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From the Newsroom: Events help Columbian stay relevant

Everyone has an idea these days about what, in addition to reporting news, newspapers need to be doing to keep themselves relevant and financially viable.

Some places have tried podcasts, which are like radio talk shows that you can download at your convenience. Newsletters are another common idea. My whimsical plan is to sell large, warm cinnamon rolls, delivered to customers’ homes along with the morning Columbian.

A healthier idea than the cinnamon rolls is to create community events. I was thinking about this “new” idea Thursday, when The Columbian and several partner sponsors presented our annual Economic Forecast Breakfast at the Hilton Vancouver Washington.

We’ve been offering this event for probably 30 years. Twenty years ago, when I was The Columbian’s business editor, I was involved in a lot of the planning, including helping to find speakers and editing all of the content for the special section that is inserted into the newspaper. (Look for this year’s forecast in your Sunday edition.)

Nowadays, the focus on staging the event has gone away from the newsroom and rests on the shoulders of Jody Campbell, our community partnerships director, assisted by Rhona Sen Hoss and Audri Bomar. They also team up to organize the annual public reception for the community’s First Citizen honoree.

The forecast event has been a big success. This year, we had about 500 people attend. The event is mostly about marketing and exposure and getting our brand out there, but we try to recoup our costs and make a small profit.

Our next community event will be free to the public. At 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 13, at the Vancouver Community Library, we are hosting a panel discussion about immigration issues that surrounded the reporting of our three-part December series, “A Family Divided.” That was the story about the Flores family, where the father, who was a longtime albeit illegal resident of the United States, was deported after Motel 6 gave his name to federal immigration authorities. It caused great pain and continuing trouble for his family, all of whom are U.S. citizens. Attorney General Bob Ferguson and local panelists are scheduled to speak. We are relying on some funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to help underwrite the costs; the center also provided funds for us to report the series.

I am a big fan of these events, even as I doubt their potential to be a major funding source for our industry. A few years ago, when I was on the board of the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, we organized and sponsored a debate between Oregon gubernatorial candidates. The debate took place in Bend, and, in my opinion, was only a limited success. We spent a lot of time and several thousand dollars to stage the event, yet it received only limited attendance and media coverage.

I know The Oregonian has tried a speakers’ series, although I cannot find any upcoming talks listed on their website or Facebook page. Oregon Public Broadcasting also has sponsored events, but its Facebook page shows its last event was held almost 10 months ago. Nothing is currently scheduled.

Other people are more bullish. Just this week, Nieman Lab, a journalism think tank, carried a story on its website about bringing journalism on stage. The opening of the piece, authored by a British academic, says that newsrooms across Europe are experimenting with “live news” formats and filling their national theaters. Audiences are tired of technology and instead want proximity, according to the story. But, it also goes on to admit that the most successful “news on stage” shows are barely breaking even.

For now, I think we’ll stick to the economic forecast breakfast, although I would really enjoy a warm cinnamon roll with my newspaper.


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