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How to take a creative approach to events revenue for publishers

Expos and more traditional journalistic events such as debates and conferences around news topics can earn revenue, but they aren’t the only ways to come up with significant events earnings.

Below are a few more unusual ideas news publishers have found effective.

Create “something out of nothing”

In any business it is good to get high returns on low costs. One way to do this, according to Taylor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, is to “create something out of nothing.”

The basic idea: publishers can create large buzz around an event simply by creating something new that people want.

The Times Free Press has mastered this with its “Best of the Best” and “Best of Preps” programs and awards banquets.

The basics might sound familiar. Times Free Press’ “Best of” events are essentially competitions for titles created by the newspaper. For example, in the “Best of the Best” event, local businesses compete to earn the top votes in certain categories, e.g. Best Burger or Best Chiropractor in the Chattanooga area. (Take a look at the full-size image to see how many possibilities there are.)

Best Of ballot

Essentially, these are “people’s choice awards” or other committee-chosen awards for the town. In some cases, organizations may find its staff are the best ones to pick the “Best of” winners.

In any case, the paper creates the categories, it creates the awards, it markets the results. Businesses (or people) compete for votes and the title. The paper rakes in the revenue.

Events like this can receive high engagement, and not just on the day of. Many businesses and organizations will compete for votes, and in the case of Times Free Press, the opportunity to place a “Best of” award cling in the window of their business.

Some news organizations feel the award shows can find a natural home within their organization’s mission and strengths.

The Buffalo News, for example, is planning a summer “Best of” event on high school sports.

“[An event on] high school sports is a natural because it is our franchise and we only want to make it stronger,” said Carol Horton, VP of marketing & public relations at Buffalo News. “We are the leading local and respected authority on high school sports. The ability to show that respect back to our readers is a natural way to continue a lifelong relationship with our core and future audiences.”

Community foundations and similar organizations can also succeed in putting on this sort of event, but local publishers have assets that lend themselves strongly to a “Best of” idea. Because of a local publisher’s market penetration, it can easily advertise a competition and awards banquet. A news organization can easily create the marketing and put together the technology that allows people to vote. Because of brand recognition, publications can lend some credibility to the meaningfulness of the awards.

And the revenue possibilities with a “Best of” are numerous for publishers. For example:

  • Banquet attendance sales. Times Free Press’ philosophy is to charge admittance to any event they put on. For these banquets, much of the attendance is organizations. As such, they offer the opportunity to reserve a table, or for “Best of Preps,” the opportunity to fund a table for high school athletes.
  • Contest fees. Depending on the contest, publishers can consider fees to make it onto the ballot.
  • Encouraging ad purchases as thank-yous. The Times Free Press markets ads and ad packages to the participants of its Best of the Best, suggesting they thank Chattanooga’s voters for supporting and voting. Ads are printed in the special section containing all the winners.

Contests like these are a way to attract advertisers that publishers may not have otherwise had. They raise revenue from sources you usually wouldn’t reach. They put businesses in touch with a sales staff without the need of a cold call. Awards or other “something out of nothing” situations can give a reason for buying the first ad, which improves the likelihood of selling a second, third or 30th.

Let something happen

Events can also grow out of happenstance.

In 1973, a columnist and a copy editor from The Des Moines Register decided to go cycling 471 miles across the length of Iowa. The columnist and copy editor set out to write stories as they went from town to town, but also decided to invite readers to join them in the trek.

Word got out. With just six weeks or so notice, an estimated 300 people showed up in Sioux City on the opening day of the newspaper duo’s ride. Several towns and stories later, the group reached the state capital of Des Moines — and the group peaked at about 500 riders. By official count, 114 rode the entire distance.

Eventually, things got more formal. Forty years later the event has grown to be one of the biggest non-competitive cycling events in the world. Organizers have to cap registration at 10,000 riders a day. Some come from all around the world, and the Register pumps out numerous stories on the event because it occupies the psyche of Corn Belt state during the last week of July.

The cyclists today (The Des Moines Register, 2013)

The cyclists today (The Des Moines Register, 2013)

“It started back then as a lark,” said T.J. Juskiewicz, director of what has come to be known as RAGBRAI, or The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. “They never realized anything would happen of it. It just kind of seemed like a neat story: to visit with people and ride bicycles. It started off as that and it became so popular that they decided to do it again.”

