Guardian events

Live events: Best of current ideas for better funding journalism

By Steve Outing

As an industry, news has yet to find any ideal revenue streams sufficient for the digital age. As I wrote last fall when I opened an online brainstorming session for innovative new news business models:

Are there solutions to this dilemma of how news coverage will be funded in the future? Let’s hope so, since if there are some “magic bullets” around already, they haven’t become apparent.

Journalism Foresight SeriesI closed down submissions to the online brainstorming page at the end of 2014, but since I’ve had a busy January I haven’t summarized the results till now. Here’s the highlight: Live events and celebrity news interviews, with paying audiences (in-person and online), for news organizations appear to be the best potential revenue stream we’ve got, or can imagine.

Let me emphasize that this was a modest experiment, with anyone who reads this blog or came upon my previous posts invited to participate over a period of a few months in late 2014, by suggesting an innovative news business model and/or rating and commenting on others’ ideas. Don’t take it too seriously.

Still, the group brainstorming was interesting, in that no one (including me) shared any news revenue ideas that are particularly groundbreaking or represent truly innovative thinking. Sure, if someone had an incredibly brilliant idea that would make people or advertisers pay for news in great numbers, he/she might not share it here – instead becoming rich and/or winning a Nobel Peace Prize for resurrecting serious journalism worldwide. But I was hoping, nevertheless, that as a group we’d unearth some great ideas.

Newsmaker interviews: A good fit for news outlets

I’m not surprised that brainstorming participants liked the idea of news organizations leveraging their brands and their journalistic chops to set up events where newsmakers and celebrities attract paying crowds. It’s a smart fit for many news outlets, and if a newsmaker-events program is set up as a money-making entity or department (in other words, it’s taken seriously), there could be significant money to be made to support news operations. Also, it’s a great way to get lots of people deeply engaged with a news brand.

As one brainstorming participant commented about live events: “Considering people have already made it clear that they will spend money to see celebrities (i.e. movies, etc.), why not use it to help this struggling market.”

Some of you who follow the news business closely will know that The Guardian (UK) is finding some success with its ambitious paid-events series. As I write this, its February 5 event in London, a a Q&A about and preview screening of the film Selma, is sold out of tickets (priced at £15, or £12 for Guardian Members). The venue is The Tabernacle auditorium in Notting Hill, which seats 500.

The Guardian hosts such events routinely; its events page lists 10 scheduled throughout February. They are held at various locations, mostly London community auditoriums and cinemas, but some smaller events are held at The Guardian offices. Some of the event sites seat up to a thousand paying guests. For big-draw events (such as Guardian columnist Owen Jones interviewing actor/activist Russell Brand, £25), there are live-stream remote showings at cinemas around the UK (for a lower price).

Given the outcome of our modest exercise, and the growth of newsmaker events at The Guardian, it’s puzzling why more commercial news organizations haven’t gone whole-hog on paid events. (Some non-profits like the Texas Tribune take newsmaker events seriously; the Tribune’s events mostly are underwritten by sponsors and free to attend.)

Other ideas …

Here are other revenue-stream ideas discussed during the online brainstorming, presented in order of voting rank:

  • Data products: “News organizations can play a role in keeping public documents and data public (something that is now being done by private, for-profit companies who do not necessarily have a public interest mission). Documents/data can be public, but custom ‘slices’ or large volumes of data can be had for a fee.”
  • Correspondent subscriptions: “Individual ‘star’ correspondents have paid subscribers, who are able to view news through journalist’s point of view; e.g., Experience war reporting, riots, etc. by looking through correspondent’s video live-stream.”
  • “Boutique” print products: “Included in higher subscription prices as well as incentives to subscribe. Newspapers could have 12 such products to start, each high quality. Experimentation to find what works, but cater to local demand and utilize both archives and latent newsroom talent.”
  • Mobile app guides for local events/festivals: Commenter: “I like the idea of having everything in one centralized area. Makes finding information easier.”
  • Crowd-funding to pay for specific editorial projects: “Can be combined with other sources to pay expense of big news projects, or as stand-alone funding source.”
  • Recruiting celebrities to report news: “How many people do you know that pay $75 to see their favorite performer at a concert, frequently spend $1.99 for an iTunes song purchase, $50 for a St. Louis Cardinal baseball ticket, or $10 to see their favorite actor in a movie? Most people are not willing to pay for news, but people are willing to pay for celebrities. What is $5.00 a month to see credible, daily news reported by various high-class celebrities when people are dropping a significant amount of money to see them elsewhere? Not to mention, partnering with Nike, Samsung, Gillette and other top brands that are endorsing these celebrities to produce more revenue.”

There are other ideas that did not receive votes, but might be worth pondering. Check them out in the online brainstorming tool below.

If you are having trouble viewing the interactive brainstorming exercise above, try this external page instead.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!