NJ Spotlight INNovation Success Story

NJ Spotlight’s 2016 Focus on Cities at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. Photo by Amanda Brown for NJ Spotlight.

With its $35,000 award from the INNovation Fund, NJ Spotlight set out to stage a one-day multi-tracked event to convene leaders and citizens to tackle the needs of major New Jersey cities on a multitude of critical civic issues. 

Responses provided by NJ Spotlight CEO John Mooney.

Organization Name: NJ Spotlight

Project Title: NJ Spotlight on Cities

Focus: A day-long conference on the challenges and opportunities facing New Jersey cities.

What was your organization trying to achieve?

We had multiple goals with NJ Spotlight On Cities. First, we wanted to bring more discussion, understanding and exposure to issues faced by New Jersey’s urban areas, especially at a time that cities are seeing an influx of new residents and businesses. We focused on three themes: economic development, education and quality of life issues. How were cities energizing for their futures? What obstacles were they facing? How were conflicting goals being addressed? How were governments dealing with issues of resident displacement and gentrification?

In addition, our goal was to create a revenue-generating product that both made money while also pulling in some new audiences — objectives that are key to our long-term sustainability.

What role did the INNovation Fund dollars play in the project?

INN provided a $35,000 grant to the first NJ Spotlight on Cities, an important piece of seed funding. With the help of the grant, 2015 was the first year that we launched such a day-long event as the Cities conference. It was vastly bigger than anything we had ever tried before. We had only ever put on one or two panels at a time, tops. As mentioned, Cities was more than 20 panels and talks, a huge expansion and one we would have never even ventured without your support.

What were the key successes of the project?

The project was our first NJ Spotlight on Cities conference, and for an inaugural event, it was a big success on several levels. We attracted more than 200 people, with more than 20 different panels and discussions, and over $100,000 in overall revenues. Attendees included company CEOs, urban planners, healthcare experts, journalists, community activists, educators, students, government officials, nonprofit leaders and more. The daylong conference elicited positive feedback from attendees who praised both the content of the sessions and the opportunity to make cross-disciplinary connections. NJ Spotlight staff wrote several stories off of the panel discussions and produced a series of audio podcasts for dissemination. The event showed the power of an innovative and engaging conference in helping spur discussion around key topics.

What were the lessons learned?

  • Longer lead time: Ideally, you start planning a conference like this a year out. In 2015, we only had four months to create the program, line up speakers and market the event. It was difficult to market anything without a solid program. In 2016, we got an earlier start and that worked better, but managing that time schedule with a small staff remains a challenge.
  • The program: In 2015, we tried to incorporate a variety of session lengths, including short 15-minute presentations, 30-minute panels and 50-minute panels. For 2016, we’ve decided the 15-minute programs ought to have stronger and tighter guidelines. The 30-minute sessions in 2016 were limited to either a debate or Q&A format, to better focus the discussion. We also opted to reduce the number of 15-minute spots to incorporate more breaks between sessions and allow more networking time for participants.
  • Lesson learned: Ticket pricing. We need to review the ticket price scale and publicize special prices from the outset. We were afraid to do that at the beginning as we worried it would impact initial sales, but there needed to be more notice of special discounts. In addition, we should release all information about ticket prices at the same time.
  • Management of speaker lineup: The importance of ongoing communication with speakers cannot be overstated. Communication needs to remain steady after they agree to speak, so that it is clear how much we value the participant’s involvement and so that the event maintains a place of importance in the participant’s mind..
  • Lesson learned: Communicate, communicate, communicate. We realized we needed to do more updates about the conference in general: announcing new speakers, sponsors and more to increase exposure and build buzz.

Would you recommend this revenue- or audience-building approach to other news organizations?

Events are a powerful tool for revenue and audience-building, tapping avenues and interests that cannot be matched online. NJ Spotlight raises close to $200,000 in events overall each year. But they can be labor-intensive and obviously there are costs involved, all eating into the net revenues. Having said all that, they are worthwhile in building a name and exposure that other news outlets may not be pursuing.

Are there factors (market types, internal capacity) that are most critical to making it work?

Internal capacity is a key factor. Pulling off events, especially ones that span a multitude of speakers and panels, is a lot of work and can become all-consuming for an organization. Also, it is critical to look at the marketplace of other events around the same time that may be reaching the same audience. Oversaturation can turn off both potential sponsors and attendees.

What insight would you offer anyone using or thinking of trying a similar approach?

Give the entire planning process twice the amount of time than you initially envision. And think of innovative and creative ways for imparting the message, ways that are different from a typical conference.

What was your general funding profile at that time?

NJ Spotlight is funded by a variety of revenue streams, led by foundation funding and followed by earned income (sponsorships and advertising), and individual donors and membership. In 2015, our revenue total was about $1.2 million, of which more than $200,000 was from sponsorships and events, which represents almost 17% in revenue. In that year, $100,000 of that total came from the Cities event alone, largely through sponsorships and also your grant. We raised another $100,000 from other sponsored events, mostly smaller roundtables.

We duplicated that revenue in 2016, while also seeing significant growth in ad revenues. In ads, we went from $73k in 2014, to $87k in 2015, to $130k in 2016. So, 2015 ad revenue was 7% of our total, while in 2016 it was 10.8% of total revenue.

It surprised us a little, but I generally think it had to do with our expanding reach and exposure. Also, we got better at tapping the right targets, i.e. advocacy groups, unions et al. Obviously not a mass market buy, but one where they want to get before the right eyes of policy makers and players who are our core readers.

What is the market/community that you serve?

We serve all of New Jersey, but our core audience is made up of the policy makers, advocacy organizations, government officials and others who work in public policy. NJ Spotlight On Cities allowed us to highlight some of these leaders as speakers, as well as appeal to a new audience of business people and activists who care about New Jersey’s cities.