Here’s how the Texas Tribune took a key fundraising event digital

It was April when Stacy-Marie Ishmael realized that The Texas Tribune was going to have to make a big decision.

Every year in September, the non-profit, independent newsroom hosts a pair of events that raise funds to support reporting for the rest of the year: The Texas Tribune Festival, a live conference on current affairs that normally takes place over a weekend in Austin, and TribFeast, a gala for major donors that brings in “a small but meaningful percentage” of the Tribune’s annual revenue. “It’s very much a moment to gather people who are financially — but I also think emotionally — invested in the success of The Texas Tribune and the success of local statewide nonprofit journalism to network with each other,” says Ishmael, the editorial director of the Tribune.

Both events take months to plan. But with COVID-19 forcing shutdowns, it became clear the Tribune team was going to have to decide whether to proceed as planned. The closer they got to the event dates in September, the more expensive it would be to cancel — and they’d lose precious time to pull off a complex digital event. 

“Within a couple of weeks, it seemed very clear to me at least that we should make a decision early to move everything to a virtual format, even if by fall everything was in a better spot,” says Ishmael. 

The Tribune is among many newsrooms that has grown to rely on events as part of its revenue stream — one that, it goes without saying, is impossible to do safely in the midst of a global pandemic. But its team was determined to find a new way to connect with their donors. 

A totally online TribFeast debuted in June, five months ahead of schedule. It gave the Tribune just two months to plan the entire online gala.  

“In-person things have a dynamic that digital-only things can’t, and that’s okay,” says Ishmael. Instead, they tried to play to the strengths of being virtual — the chance to have intimate conversations with industry leaders. “What we really wanted to do was identify: How do we make people feel special? How do we make them feel welcomed? How do we help them understand and appreciate the value of journalism that we create as a news organization?”

Attendees who registered at the VIP threshold got gift bags in the mail ahead of time including yellow roses, the signature colour and flower of the TribFeast event, along with a note featuring a quote from the guest speaker — a physical touchpoint. 

Once they logged in on Zoom, guests had the option to join breakout rooms with special guests like director Richard Linklater and musician Shawn Colvin, as well as reporters and editors from the Tribune. It was a way of giving people a unique experience — it’s not every day you get to have face time with the man that brought the world Dazed and Confused. But it also gave them real insight into what kind of work the reporters do.

Part of the planning was also recognizing what could go wrong — as things often do when you are dealing with technology. The Tribune team decided to have digital ushers; people who could help attendees if their camera stopped working or if they didn’t know how to use a Zoom breakout room. They also helped stimulate conversation by dropping links to works cited by speakers directly into the chat, or making sure certain questions were answered. “Having all of that architecture…was us understanding the platform deeply and not just trying to overlay the previous Feast experience to this one,” says Millie Tran, chief product officer at the Tribune. 

Their efforts, combined with the decreased budget for the event itself, helped TribFeast meet 99.6 per cent of its fundraising targets. “The most gratifying parts of it was people saying, ‘Oh I felt so nourished [by it],’” says Ishmael. 

Their next challenge is taking some of the lessons learned from TribFeast and applying them to Tribune Festival, which will take place online over the month of September. It’s a different kind of event — unlike TribFeast, which provides intimacy, TribFest has always been for a bigger crowd. 

“You cannot have too many moderators,” says Ishmael — especially at an event that will draw hundreds of potentially global viewers, a far wider audience than the Austin-based festival normally allows for. Communication is another key. You need people to understand how to sign up, how to watch the event and how to ask questions.

“Our responsibility to them is to make that experience as great as possible once they’re there,” says Ishmael.

List of key takeaways from the story. 

The key takeaways: Don’t fight the medium. You can’t replicate an in-person event, so don’t.
Use the digital tools to your advantage. Zoom features like breakout rooms and on-screen text provide opportunities to connect in different ways.
To double quote Ishmael: You can’t have too many moderators!

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Opportunities

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And one more thing… 

File this under stories I wish I had written: an oral history of the Weekly World News.

The cover of an edition of the Weekly World News, featuring Bat Boy, a bat-human hybrid.

Editor’s note, Aug 27, 2020: An earlier version of this story stated attendees at TribFeast got a handwritten note from guest speakers. It was actually a quote from the guest speaker. We apologize for the error.

Why OptOut wants to be the alternative news platform

During months of isolation, Alex Kotch and Walker Bragman were growing tired of the media coverage they were seeing. In New York, N.Y., where they both live, thousands of people were dying of COVID-19, and Black Lives Matter protests were filling the streets. Yet, on their social media networks and TV screens, they saw what they felt was a failure from mainstream media to accurately cover these historic events. 

“I feel like corporate media has trouble actually reporting [on] things that are happening before our eyes,” Kotch says. “That has to do with a lot of these conflicts of interest and restrictions that are inherent in media that’s either owned by giant corporations, or that depends heavily on, or even exclusively on, advertisements from big corporations.” 

They decided what wasn’t needed was a new outlet – what was needed was a new platform.

OptOut is their answer. When completed, it will be a curated feed of solely independent media sources, all available on an app.

While some people might wait to announce a project like this until an actual app existed — at this point, Kotch and Bragman are hoping to launch OptOut in 2021. “We have to start early,” says Kotch — building an audience, a volunteer base and a potential group of funders all depends on getting the word out now. 

It’s an example of what, in the startup and tech world, is called an MVP: minimum viable product. Rather than agonize over finishing your app or service before you let the public see it, you release the earliest workable iteration. That means almost right from day one, you start getting feedback about the product so you can incorporate it into subsequent versions.

