Food and Environment Reporting Network: Innovations and Lessons Learned

Photo courtesy of FERN

Who doesn’t love a food festival?

When the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nationally distributed news organization focused on food and the environment, wanted to elevate its profile with the general public and bring awareness of its brand of storytelling to potential new audiences and donors, it decided to throw a party. FERN Talks & Eats was a high-end event where attendees were regaled with food by top chefs, music and storytelling. It safe to say that event planning is not in the skill set of most journalists, but that didn’t hamper the folks at FERN. The sold-out event, held in Brooklyn, NY had 250 attendees and showcased FERN’s food and environmentally-focused storytelling to new audiences in a fun and festive way. The event was so successful the first time that they repeated it the next year, this time in Silicon Valley. Audience engagement outside of its “pages” was a key success factor in this INNovation Fund initiative.

With its $35,000 award from the INNovation Fund, the Food & Environment Reporting Network experimented with its in-person event series “FERN Talks & Eats” which involved ticket sales and additional revenue from corporate sponsors. Keep reading to learn about the innovative strategies that made FERN an INNovation Success Story. Responses provided by Tom Laskaway.

What was your organization trying to achieve?

We wanted to raise FERN’s profile with the general public by offering an engaging way to experience our content “off the page” in a live event. While we intend the events to generate revenue, they are also designed for donor cultivation and community building. In addition, the events generate video content that we can distribute via social media and the internet.

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

We would not have attempted the FERN Talks & Eats event without the INNovation funding. It represented the start up funds we needed to establish such a significant event series.

What were the key successes of the project?

We created a sold-out event attended by 250 people in late 2014 in New York City. It significantly raised our profile in what is technically our “home” city and led to the development of a more engaged and larger donor base. It also established the FERN Talks & Eats brand and left us with an infrastructure and blueprint for further editions. In fact, we produced a second FERN Talks & Eats event in Silicon Valley, California, that came together much more quickly, with much less effort, and was equally successful from a financial and branding perspective.

Photo courtesy of FERN

What were the critical success factors that made this idea work? (ex: market types, internal capacity)?

We would not advise a news organization to “put on a show” entirely on their own. Finding the right team is crucial as is giving a single person, whether inside or outside the organization, final and full authority to make all necessary decisions regarding the event. Organizations also need to ensure that they have a clear understanding of their audience and its appetite for a paid event.

What were the lessons learned?

We clearly learned how to mount a large performance event, which requires a much greater and more specialized staff than anything we’d attempted in the past. The challenges for promoting the event were several. Most significantly, it was a first- time event that required a great deal of effort in educating marketing partners as to how to position and explain the event. We also established that there is a market for a premium price food/storytelling event, both among attendees as well as among corporate sponsors.

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

While simply adding food to an event does not require special expertise beyond selecting a quality caterer, we consider FERN Talks & Eats as representing more than an attempt to hold a large food event. The concept represents an attempt to create an entertainment-oriented event that builds on our brand and content but has a “festival” feel. Other organizations may want to use food to achieve that feel or they may have other elements that mesh well with their content. We do feel that adding music, performance and other elements to our storytelling was very successful and can be replicated by others. While food was central to our event and we brought expertise and relationships in the food world that enhanced the event, other elements were quite unfamiliar to us. News organizations should be aware there are a lot of moving parts to an event such as this and it requires commitment by staff or contractors to get it done. But it can be adapted, as long as planning and other aspects of production are fully considered.

Photo courtesy of FERN

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

For other organizations considering this kind of event, it’s important to maintain clear expectations from all participants. The key to success is compelling content. If the stories and food did not meet expectations, the event could not have succeeded. Based on our audience response and follow-up surveys, we confirmed there was a strong appetite for this type of production which is why we went forward with it again in California.

What was your general funding profile at that time?

Our budget at the time of the initial FERN Talks & Eats event was approximately $740,000, with 46% coming from foundations; 46% from individual donors and 8% from earned revenue.

What is the market/community that you serve?

We serve predominantly a national audience — we distribute our work with other news organizations. As a result, our own audience is cultivated around our newsletter and social media audience, which highlights our stories produced with partner media companies. This distribution/audience model differs from the typical web audience that most news organizations have.