A black-and-white photo of a panel at the Collaborative Journalism Summit with the words “HYBRID EVENTS” written in red and white text over the front of the photo.

What we learned about hybrid events after this year’s Collaborative Journalism Summit

‘Never again,’ said Joe in the moment.

By Stefanie Murray and Joe Amditis

Last month we hosted the sixth annual Collaborative Journalism Summit in Chicago — but also on Zoom. It was the first in-person event we’d done since the pandemic began and the first hybrid event we’d ever done.

This post is an attempt to share some of the strategies we employed, challenges we faced, and lessons we learned along the way in the hopes that it will help make your events more successful in the future.

Making the decision on how to structure the event

We grappled with doing an in-person or virtual event for months. We surveyed previous attendees last December to see what they’d want to attend and got fairly split results. About 40% said they’d only come virtually, 40% said they would wait to make a game-time decision, and 20% said they preferred to be in-person.

So, we committed to doing hybrid, figuring the game-time decision folks would come in-person if we were able to make the event as safe as possible.

The Center chose Chicago because of all of the amazing collaborative work happening throughout the city and region. We always attempt to work with a local college or news organization to host the event, rather than a hotel. (That’s partly because we can’t afford to book hotel space and partly because we like the vibe better at schools or news orgs.) It was an easy choice to partner with Columbia College Chicago, where we’ve attended numerous journalism conferences in previous years.

Columbia required masks for all guests, and we also decided to ask for proof of vaccination. In hindsight—given how fast variations of the coronavirus causing COVID-19 were and are changing—it would have been better to ask for rapid test results. We decided at the last minute to encourage folks to rapid test before arriving, but it wasn’t something we felt we could require at the last minute.

Recruiting speakers when half of them don’t want to travel

OK, so we now had a decision. We would be hybrid.

When we opened up our pitch form to accept submissions from people who wanted to present, we gave them the option to tell us whether they would want to attend virtually or in-person, or if their presenters would want to be half-and-half. We should not have offered that third option. We ended up having two sessions with facilitators or speakers who were both virtual (big head on screen) and in-person. It worked out OK, but it gave Joe some major heartburn.

We received some amazing pitches. Once we organized the best ones and made our wish list for keynotes, we were faced with the inevitable: Half of our speakers didn’t want to travel to Chicago.

So how was this going to work?

We decided to split our two-day conference into one day of all in-person panels and roundtables, and a second day of all virtual panels and roundtables. People who were attending in-person could watch the day two panels in the auditorium, and if they were speaking they could come into our Zoom “studio” to participate in their session.

But we worried that our in-person attendees would not have enough incentive to come back for day two. So, on that second day, we hosted a series of hands-on workshops only available to in-person attendees. The workshops ran simultaneously with the virtual sessions, so in-person folks had options. That decision seemed to work fairly well; although fewer people came for day two, the workshops were nearly all full (except for the one immediately following breakfast) and anywhere from 10–30 people were watching the livestream from the auditorium at any given time.

Some feedback from our post-Summit survey: “It was hard to know how to navigate the in-person v. virtual sessions. … I think having a bit more incentive/structure for in-person folks to stay as long as possible even if there are virtual tasks happening could be helpful.”

Hybrid events are actually two simultaneous events

We learned this the hard way, even though we were warned multiple times about the frustrations and challenges associated with running hybrid events. We had conversations with people at OpenNews, INN, and other organizations who have attempted or were planning to attempt some kind of hybrid event or conference — all of whom told us some version of the same thing: it’s basically like running two events at the same time.

And wow, were they right.

We anticipated this going in, but one of the most important takeaways from our experience was the need to treat both the virtual and in-person aspects of the Summit as very distinct, equally-valid avenues of participation for the attendees.

That means dedicating staff whose job it is to run the virtual aspects and tend to virtual participants. It also means setting expectations early and making sure your attendees know exactly what kind of experience to expect, what resources they will have access to, and how they will be able to participate during various stages of the conference.

