In real life engagement, experiential journalism moving the needle for Gannett
In a post a couple of months back, I wrote about platforms and the need for newsrooms to keep an open mind. Today Facebook’s instant articles model appears to be ascendant while Snapchat Discover — the “it” platform of early 2015 — hasn’t (yet) delivered on its promise to revolutionize news delivery. And just around the corner is the Next Big Thing.
But one platform mentioned in that earlier post is not only near and dear to my heart, but pretty much guaranteed to facilitate deeper engagement with news consumers (especially those coveted millennials) and, in many cases, generate new streams of revenue.
I’m talking about In Real Life (IRL) engagement; everything from coffee klatches to secret suppers to news-breaking issues forums to banquets for 3,000 honoring high school athletes. Those examples come to mind because in the past year, Gannett’s local newsrooms — following on groundbreaking success from media companies including The Guardian, The New York Times and the Texas Tribune — have taken our IRL engagement strategy from almost zero to 60 MPH. Maybe 100 MPH.
The communities we serve are clearly digging this model. We know because they are showing up at events in record numbers and, in many cases, paying a ticket price to attend.
A recent coffee+news meeting packed an Indianapolis coffee shop with more than 60 readers and was watched live by 1,500 on Periscope. And Indy is just one of several markets now hosting regular coffee+news meetings where anyone has the opportunity to take part in a morning news huddle.
As Local News Lab guru Josh Stearns wrote last year here on Medium, that real life connection, “help(s) position largely digital newsrooms physically as hubs in communities. They give readers a human connection, and extend the reporting.”
So important. Case in point:
In Jackson, Miss., last week the stately Clarion-Ledger blew the doors off of the Jackson Convention Center with its Best of MS Preps event, which honored the best of Mississippi’s high school athletes at a glittering awards gala with a keynote speech from New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees.
In Phoenix, the Arizona Storytellers event series (Think This American Life or The Moth) continues to grow, with 16 events scheduled this year, title sponsorships that cover costs and bring in revenue and a swagger that, as was detailed in a recent NiemanLab piece, “not only put the paper in front of new audiences, but created new relationships with businesses, the local NPR affiliate, and the local community college.”
All made sense from an editorial standpoint, providing rich content and — in some cases — breaking news, and most generated net revenue, providing a crucial new moneymaking stream. And these examples barely scratch the surface of a Gannett push to maximize IRL engagement. A company-wide audit found hundreds of examples — some humble, others marquee events — bubbling up across markets.
How’d we do it?
Clear strategy: In 2015, Gannett’s publishing division (aka the soon-to-be one and only Gannett) rolled out a training program called Picasso. We taught journalists in every single one of our newsrooms that connecting with community is a key to our future success and we put the onus on our local staffers — who best know their communities — to develop engagement opportunities. Then, when we rolled out our reimagined newsroom roles, many of the job descriptions included language that stresses the importance of engagement across the board: digitally, in the very tone of our writing and, yes, in real life.
Tactics & transparency: On the corporate side, we put together an internal site overflowing with resources for everything from developing an engagement strategy to getting a liquor license. Journalists — and our friends in marketing and sales — can scan the site for one-sheets on how to execute a particular “event in a box,” download sample profit & loss sheets, customize participation waivers and get crucial guidance on ROI. We also use the site as a clearinghouse for information about how things are going. Did one market try a pop-up dinner event that totally worked (or totally failed)? We’re sharing those lessons learned weekly to keep any of our 81 (umm, make that 92) markets from repeating a mistake already made somewhere else.
Goal-setting: Journalists are busy people. We know our newsrooms don’t have time to execute on every good idea, so when it comes to events and organic engagement, we ask them to complete an exercise that will clarify what they hope to get — as individual reporters or as an entire news organization — out of a particular project. And those goals are not binary: say, simple altruism vs. revenue generation. Nope. It’s a continuum that involves everything from building brand to collecting data to generating buzz to, yes, revenue. As long as we know what success looks like, we’ll know if our time, and money, was well-spent.
Freedom & fearlessness: If the ends justify the means, we trust our news organizations to experiment. Some models will succeed. Others will fail. That’s okay. We’ll learn, we’ll iterate and we’ll try again armed with more knowledge.