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Oct. 22, 2020, 9:54 a.m.

How the Minneapolis Star Tribune made the best of a canceled state fair

Carve-your-own butter sculptures, Minnesota trivia, and cheese curd-flavored chapstick were among the Star Tribune’s virtual offerings. (Replicating the llama costume contest proved a bit too difficult.)

When Minnesotans heard that their beloved state fair would be canceled due to the coronavirus, they seemed to speak in one voice: On top of everything else, no fair was just no fair.

The Minnesota State Fair is a very big deal, as I was repeatedly told. Typically, the 12-day event draws more than 2 million visitors and 2020 marks just the sixth time in its 161-year-old history that the fair has been canceled. (The last time? In 1946, amid the polio epidemic.)

It’s an especially important event for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, whose readership eats up state fair coverage and which relies on an annual in-person booth to boost a number of revenue streams. Steve Yaeger, the Star Tribune’s chief marketing officer and senior vice president of circulation, explained:

From a coverage perspective, it is among our most popular content every year. It’s also financially important to our business. We have a presence at the state fair and a building where we interact with our readership. It’s our single biggest subscription sales event of the year. We sell a heck of a lot of subscriptions around the state fair both in person, as well as with other promotions that we put around it. We sell a ton of branded merchandise. And we sell a lot of sponsorship around it. It’s very important for our advertising team as well. Overall, it’s a healthy six-approaching-seven-figure proposition for us financially.

When Star Tribune staff heard the state fair was officially canceled, they felt the blow like the rest of the state. But Sue Campbell, managing editor for features, said it wasn’t long before another editor asked — would it be crazy to try and make up for some of this online?

It wouldn’t be crazy. The assembled multi-department team did wonder how well some of the fan favorites — the milkshakes from the Dairy Barn, the costumed llamas, the giant butter sculptures, all those buckets of food, etc. — would translate virtually.

Some things clearly weren’t going to pan out. (See: that very large slide.) But the team soon came up with an impressively comprehensive list of programming, including a beer garden with the newspaper’s cicerone and a mini-Grandstand with musical performances. The merchandise on offer included cheese-curd flavored lip balm, a coloring book featuring Minnesota artists, and a number of esoteric tee-shirts.

The endeavor took more than pivoting scheduled talks and panels to Zoom. The Star Tribune worked to solicit and highlight reader-submitted content, given that many people have been looking for a little human connection during these days (and weeks and months) of social distancing. Campbell said that an earlier coloring competition had expected 75 entries but wound up inundated with more than 400. “We had the sense from these earlier reader engagement activities that people were hungry to actually participate and do something,” she said. From the amateur talent contest to the trivia show hosted by Star Tribune journalists Nicole Norfleet and Eric Roper, readers have been “game” for it all. (Quick disclosure: Roper was my editor back in our student journalism days, before he became a star.)

The team’s biggest problem, it turns out, was narrowing down the number of ideas.

“We hopefully will have a real fair next year, but if we had to do this again, we would cut down on the overall amount of content,” Campbell said. “It proved too much for us to get five fair pieces each day through our pipeline, so we simply couldn’t get everything the social media and/or home page boost needed.”

Another takeaway? The Star Tribune found the longer the video, the less the engagement. “A good reminder to enforce time limits, even when we’re fascinated by the subject matter,” Campbell noted.

The “hands-down” biggest hit was the amateur talent contest, followed by the editorial department’s interview with Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz. The guides to fair foods (one dozen of ’em!) and the DIY segments (carve your own butter sculpture) were up there, too.

Ultimately, Yeager said the paper’s virtual state fair “slightly exceeded” its revenue expectations. “We ended up achieving slightly more than half of last year’s record revenue, quite an accomplishment given the event we celebrated didn’t even happen,” he said.

The results have convinced the Star Tribune to look ahead to other traditions that will be disrupted by the pandemic — including the upcoming holiday season — to see if they can do something similar.

POSTED     Oct. 22, 2020, 9:54 a.m.
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