The numbers are in on news organizations earning money by producing events – and the revenue is significant.
Founded only five years ago, the nonprofit Texas Tribune generated $1.13 million from events in 2013, more than one-fifth of its total revenue. That’s up from about $887,000 the year before. About half of the events revenue comes from a single event.
Smaller nonprofits St. Louis Beacon and MinnPost in 2012 generated more than 10 percent of their revenue from events. Another, NJ Spotlight, came in at 12 percent.
[pullquote align=”right”]Incorporating an events strategy can strengthen a local publisher’s brand and bottom line in several interlocking ways.[/pullquote]
The Chattanooga Times Free Press, a private company in Tennessee’s fourth-largest city, earned well into the seven digits off of just 12 events, making “direct events revenue” 11 percent of its retail revenue.
Sometimes, too, revenue is not the only goal. Brand positioning is. Some events are largely about generating news and are in effect journalism events — in-person programs including debates, panels, speeches and other newsmaking opportunities. Still other events in the news space are convened fundamentally as community events — expos, shows, awards dinners, contests and other events that gather communities for non-journalism functions. Most serve multiple purposes.
Different forms of events have particular advantages and challenges, but one thing, organizers say, is clear: incorporating an events strategy can strengthen a local publisher’s brand and bottom line in several interlocking ways.
Events are a proven way to diversify revenue that, if done right, are significantly harder to disrupt than other revenue models. They deepen connections with audiences and sponsors. They reinforce multiple values of a publishing brand. And they can grow.
But organizing an event that fits the wider efforts of a news organization, makes money, and allows for growth is simpler said than done. Many publishers have taken risks on an event only to see it miss goals or fail. Subjects that sounded good to organizers can mismatch a community’s actual interests. Event times may not align with a target audience’s schedules. Assumptions about who will pay for admission can result in falling short of benchmarks. Tension or a lack of communication between editorial and business sides will result in constant struggle.
Most pain points can be avoided with thorough planning.
Evan Smith, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of The Texas Tribune, speaks wspeaks with Texan politicians and thought leaders during the ‘Turning Texas Blue’ keynote session of the three-day Texas Tribune Festival in 2013. Last fall, The Tribune was on track to earn $1.2 million from events for 2013. (Callie Richmond)
The key lessons
This paper is part of the American Press Institute’s ongoing series of Strategy Studies, deep examinations of how publishers can build new revenue models. The studies draw insights from multiple examples, focusing less on the examples themselves and more on the lessons and actionable insights for others to borrow. They are designed to be pragmatic and realistic, noting potential obstacles and emphasizing the how-to elements of growing areas of news revenue.
One overall lesson is that one need not be a large organization with a national readership to attract audiences and sponsor dollars with events. Unlike other some other new revenue models for news, events are not about scale as much as they are value and connection.
This study focused most attention on small- to mid-size publications. The majority of principles will be helpful to any publication. Because there is no one-size-fits-all approach to events, the report focuses not on formulas but processes that appear to lead to success.
This report draws on 8 months of reporting about 19 different publishers. From that, we have distilled six key concepts:
- Use assets you already have: Events are a natural fit for news publishers because of a news organizations’ strengths at organizing information, its access to thought leaders and its role as a independent gathering place for ideas in the community.
- Leverage existing audiences and grow new ones: Events deepen connections with existing audiences but can also help grow new ones. This should dictate the strategy behind events and choosing subjects.
- Identify and hold off competition: Events prevent money that could be your news organization’s from going elsewhere.
- Take creative approaches: Events attract people and businesses for opportunities you couldn’t otherwise get and can build toward other relationships.
- Weigh the value of different pricing strategies: The significant revenue is in event sponsorships, not audience fees, though they can also be important.
- Go all-in with promotions: Event promotion, internally and externally, is vital to event success and growth as a significant source of revenue.
Undertaking events as a source of revenue is a long-term project that could help news publications beyond the dollars taken in. Events can be used to boost exposure, circulation, and relationships with businesses and institutions that may add more in a publisher’s coffers over time. That’s not to mention the many newsroom benefits: these events can break news and even change organizational culture.
This study organizes knowledge about what’s working and why. It talks about the higher-level strategic decisions regarding the fundamentals, the first things a publisher must think through in order to begin an events plan.
Special credit is due for the ideas espoused by the staff of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, a Tennessee newspaper so recognized for its strengths in this department that it held an event on event revenue in fall 2013. Many ideas in this paper arise from lessons shared at the Event Revenue Summit by the paper’s former president, Jason Taylor (now president and publisher at The Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Ms.), staff and from conversations with the event’s attendees.
At the end, we’ve included a simple worksheet to help plan the right events strategy for you.