BY 4.0

But when reporters and editors in the newsroom realized that many Dallas residents didn’t know how the virus could affect their lives, the newsroom set up a question and answer forum to address public health concerns.

“We try not to just push stories, but rather generate conversations around them,” said Tom Huang, The Dallas Morning News’ Sunday and enterprise editor.

He moderated the 300-attendee event, Vital Lessons: How Dallas Confronted the Ebola Challenge, that gathered 10 experts, consisting of doctors, scientists, public officials and the chief clinical officer at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, where Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan died.

The November event elicited good community engagement, according to Huang, as the audience and additional Twitter users asked substantial questions of the panel. Huang said the event was not meant to generate revenue but was intended to present the facts behind the story. He also said the event was part of a larger effort to use in-depth content to generate community conversations.

“Somewhere along the way, traditional news organizations got disconnected,” said Huang, “This one way to reconnect.”

While the focus of the forum was to answer the public’s questions regarding Ebola, Huang said there were other rewards. It allowed the newsroom to meet with readers and viewers. It also generated event-specific content and a follow-up story.

The Dallas Morning News relied on its subsidiary CrowdSource to manage much of the event’s logistics and worked together with The University of Texas at Dallas to host the event.

Huang said, in pulling together a project like this, it’s helpful to have core expertise on the subject, experience in organizing large events and strong community partnerships.

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