(This is something to remember, too: writer personality can lure people to events.)

RAGBRAI is a charitable event, not a revenue-builder for the Register. It benefits local charities in the greater Des Moines region. That’s not to say a revenue-earning event can’t grow out happenstance. The Des Moines Register could have come up with ways to earn revenue from its runaway success of a cycling ride, such as charging high entrance fees, selling more sponsorships, and pocketing the cash.

But not all events have to directly raise money.

The Detroit Free Press has a similar large, charitable event in its Detroit Free Press Marathon. (Read about how the Free Press created an app for its marathon.) While these publishers don’t directly raise funds for their journalism, there is good in giving. Charitable events engage the community in a way that columns can’t, and reflect favorably on the paper in the process. Good will and simply providing community engagement do have a role in events strategy, albeit harder to measure.

One such underrated benefit in holding an event is visibility.

No matter if intended for revenue or for charity, community events like these can strongly extend a publication’s reach, making future projects possible. RAGBRAI opens up the Des Moines Register brand to a new audience segment — recreational cyclists — who otherwise might never know the name of the paper..

“Brilliant” people put the paper’s name in the title of the event, according to Juskiewicz. The logo can be found in related materials, too. And now a statewide Iowa paper has the attention, at least part of the year, of a topical niche audience. It doesn’t currently leverage that with a content vertical or separate publication related to cycling — but events like this could open that door.

Creatively make money off events that aren’t “yours”

If there’s another event in town that your news organization doesn’t control, Taylor of Times Free Press says to see if there is a way to “hitch your wagon.”


Kind of like this. (Toronto History, Creative Commons)

Charlie Daniels’ Championship Rodeo is well-known, well-attended and well-solidified as part of the local Tennessee culture.

The rodeo is not a news organization-run event. It does have a stronghold in Times Free Press’ market. But unlike expos, the Times Free Press didn’t think this one was easy to directly combat. Importantly, Charlie Daniel’s rodeo was ingrained in the culture. People viewed it favorably.

But someone else’s well-established event can also be a path to event revenue.

One day in the late 2000s, staff of the Times Free Press noticed Charlie Daniels’ rodeo had a very thick event program. The question they asked: Is there a way for the newspaper to benefit? The eventual answer came from recognizing the paper’s unique assets: Times Free Press could strike a deal to assemble the rodeo’s printed guide. The Times Free Press, after all, does have access to a printing press and does have a sales staff.

So they worked out a deal that the Chattanooga Times Free Press would print the program, letting the rodeo organizers focus on their event — and the paper sold ads and got to keep some money in the process.

The event does not belong to the paper, but the paper still earns revenue from being involved in some aspect of it. The Times Free Press was able to “hitch their wagon” to something that was already successful.

The same can likely be done with other strong local events in many publishers’ market: events like festivals, art shows, races and more.

In a similar vein, a publishers’ events team doesn’t have to just do its own events. The Boston Globe’s GO Team offers New England businesses turnkey advertising and event options for grand openings and other key events.

In Illinois, the Tribune Media Group’s model also uses its resources for hire to put on and promote other groups’ events. The Tribune Events Group has event space that can be rented if clients need a place to hold their event, coupled with the other services it offers. The Tribune holds its own events in these spaces, but the extra option of others renting it out makes it useful when it would otherwise be unoccupied.

Build on your biggest asset: your talent

Another way for publishers to create something out of nothing is to leverage knowledge and material the newsroom already has from its work throughout the year.

News organizations have a wealth of knowledge and creative work that has intrigued readers. Why not create reader-focused events that build upon and draw more attention to the work that has already been done?

In The New York Times’ leaked Innovation report, the authors encourage the Times to evaluate a new crop of events that elevate the Times brand while meeting its standards:

Imagine a New York Times Readers Festival: an annual event in NYC that anyone registered on our site could pay to attend, with a few segments open only to subscribers and premium subscribers. Possible sessions include: panels on the top stories of the year, Q&A’s with reporters and editors on certain topics, training sessions on writing, photography and video, talks by a handful of outsiders who wrote the most read Op-Eds of the year, a multimedia showcase of our best videos, photos and interactives. We should not underestimate interest in Times reporters and journalism.

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