For the OptOut team, that MVP is a website landing page with information about OptOut and a Substack newsletter. Kotch uses it to send out not only updates about the development of the app, but also to share stories from network members. Right now, it has about 2,500 subscribers.

Because of the early announcement, Kotch and Bragman have already raised about USD$3,000 in immediate revenue. “We got a lot more donations than I thought we would,” Kotch says — it’s made him feel very positive about a larger crowdfunding campaign they will do in the fall. They’ve also added over 40 media outlets as early OptOut network members, among them Jacobin, Sludge and Passage. They’ve also already started their first user feedback survey. 

Kotch knows most people get their news from a wide variety of sources, often pulled from social media networks like Facebook or Twitter. His goal isn’t to usurp them — it’s to offer another option. “From our initial publicity, there’s definitely a lot of people who are not happy with the way they’re consuming news,” he says. “If we can just get 0.5 per cent of Facebook users who use English language news to check out our app, that’ll be massive.”

They may charge for premium features on OptOut to support their work. But the company is being formed as a non-profit, so all of that will be put back into the organization, and into developing OptOut’s own media outlet, eventually.

A list of key takeaways from the story. They are: What is your minimum viable product? Instead of thinking it has to be perfect, get it to the point where you can start getting feedback — and bring it into the world.

Kotch makes a great point about audience development: you don’t necessarily need the entire world to fall in love with your product. What you do need is an engaged and supportive group of readers.

OptOut is unique in that they are building a platform. What else does the news industry need that could support more independent media?

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And one more thing… 

The Indiegraf team is expanding every month! Meet Rachel Chen, our new audience strategist.

A headshot of Rachel Chen.

Editor’s note, Aug. 24, 2020: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the organizations Opt Out is now currently partnered with.

Meet Rachel Chen, Indiegraf’s audience strategist

Not many kids think their local newspaper is cool, but Rachel Chen is one of them. From her early interest in the Peace Arch News in Surrey B.C., which her friends delivered to doorsteps, to her role as editor of her highschool newspaper in Texas— she’s “very consistent if anything,” she says, chuckling.

Chen went on to study at the University of Toronto’s downtown campus, where she served as managing editor of The Varsity, the independent student paper. She cut her teeth as an intern at Chatelaine. It was there she also witnessed an experience too many journalists go through — mass layoffs in the Rogers magazine division during 2018. 

Needless to say, she was not dissuaded. “I wanted to write, I wanted to edit, but I was also starting to get really interested in making the journalism industry last,” she says.

Chen joins Indiegraf as audience strategist where she’ll help journalist-entrepreneurs improve their core product, journalism, by engaging with the people they serve. “Everything should be community driven when possible,” she says.

We asked her how her experiences inform where she is today, and why audience engagement, in particular, is so important.

What was your big aha moment through your trajectory in journalism?

The Canadian media scene is small in comparison to the U.S., and that’s partially just because we have a smaller population of people who can read our content. But at the same time, it does feel very much limited to just a few major news organizations. And as we keep seeing mergers and buyouts, it just gets smaller and smaller. Like, when I was at Chatelaine it was owned by Rogers, when I left St. Joseph Communications had bought it. And then St. Joseph’s already owned about half the major magazines in Canada. 

So when I saw Indiegraf was launched, it was really exciting to see that people were trying to make the news industry in Canada more interesting —  to fight news deserts and to encourage journalism entrepreneurship. 

How do you define journalism entrepreneurship?

I would define it as anybody that has an idea of how we can do journalism better and how to reach people in new and different ways than what mainstream, traditional journalism does. I think entrepreneurs, in every industry, they’re making it simpler, they’re making it easier to access. And when it comes to journalism as a public service, access is so important.

Fill in the blanks: indie news is _________

I want to say indie news is better news. I really like zine culture and zines, and I think that’s why I’m probably so drawn to indie news. But I just feel like there’s also a lot of communities that get ignored if there aren’t independent media. The best example I tell everyone is the summer that I was in Toronto and they had the serial killer in the LGBTQ2 village. All of my queer friends were deleting Grindr and stuff, freaking out because they were like, ‘there’s definitely a serial killer in this community.’ And I was like, ‘yeah, it kind of seems like it, people are going missing.’ 

The mainstream media outlets all didn’t want to report on it. Then a few small indie news outlets, Torontoist and Xtra, reported on the disappearances and everyone else waited until the police were like, ‘there’s no evidence of a serial killer,’ and reported that. It was not widely picked up in mainstream media outlets until the police arrested someone and charged them with multiple murders. All of my friends already knew. All of my friends were already scared for their lives. So it was like: if you have more indie newspapers who are willing to actually listen to marginalized communities the reporting is more accurate.

How do you define audience engagement?

I think the phrase that captures it all is meeting your audience where they are. If you want to make sure people have access to news, writing good journalism isn’t enough. You have to make sure people are actually reading and able to read said good journalism. That means increasing accessibility in many forms. I know some companies are able to get their articles told in an audio format, which is more accessible. Or if your audience doesn’t have the internet then you’re going to need print publications, which is why alt-weeklies are so significant

If a person wanted to up their engagement game, where should they start?

I think you have to try a lot of things in order to figure out where your audience is. So the first step I would usually do is like, get on all of the social media. If you don’t exist on it, then you might as well not exist to a lot of people. Claim your handles! 

What’s the biggest myth about audience engagement?

I think the biggest myth about audience engagement is that it’s all about page views and advertisement views. I think it’s much more than that and it should always be more than that, when possible. So like, are people talking about you? Are people sharing the articles? Have you made an impact in terms of changing something? I know the Toronto Star often touts the change that comes as a result of their stories, and I think that’s really big. 

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