First Tuesdays – pilot networking event for indie news publishers
What happened when we hosted three informal hangouts for indie news publishers?
Joe Mitchell recaps the plan and explains the results.
We heard that independent news publishers were looking for opportunities to meet one another, compare ideas, get advice and find solidarity with others with similar goals.
We couldn’t find an obvious existing solution to this problem, so we piloted informal monthly meetups.
Over three months, attendance at the informal meetups was low, but the discussions were of high quality and survey respondents all said they valued or highly valued the meetups.
We’re not going to introduce a more permanent programme of meetups for now, but we have learned some lessons that are shared here for our future selves or anyone else looking at doing something similar for this sector or a related one.
The problem we were trying to solve:
We consistently heard of a demand from several independent news publishers – typically very small organisations from 1 to 10 people - that they wanted more opportunities to meet their peers, to share advice and ideas. They also wanted to build a sense of solidarity and camaraderie.
We heard that the work of running a newsroom, especially if done from a virtual office, with very few staff or on their own, could be lonely work, and we wanted to see if informal meetups could help.
Moreover, we assume that a thriving sector is one where people and organisations are connected by more or stronger links. Better networks help information, knowledge and advice flow more quickly; they make communities more resilient and perhaps more trusting. Network effects mean that as you connect or strengthen bonds between people or organisations, all their existing/other links in turn benefit – an exponential return.
The plan for pilots:
With limited resource, we didn’t want to commit to a long-term effort. Instead, we decided to run informal meetups along open space principles, once per month. As the name (inspired by those old dotcom meetups) suggests, we ran these on the first Tuesdays of September, October and November 2021.
The idea was that PINF would simply provide the space – in this case, via Zoom. We wouldn’t direct the discussion or set the agenda, other than make an effort to keep the conversations flowing.
The plan was to use ten minutes at the start of the meetup to see what people wanted to talk about, then make zoom breakout rooms based on each topic. People could then use the ‘law of two feet’ to choose what to talk about.
After each session, I’d provide a very brief breakdown of the conversations to everyone who’d signed up to the sessions.
After three months, we’d judge whether it was worth continuing.
In terms of turnout, this was lower than expected. While around 25 people signed up, we averaged around 6-7 people per session. Thirteen different people came to at least one meetup; five people came to at least two, and one person made it to all three.
The sessions saw good geographic diversity – from Edinburgh to Liverpool to London. We didn’t ask for demographic information, but my impression was that women and people from ethnic minorities were underrepresented at the meetups.
In terms of content, my view was that each session held extremely interesting discussions. Topics ranged from the environmental impact of print (and how to reduce it) to ad sales techniques to launching entirely new print newspapers. Advice was shared, connections were made. It did what we imagined it would do, just on a smaller scale.
The end-of-pilot survey response was small, but also provides some lessons. All those who completed the survey and attended at least one meeting found the pilot(s) either useful or very useful.
When asked what prevented them from attending any/more sessions, no respondents selected ‘The point of the meetups wasn’t clear’ or ‘The timing wasn’t great’ – rather, 100% of respondents selected ‘Other work got in the way’. One respondent pointed out that we ran the pilots on the same day and in the same period as our Autumn Leadership Programme. This might have been Zoom overkill for those on the course.
When asked what would help them attend in future, the most popular response was ‘a clearer agenda’ followed by ‘expert speakers’ followed by ‘different time/date options’ and ‘more reminders’. However, one respondent used the free text option to point out that they ‘liked the informal meetups and wouldn’t need any of the above.’
First, the meetups were valuable and revealed the purpose of providing this space. They were packed with information sharing, advice, comments of solidarity between peers. However, the low turnout and the survey responses suggest that the demand for meetups is not significant enough to be prioritised over other work commitments.
Second, the meetups could have done with more marketing (and reminders). It’s possible that the old trick of bringing a headline speaker to draw a crowd, before the real value happens in the networking afterwards, is the right way to go. Both approaches would require significantly more time to prepare.
Third, choosing an appropriate time for events is difficult. It was designed to be towards the end of the working day, but some couldn’t make it for this reason, and would have preferred evening events (which, in turn, come with their own issues).
Lastly, and thanks to the person who explained how to switch them on, the subtitles feature on Zoom is remarkably good and a boon for more accessible meetings.
We don’t plan to run these meetups more permanently. Partly because we aren’t convinced of the demand for them, but mainly because we’re not currently the best placed organisation to run them. PINF is a very small organisation and our priority has to be fundraising for the sector. A networking programme is a strong ‘nice to have’, but for now we need to be more ruthless in where we apply our efforts. (Most of the survey respondents felt that PINF was the right organisation to run such meetups, while one person said it didn’t matter who ran it, and one thought that it was fine for PINF to run it for now, but ‘in future an independent representative organisation dedicated to local independent news publishers would be better.’)
Happily, in the meantime, the People’s Newsroom project at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has started a monthly online programme of Coffee Conversations. These events are more directed, with individual themes and guest speakers. Having been to the first session, I can strongly recommend them.