Bridget Thoreson wrote an excellent Twitter thread on the subject:

We knew that people needed a reason to attend in person that went beyond simply watching people talk, which is why we hosted workshops that weren’t recorded and were only available to in-person attendees. The feedback we got was very positive related to the workshops.

We also noticed that the majority of our virtual attendees appeared to only want to watch a livestream of the sessions — there weren’t many people who were engaging or interacting with the sessions beyond that. In the future, we will survey virtual attendees more robustly in advance to see what experience they are expecting, as it wasn’t clear if folks really just wanted to watch a livestream or if we simply didn’t provide a good enough experience to engage them.

As we have with our last two virtual Summits, we offered virtual attendees some time and space for unstructured interaction or asynchronous communication. We set up multiple Zoom links with different topics — networking, hanging out, and show and tell — to give people an opportunity to do things like meet other attendees, continue discussing topics or projects mentioned during conference sessions, or just chat without any real structure or programming. We also used asynchronous communication channels like Padlet to allow attendees to exchange information and job opportunities on their own time. We found folks used Padlet but not as many used the open Zoom rooms.

Another good point of feedback from our post-Summit survey: “There was no way for in-person participants to interact with virtual participants — a Slack group would have helped bridge that gap.”

The image is split diagonally down the middle showing two photos: On the left, Stefanie Murray sits at a laptop and prepares to introduce a virtual conference session with a step-and-repeat behind her. On the right, Joe Amditis sits at a computer sweating while wearing headphones.
Left: Stefanie Murray prepares to introduce a virtual session. Right: Joe Amditis sweats while using a computer.

The tech and its staffing really matters

One of our biggest mistakes in this year’s Summit was stretching Joe too thin (next year we will clone him). Not only was he running tech for everything on-site, he was running tech for the entire virtual program. In the future he will be assigned to one or the other.

We made the decision early on to stick with Zoom. We did this because:

  1. All of our staff and attendees are familiar with it
  2. It is more affordable than Hopin

Although we love the options that other platforms like Hopin offer, our conference brings in just enough money to break even and we couldn’t afford it. (If you want to sponsor the Summit in the future to help us with this, let Stefanie know! Send an email to murrayst@montclair.edu.)

A grid of four photos showing CCM staff during a 12-hour road trip from New Jersey to Chicago and back again, including a shot of the rental van we used and the mess of boxes and bags we packed into the back of the van.
Twelve hours on the road each way from New Jersey to Chicago and back again.

The Center’s team drove from New Jersey to Chicago with all of our gear. In addition to lugging step-and-repeats, banners, registration materials and care packages, we had to safely transport all of Joe’s computer and tech equipment. (We even bought his computer its own travel suitcase.)

As noted above, we decided to set up a Zoom “studio” in one conference room down the hall from the main auditorium at Columbia. This allowed us to make sure all presenters who were scheduled for sessions on day two would have the same webcam and audio quality throughout the Summit. It also helped make sure the virtual sessions wouldn’t be interrupted or disturbed by people hanging out or networking in the hallways or common areas of the venue.

Finally, as we’ve done for the previous two Summits, Joe created a digital dashboard with all of the relevant links, resources, and other conference information that attendees (both virtual and in-person) might need throughout the event.

The desktop version of the attendee dashboard, created by Joe Amditis.

We created a mobile and desktop version of the dashboard using Canva. Both versions included links to the Summit schedule, speaker and attendee lists, sponsors, the “Asks + Offers” board, a map of several points of interest around Chicago, contact info for Summit staff, and more.

Accessibility needs are different for each event

Making sure everyone is able to access your event and fully participate in it takes more than just setting up a few Zoom links and assigning someone to monitor the chat. There are layers upon layers of consideration and intentionality required to make any event truly accessible to people of different types and capabilities — and as we found out, this goes double for hybrid events.

