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Our New Virtual Reality

One thing we at NewStart preach to our students (and to the industry at large) is the need for media outlets to diversify their revenue sources.

A bright spot in that department the last couple of years has been the hosting of live events.

Annnnd ... then the pandemic happened.
The topic of events still comes up often, but now it is in a different context: how can we transition our in-person events to a virtual environment and still make money? And what do those events even look like?

These are questions that many industries are grappling with, so it’s not unique to media outlets.

In an excellent article on Skift, Rafat Ali says “Zoom is the Napster of the event industry.” And anyone who was online back in the Napster days knows that’s not a good thing for those trying to make money. (Personally I was a Winamp guy who perused tons of music blogs that offered up free mp3s, but that’s a story for another day…)

But what does Ali mean with the Napster comparison?
…the ease with which you can put on good-enough virtual events with a global audience, almost for free, much to the undercutting of the underlying economics of the physical events world. All types of business event — conferences, trade shows, conventions — are in danger of their revenues streams of tickets, sponsorships, memberships, and other types of fees being eroded as the world gets used to digital formats and alternatives emerge to physical networking, matchmaking and other tasks we get out of these events.

Billions of dollars have been sucked out of the industry this year as it is completely shut, and virtual is making up only a tiny fraction of that.

Ali estimated that for Skift events, “in the best case scenario, virtual one-day events bring in only about a quarter to a third of what a physical conference revenues used to pre-pandemic.”

Double yikes.

So where does that leave us? Well, I’d say that leaves us in an opportunity zone, where those who are able to take advantage of the existing technology can survive and thrive, and those who innovate beyond that have a chance to be leaders in this space.

Jacqui Park, a JSK fellow at Stanford, wrote about the next wave of virtual events building off of whatever we’ve been able to scrape together on Zoom the past couple of months.

Park brought up eight takeaways for future virtual events, “all based on the one big idea that each new medium, each new distribution channel, teaches us: the medium is the message!”  You can read about those eight takeaways here.

That brings us to the focus of today's newsletter: Terry Williams, the president and COO of The Keene Sentinel in New Hampshire. He’s not here to tell you he’s developed a new virtual event technology, but he’s trying to envision what an outstanding in-person event that revolves around all things rural can look and feel like when it's moved online.

Williams currently is developing the Radically Rural conference, which will take place Sept. 24. When life was good, the conference was held in a scenic New Hampshire town. This year you can participate from wherever your internet connection takes you via a virtual venue called Hopin.

Radically Rural focuses on issues and opportunities in small cities and towns across the country, with a particular focus on six areas: main streets, entrepreneurship, community journalism, arts and culture, land and communities, and clean energy.

(Full disclosure: I will be a panelist for one of the community journalism sessions. Despite that fact, this event looks fantastic and you may want to register and attend.)
Instead of Radically Rural being held in numerous quaint locations throughout Keene, it has moved online.

“When COVID hit us, that was in the March timeframe, and with this being a September event, we had to figure out if this was going to be a serious problem or something that might subside and we could still have the event,” Williams said. “It became pretty clear that as the rate of infection increased, it made no sense to do this in person.”

So in April the decision was made to go virtual. Soon after it was decided to make it an event experience instead of a webinar. Soon after that, Hopin was chosen as the virtual venue because it had some networking components to it that Zoom and other platforms don’t offer.

As with any change like this, Williams said there are advantages and disadvantages in transitioning to a virtual event. 

For one thing, being virtual expands the potential audience, as a lot of people may not have been able to afford the travel costs of getting to the event and, as Williams admits, it’s not easy to get to Keene. Having a virtual component was something Williams and his team already were considering adding down the road. The pandemic made it a reality this year.

A virtual environment also means you don’t have to spend money on venues, food, drink, speaker travel costs and, worst of all, my very own outlandish demands, including a well-armed security detail, five bottles of Pappy Van Winkle and a baby panda.

Don't ask.

At the same time, however, one of Radically Rural’s most popular features in previous years was the Connect event, where everyone eats, drinks and networks like nobody’s business. That ambiance is gone. And Williams said it is hard to transition sponsors of those types of events to other virtual opportunities.

“There are significant costs associated with that event … but we lost a lot of sponsorship associated with that event, too,” Williams said. “So it’s a bit of a wash.”

And while the physical venue costs are non-existent, the Radically Rural team had to factor in other costs for things like the virtual venue platform and tech support to make sure it works as planned.

Williams and his team have hosted several other virtual events this year, including awards shows, so they have a good sense for what’s in store for them in a few weeks. And Williams already knows what he’s going to miss most — the live audience.

“These (events) can be done, for sure,” he said, “but it is disappointing not having a live audience there to push you along or give appreciation to award winners and those things.”

NewStart Update

The Radically Rural event focuses on two of our favorite things here at the NewStart Alliance -- community journalism and entrepreneurship.

If owning and running your own publication sounds interesting to you, now is the time to consider becoming a media entrepreneur via our NewStart program and taking over a rural publication somewhere in the country. Email me at and we can set up a phone call or Zoom meeting and chat.

If you're an owner or publisher who is grooming someone in your newsroom to eventually take over, why not enroll them in our one-year, online master's degree in Media Solutions and Innovation from West Virginia University? It would make a worthwhile investment in your publication's future.

The Power of Local Media

Local news is still relevant, example No. 333:

Quick Hits

Now on to the latest news and notes from around the world of local journalism:

Learn: "Instead of branded content that can take weeks of back and forth, Trusted Media Brands has been offering brands a chance to integrate their content into existing editorial pages; instead of accepting that they couldn’t execute elaborate branded content productions, The Players Tribune and Minute Media pivoted to content shot by athletes on their cell phones; and Leaf Group, rather than scrap an event sponsorship deal, whipped up an alternative program built around instructional content and product sampling in under two weeks." "A new maxim – or is it a mandate? – of the newspaper business is 'Get more revenue from your audience.' But that doesn’t have to come entirely in the form of higher subscription or single-copy prices; if you produce good journalism, you can get direct contributions from readers, and some community newspapers have proven it." "Over the past year, we have been following two communities: Chambersburg, a small town in Pennsylvania, and Maywood, a suburb in Illinois. These cases, while very different, illustrate the need for journalism’s reckoning regarding racial justice to extend beyond major cities to issues faced by BIPOC communities in small towns and suburbs." "...we’ve pulled out some examples of our favourite ways of monetising podcasts that are working for publishers." "As I spoke to BLM activists, I would sometimes be asked, “Do you know who runs the biggest Black Lives Matter page on Facebook?” Incredibly, no one — including the most prominent BLM activists in the country and organizers on the ground — knew the answer."

This An' 'At: "Shaquil, who joined the staff late last year, explained to the guard that he was a working journalist and displayed credentials, provided by the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department, that identified him as such. The guard’s response: 'I don’t believe you.' ” A survey of Nebraska youth found young people love their hometowns but fear a lack of career opportunities. The pandemic could be changing the perception about employment.


Hard to believe, but this is the 50th edition of our humble little newsletter.  Thanks, as always, for reading! 

A reminder: Share your success stories! Share your innovations! You can reply to this email, or hit up NewStart on Twitter @wvunewstart, and you can @ me @jimiovino.

Be like the fine folks at the Knight Foundation and the Benedum Foundation! If you, your organization, or anyone else you know would like to fund a NewStart fellowship position or would want to offer a scholarship in Year 2, feel free to reach out to me. I'd be happy to talk! Seriously, I would love to offer more fellowships and scholarships, and you can help.

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