Texas Tribune a model for nonprofit event planning

By Wynne Mancini

Newsrooms are buzzing about events.

Facing ongoing revenue woes, news organizations are looking to events to boost brand awareness, increase audience and generate revenue.

Nonprofit news outlets – particularly concerned about sustainability – have a strong interest in making events work.

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The Austin, Texas skyline (Photo by LonestarMike via Creative Commons) (“Austin skyline” by LoneStarMike via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0)

One nonprofit news organization, The Texas Tribune, has figured out a strategy to do that.

Founded in 2009, the Austin-based Tribune, a nonprofit media organization promoting conversation on public policy, politics and government, has recognized considerable success in the event business.

The Tribune hosts 50 to 60 events per year, and it generates revenue with them. Now many other nonprofit newsrooms are examining its experience, hoping to emulate it.

But does the Tribune’s success mean other nonprofit newsrooms can capitalize on events?

The PIN Bureau spoke with Agnes Varnum, director of events for The Texas Tribune, and Kevin Davis, CEO of the Investigative News Network, about their work with events.  Below are some takeaways for news organizations considering the plunge into events.

1.)   Finding common ground between sponsors and consumers is key. The majority of The Texas Tribune’s events are free and open to the public; sponsors cover the costs. The Tribune’s ingenuity comes in putting together packages that sponsors want to pay for.

“Everybody has something that they want,” Varnum noted.

Events are just one piece of an appealing sponsorship package, according to Varnum.  With events, the principle is simple: the Tribune offers sponsors access to an audience.  Sponsors get to promote their brands at the events, and they can build brand awareness when their logo rolls on the Tribune’s online videos.

2.) Universities are natural partners. Varnum said the Tribune partners with colleges and universities, which offer a natural public square for discussion. She said university partners publicize events through established channels, and they have personnel to support event logistics. Further, universities have an interest in hosting the type of conversations the Tribune wants to have.

3.) Once you are good at events, live streaming can give you an even wider reach.  The Texas Tribune started live streaming all of its conversations in January 2014, and that gave the Tribune’s numbers a big boost, according to Varnum. For one event in El Paso, the Tribune drew 300 people, and 6,000 people watched using a live stream. Over the next six days, 150,000 viewed the published video.

Live streaming also brought the Tribune an unanticipated financial benefit. When it streamed the 2013 filibuster by state Sen. Wendy Davis, people reached out to thank the Tribune for its coverage and even donated to support its YouTube channel.

4.) Learn from the more experienced. Doing events comes with a learning curve. Davis pointed out that events are labor intensive, and organizations have to ask if they can make the efforts justify the cost.  While nonprofit newsrooms often operate with a public good mantra, Davis said bottom-line issues have to be considered.

“Nonprofit newsrooms’ events are no different from events in the for-profit sphere,” Davis said.

But for-profits aren’t the only entities mastering the event business. Davis said best practices and lessons could also come from arts and community organizations accustomed to planning events on tight budgets. Such organizations may even be partners.

Here are some questions that might help your newsroom plan an event strategy:

  • How can we create experiences for audiences to participate in content?
  • How might events offer multiple points for generating profit?
  • What skills do staff members need to handle events?

To get started, your newsroom may want to check out this events planning worksheet designed by the American Press Institute.

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