Zooming beyond talking heads

“Publishers, particularly ones focused on niche audiences, will devise clever ways to engage their audiences with online events.”

Despite feeling zonked by Zoom this year, few would dispute that virtual events are here to stay. As noted elsewhere, production and travel costs are lower and marquee names easier to nab when your audience logs into a screen rather than checks into a hotel to attend your event.

Compelling events — be they online or in-person — require more than talking heads, though. In 2021, we’ll see a number of innovative publishers, particularly ones focused on niche audiences, devise clever ways to engage their audiences with online events. We’ve already seen a few harbingers of what’s to come.

Radio Ambulante, a Spanish-language narrative podcast, hosted online dance parties on Zoom during the pandemic this year. While Radio Ambulante produces journalism, it found that online social events fortified its community and raised money to support its reporting. Hundreds of people from multiple countries attended its online dance parties with live DJs, and many stayed engaged for hours.

St. Louis Public Radio took to Twitch, a live-streaming platform favored by gamers (and the occasional lawmaker), to host a news talk show during the pandemic. Three nights a week, Lindsay Toler, the station’s digital engagement producer, breaks down the day’s news and takes audience questions via Twitch’s chat. (The station also hosts a weekly music show on Twitch.) Toler says her Twitch events build a direct connection with the station’s audience while avoiding the privacy and algorithmic pitfalls of platforms like Facebook and YouTube.

Scalawag, a movement journalism organization covering the southern U.S., hosts a number of online events, including jubilees, celebrations that engage its audience, raise revenue for the publication, and offer a welcome escape from the pandemic malaise. Its most recent jubilee, for example, mixed live cooking and cocktail recipes with short paeans about Scalawag’s community impact. The jubilee helped those already financially supporting the publication deepen their connection to the news outlet and its staff, and it lured newcomers into the Scalawag family.

Pedestrian Zooms reminiscent of access cable will persist in 2021. But innovative newsrooms — big and small — will experiment with platforms and find creative ways to fortify their audience relationships, both around hard news and in ways that provide connection and joy, throughout 2021.

Rodney Gibbs is executive director of The Texas Tribune’s Revenue Lab.

Despite feeling zonked by Zoom this year, few would dispute that virtual events are here to stay. As noted elsewhere, production and travel costs are lower and marquee names easier to nab when your audience logs into a screen rather than checks into a hotel to attend your event.

Compelling events — be they online or in-person — require more than talking heads, though. In 2021, we’ll see a number of innovative publishers, particularly ones focused on niche audiences, devise clever ways to engage their audiences with online events. We’ve already seen a few harbingers of what’s to come.

Radio Ambulante, a Spanish-language narrative podcast, hosted online dance parties on Zoom during the pandemic this year. While Radio Ambulante produces journalism, it found that online social events fortified its community and raised money to support its reporting. Hundreds of people from multiple countries attended its online dance parties with live DJs, and many stayed engaged for hours.

St. Louis Public Radio took to Twitch, a live-streaming platform favored by gamers (and the occasional lawmaker), to host a news talk show during the pandemic. Three nights a week, Lindsay Toler, the station’s digital engagement producer, breaks down the day’s news and takes audience questions via Twitch’s chat. (The station also hosts a weekly music show on Twitch.) Toler says her Twitch events build a direct connection with the station’s audience while avoiding the privacy and algorithmic pitfalls of platforms like Facebook and YouTube.

Scalawag, a movement journalism organization covering the southern U.S., hosts a number of online events, including jubilees, celebrations that engage its audience, raise revenue for the publication, and offer a welcome escape from the pandemic malaise. Its most recent jubilee, for example, mixed live cooking and cocktail recipes with short paeans about Scalawag’s community impact. The jubilee helped those already financially supporting the publication deepen their connection to the news outlet and its staff, and it lured newcomers into the Scalawag family.

Pedestrian Zooms reminiscent of access cable will persist in 2021. But innovative newsrooms — big and small — will experiment with platforms and find creative ways to fortify their audience relationships, both around hard news and in ways that provide connection and joy, throughout 2021.

Rodney Gibbs is executive director of The Texas Tribune’s Revenue Lab.

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