Why Journalists Should Be Hosting Sponsored Events

With a fresh school year ramping up, I’ve noticed several news publications beginning to big-time promote the special events they’re heading up this fall.

It seems like more of these kinds of gatherings keep popping up, or maybe it’s that they were there before and are now being Tweeted and Facebooked about more often.

For each organization, it’s a bit different. The Texas Tribune Festival packs tons of experts in the online paper’s coverage areas — energy, health care, public education, etc. — along with political big-wigs like Texas Sen. Wendy Davis and First Lady Anita Perry into a weekend of discussion about all things political in the Lone Star State. Only a couple of years old, the Festival is a huge deal in Austin and beyond. And the Trib’s Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith, who has become something of a poster child for raising big cash for online news, plays an important role in the weekend, helping to moderate discussion and serve as a reminder to guests why they’re all there – because of the Texas Tribune’s reporting and how it has proved itself in the world of Web journalism.

Smith told the Nieman Lab in 2011 that sponsored “events are journalism” in the Tribune’s case because the Festival allows the organization to bring valuable voices to their readers and foster higher levels of engagement on the most pressing issues in Texas’ development and well-being.

Plus, the cash produced on events like the Festival isn’t bad, especially with corporate backers.

Smith was likely inspired by the idea behind the New Yorker Festival, which has sustained itself for 14 years now and become a staple for the magazine (he even snatched up a New Yorker festival event planner to help conceive the Texas Tribune’s version). The New Yorker’s festival boasts sponsors like Acura and IBM, AKA big bucks, so readers can fairly expect an impressive lineup this October. Texas Monthly’s BBQ Festival is so niche-y that it might be tough for non-Southerners to grasp why anyone would want to go. Still, it’s a massive event that has been known to sell out quickly, and the BBQ festival, while not journalism, seeks to celebrate its namesake’s job – to provide excellent nonfiction narratives about and analysis of Texas culture.

Every newspaper and magazine should start to think about what kind of content their readers value most, then create a unique event that reflects those topics.


Bring your organization positive attention

From the press and most importantly, from your readers. It’s another relatively easy way for your news organization to establish itself as an authority on whatever – and if it’s executed well enough, people will notice. Storied papers like the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have gotten into sponsored events, too, and continuing the conversation outside the context of the paper has proved relevant and profitable or they wouldn’t continue to do it.

Events give your organization something to talk about, too – to supplement your great journalism with event talk, from inception to day of to post-analysis. Your event will get written about in the papers, and if you simply ask your readers to share about your event whether by live-tweeting or Instagram, they probably will. Then your publication has automatically created for itself new growth and credibility-building opportunities just from one event.

Generate revenue

Need I say more? Sponsored events make money, and in an age where digital news is seeking to find its place and stay afloat, making money is not something to turn down. The New Yorker Festival and TM’s BBQ Festival have both created apps just for their annual events, which have to be underwritten. Plus there is cash coming in from event advertisers and ticket revenue.

Foster real relationships between journalists and readers

I can’t imagine that a reporter wouldn’t walk away from any of these events without a fistful of story ideas, news tips and business cards. You get to engage those people who buy subscriptions and share your stories on social media in a real and meaningful way. This is a relatively new concept – and to me represents an exciting future for bringing valuable content to readers however they like to consume it.

Let’s hear it: What kind of events/conferences would you like to see your favorite news orgs throw?