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June 28, 2021, 10:51 a.m.
Audience & Social

As the pandemic recedes in the United States, publishers opt to keep experimenting with virtual events

In the transition into post-Covid life, more and more news outlets in the U.S. are opting to keep putting on some virtual events even as in-person ones return.

In our annual predictions series, Rodney Gibbs, the senior director of innovation and strategy for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, predicted that virtual events would stick around long after the pandemic if they could offer something beyond just conference sessions on video.

“Pedestrian Zooms reminiscent of access cable will persist in 2021,” Gibbs wrote. “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.”

If 2020 was about pivoting to virtual to keep afloat, then the first part of 2021 has been focused on figuring out how to keep virtual events part of a company’s events offering even after in-person ones are possible again.

[Read: We know coronavirus has wrecked the events business for media in 2020. But will it come back post-virus?]

Last week, lots of folks in the journalism world attended sessions of the Online News Association’s annual conference. ONA has held virtual webinars in the past and had been live-streamed some sessions from the annual conference since 2008. Last year, instead of moving what they had already planned online, the conference ran over 10 half-days, and since the conference was originally supposed to be in Atlanta, ONA also included some locally focused sessions, like a virtual exhibit from the Georgia Aquarium.

In 2020, ONA’s conference planners had wanted to put together a conference that was inclusive and mindful of the fact that many in its community were hurting and struggling. The 2020 schedule emulated a global festival. Though planners tried to account for Zoom fatigue and attendees’ personal responsibilities, the 10-day format turned out to be taxing on both ONA’s staff and on attendees.

“We’ve always had a mix of lean-back panels, hands-on workshops, and some sort of in-between, partially participatory things,” said Trevor Knoblich, ONA’s chief knowledge officer. “But this challenged us to think about all of the different ways someone might engage.”

ONA ’21 was much leaner, and only four half-days long. The “lighter” sessions were talks with journalists who had published books in the last year.

This year, ONA also increased its focus on networking, even though that can be difficult to do virtually. The company tested Grip, an event connection platform that uses machine learning to drive connections between people, and an app called Shindig. “It’s set up like an event space,” Knoblich said. “You have an avatar that you move around, and you can can click on other individuals and join a video chat with them. It’s a little bit spontaneous.”

Virtual conferences are also more accessible. Both this year and last year, ONA partnered with transcription service Otter to provide closed captioning on its videos. Being virtual also makes it much easier to record each session and get it up online quickly. For ONA, filming, editing, and publishing even just the top keynote speeches during in-person conferences used to take a week.

The Texas Tribune usually holds its Texas Tribune Festival over three days in Austin in September. This past fall, though, the festival was 30 days long and online. The Tribune learned that shorter sessions were better and that it was much easier to schedule speakers when they didn’t have to travel to Austin (they had 300 in 2020!).

“A lot of people were watching our events in the hours and days after they had aired,” said Jessica Weaver, the Tribune’s creative director for editorial events. “The live experience was really important, but the afterlife of these events was equally important. We realized we could make them far more accessible than our other events. We’re streaming them not only on our website, but also on all of our social platforms.”

Luiza Savage, Politico’s editorial director of events, echoed Weaver’s sentiment about speaker flexibility.

“We’re in an interesting moment at Politico right now, where we have a big operation in Europe, we have a new operation in Canada, we have a China newsletter that we launched this year, and we have a Global Translations newsletter now coming out three times a week,” Savage said. “One thing that we’ve been able to do on virtual, which would have been really difficult logistically and cost-wise to do in person, is bring together more international voices. Whether it’s for roundtables or live streamed events, we were able to include European colleagues in our AI summit … it’s something we plan to lean into a lot more this year as we continue to grow out what global Politico could be.”

Like ONA, in 2020 Politico sought new ways to create intimacy among audience members who aren’t physically in the same place. There are “opportunities to be more interactive,” Savage said. “We’re bringing people together for closed Zoom calls after the main panel, and doing more specialized, smaller events for members of our Playbook audience.”

Savage offered a practical tip, too. “We coach people to really take up their space, use their body, turn to everybody in the room, engage their audience like they’re hosting them,” she said. “On a screen, you can’t use your hands, you can’t be looking around. It’s just a completely different skill set. We’ve had to retrain some of our moderators to keep that in mind.”

“Direct interaction with panelists”

Rossilynne Culgan, the former director of editorial and growth for local media startup WhereBy.Us, said that early on in the pandemic, the company surveyed readers about whether or not they were interested in virtual events. The answers were split 50-50, which signaled to the team that they didn’t need to put on more events, but instead focus on putting on meaningful ones.

The Evergrey in Seattle celebrated Lunar New Year virtually, with a panel exploring the intersections of identity, culture, and food, followed by a cooking demo from panelist Hsiao-Ching Chou’s cookbook Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food.

“At all of our virtual events, it was a delight to see our attendees being able to interact directly with the hosts through the chat,” Culgan said. “That direct interaction with panelists is something really special about virtual events that doesn’t happen so easily at in-person events.”

Virtual events not only offered a way to create community, but also enabled more teams within a media company to work together for the first time.

“On the workflow level, we’ve had to create much more collaboration and different kinds of workflows between teams that didn’t necessarily work that closely together before,” Savage said. “We’re just at the beginning of exploring what it could fully be.”

The Evergrey’s virtual Lunar New Year event, hosted on Zoom. Photo courtesy of Rossilyn Culgan.

POSTED     June 28, 2021, 10:51 a.m.
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