Many people are still unaware of just how many people in the United States alone have some kind of disability or accessibility need:

  • 20% of people in the U.S. (48 million Americans) are deaf or hard of hearing
  • More than a million people in the U.S. are blind and more than 12 million have low vision
  • More than 5 million people in the U.S. are English language learners
  • An estimated 40 million or more Americans have a learning disability

For nearly all of our virtual events, we enable live or automated closed-captioning and live language interpretation. For this year’s Summit, we added ASL interpretation.

With hybrid events, this meant making sure those features — and more —are also accessible to people who attend in person, which can be tricky. We had to make sure everyone participating online and everyone in the auditorium at Columbia College could see the ASL interpreter, the closed-captioning, and be able to tune in to the Spanish interpretation channel.

An ASL interpreter signs at the front of an auditorium as Stefanie Murray stands at a podium on stage and gives the opening remarks on day one of the 2022 Collaborative Journalism Summit.
An ASL interpreter signs as Stefanie Murray gives opening remarks at the Summit. (Photo: Sarah Stonbely)

We put the ASL interpreters on stage with the presenters during each in-person session on day one (and designated a section of seats in the front row for those who required ASL interpretation). We also provided cheap, wired earbuds to any attendee that wanted a pair so they could tune into the Zoom broadcast on their phone to hear the Spanish interpretation. This also helped people sitting near the back of the auditorium if they had trouble hearing the presenters on stage (due to a technical issue with Columbia College’s A/V setup) or wanted to watch the closed captioning on their phone.

Other thoughts and considerations:

  • Food. Food costs were up for us about 30–40% from our previous Summits and we had to balance what we served with what it costs. Going forward, we are leaning toward only serving vegetarian food at our events. This is not only the more environmentally-friendly thing to do, but it also ensures that more of our guests will be able to eat the food we serve. Vegetarians will never eat meat, but there are very few, if any, meat eaters who will refuse to eat vegetarian food (and it’s sometimes less expensive.)
  • Care packages. This Summit we switched to offering what we called care packages rather than “swag bags” to our in-person participants. We didn’t have anything for virtual participants, unfortunately. In the care packages we offered water, ibuprofen, an electrolyte supplement and hand sanitizer along with a notebook, pen and stickers. Folks appreciated that, but many also didn’t take them. In the future, we decided we’ll offer a buffet of items for folks to pick up if they want one, rather than assuming every attendee wants stuff.
  • Sponsorships. Selling sponsorships was trickier this year, as some sponsors were definitely ready to get back to in-person benefits while others were not. Several organizations that had sponsored the Summit in the past also told us their sponsorship budgets were smaller or non-existent this year while they evaluated how they would support events in a post-pandemic world.
  • Fun. We almost forgot how to have fun out in the real world, and wished we would have planned more outside-the-venue networking events. Our welcome reception at City Bureau was a hit. We always seek to create an atmosphere that fosters a sense of community and joy. Having fun, both as an organizer and an attendee, is an incredibly important aspect of our work, and we see the annual Collaborative Journalism Summit as a place where we can really lean into those values.
  • Music. Every year for the last three years, Joe has created custom playlists using audio from past Summit speakers. Not only does this help for virtual breaks, we also used it in the networking and lunch spaces of the in-person venue. You can listen to the full “CJS beats” playlist below or click here to listen to the latest three tracks we made for the 2022 Collaborative Journalism Summit.
The full playlist of “CJS beats” from the last three years of the Collaborative Journalism Summit.

Stefanie Murray is the director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. Contact her at murrayst@montclair.edu or on Twitter at @StefanieMurray.

Joe Amditis is the associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. Contact him at amditisj@montclair.edu or on Twitter at @jsamditis.

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a primarily grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with funding from Montclair State University, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Local News Lab (a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, and Community Foundation of New Jersey), and the Abrams Foundation. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.

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An initiative of the School of Communication at Montclair State University

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Stefanie Murray

Stefanie Murray

Director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.

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