A local French site is trying to reach new audiences through events

Tonight, in Strasbourg, France, Martine Wonner, a member of the French National Assembly, sat down for an interview with Pierre France, the founder of the local news site Rue89 Strasbourg.

The interview, which was held in front of an audience in a local bar and live streamed on Facebook, is part of the site’s on-going in-person community engagement strategy. Rue89 Strasbourg holds about four in-person gatherings each month, such as these bar interviews and open newsrooms in neighborhoods around the city.

“We want to be open and we want to keep being questioned,” France told me.

This week in Solution Set we’re going to learn more about Rue89 Strasbourg’s event strategy, how the site approaches in-person engagement, and how it is trying to use events to drive subscriptions.

Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Solutions Journalism Network. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one worthwhile thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.

You can now also get Solution Set delivered each week via text message. I send subscribers our weekly report, plus some added resources and a sneak peek at upcoming issues. You can also ask me questions or share your experiences directly via text. You can sign up by clicking here or by texting SOLUTION to (215) 544–3524.

I also wanted to give a h/t to Mădălina Ciobanu of the Engaged Journalism Accelerator who introduced me to France and Rue89 Strasbourg.


Here’s the TLDR of what you need to know about Rue89 Strasbourg’s approach to events.


TLDR

The Challenge: Local French site Rue89 Strasbourg wanted to find a way to better connect with the communities it covers while boosting its subscription program.

The Strategy: The site decided to focus heavily on events and gatherings as a way to deepen its relationship with its readers and reach new audiences.

The Numbers: Despite its small staff size, Rue89 Strasbourg holds about four different gatherings per month.

The Lessons: Organizing and executing events are a lot of work. If you have limited resources, you have to be willing to make trade-offs to do them well.

• The Future: Rue89 Strasbourg plans to roll out a more coordinated marketing campaign to promote the gatherings and to also drive subscriptions.

Want to Know More?: Scroll down to read about how other local publishers are thinking about their events strategy.

Anything to add?: The Lenfest Institute just announced a new grant program focused on business model innovation. Scroll down to learn more about how you can apply for funding.


The Challenge

Founded in 2012, Rue89 Strasbourg is a local news site covering Strasbourg, a city of about 270,000 people in northeast France.

The site is one of three local independent franchised offshoots of Rue89, a national news site that is now part of L’Obs, a weekly French news magazine.

Like practically every news organization on the planet, Rue89 Strasbourg realized that it could not survive primarily on digital advertising. Though it also offered consulting and training services, Rue89 Strasbourg decided in 2017 to create a subscription product. Subscribers to the site get an extra four or so stories per week.

And as its business model has become increasingly reliant on direct support from readers, the site wanted to find additional ways to provide value and to connect directly with the communities it serves.

Rue89 Strasbourg decided that in-person community gatherings could be a way to increase loyalty, the site’s founder Pierre France told me. The site wants to be a hub of conversation in Strasbourg, and it sees in-person events as a way to reach new communities and build its audience.

“For about two years, we have decided to go bigger and bigger on the events because we need to strengthen our ties to our readers and community,” France said. “We think events are the best way to go because if people are willing to subscribe, they need to know us. We need to advocate for ourselves. We need to introduce ourselves frequently. We need to, for example, remind everyone that we are independent, and local, and that we are not part of the national brand.”


The Strategy

Rue89 Strasbourg organizes five different types of gatherings. Each is viewed as an in-person engagement opportunity that features unique programming and targets unique audiences.

Over the past couple of years, the site has kept introducing new types of programming as it has decided to invest more resources in organizing them, as interest from sponsors has increased, and as it’s tried to build a subscription business.

“The idea there is to connect with the people, see that we are live, we are real people behind the website and then they might get the subscription to our website,” France said.

Here’s an overview of each of the event types, some of which are more explicitly tied to driving subscriptions than others.

Invités de l’apéro: Translated as “Guests of the aperitif,” these gatherings are live interviews conducted in bars around Strasbourg. They’re held once a month and are open to the public and livestreamed on Facebook. The sessions are free to attend. The bar will let the site use its space for free, though attendees have to buy their own drinks.

A Rue89 Strasbourg journalist will moderate the conversation and attendees can also participate. The interviews will often last more than 90 minutes.

Tonight, the site hosted Martine Wonner, a member of the French National Assembly representing the Strasbourg area, at a local bar.

• Tous connectés et après: These live discussions focus on the societal impact of technology. The title translates to “All connected and after.”

A recent discussion focused on how social media can exasperate harassment and bring out the worst in people. Next month, Rue89 Strasbourg will host a session on surveillance and facial recognition technologies.

The discussions often include university professors and researchers, including many with national profiles who come from Paris.

These gatherings are held every other month. They’re free to attend, and they are sponsored by city-run center dedicated to advancing digital culture in Strasbourg.

• Quartiers connectés: This series, called “Connected Neighborhoods,” is a regularly held open newsroom in various neighborhoods in Strasbourg and surrounding areas.

Once a month, the Rue89 Strasbourg team goes to a different neighborhood. They’ll invite the community to join them and will ask them what stories or issues they’d like covered.

The site will then take the story ideas suggested by community members and it will work with them to report them out.

“[Stories are] directly generated by these people’s ideas,” France said. “They see really how news is being done. From the idea to the article, it may require two or three revisions. They see what are our difficulties, what can be done, what can’t be done, and the difference between a rumor and real information.”

Recent stories included a report on a free neighborhood bike repair service and a theater group that performs in people’s living rooms. Stories that are suggested as part of the Connected Neighborhoods program have a special label on Rue89 Strasbourg’s website as well.

The program is sponsored by the state ministry of culture.

• Ciné-Clubs: Rue89 Strasbourg also works with a local movie theater to put on a monthly film screening. The theater’s director will pick a film each month that addresses a societal or cultural issue and then the journalists will lead a discussion after the screening.

• Apéros des possibles: These are informal community get-togethers to designed to facilitate solutions-oriented discussions on challenges facing Strasbourg such as how to best design public spaces in the city.

“Rue89 Strasbourg is content to initiate the process and to accompany it, we hope that it will be understood and shaped by the participants,” the site wrote in a post (translated via Google Translate!) announcing the series. “On our side, we will be listening, to detect what, in trade or unspoken, can serve as a basis for topics of articles. Always careful not to publish in a vacuum, we are counting on the participants of Apéros des possibles to get us out of our bubble and our comfort zone and we hope that this motivation will be everyone’s.”


The Numbers

On average, Rue89 Strasbourg puts on four gatherings per month. The sizes of the events vary. The film screenings will often attract up to 200 people, the bar interviews will get around 100 attendees, but the Connect Neighborhoods open newsrooms are designed for much smaller groups of about a dozen participants.

Most of the events are free.

“We think that if we make entrance paid, people will not come or in too few number that won’t be worth the effort,” France said. “So we need to keep them free.”

Currently, Rue89 Stasbourg’s events are generally just designed to generate enough revenue to cover costs.

In March, about one year after it launched its subscription program, the site reported that it had 350 subscribers. A subscription costs 5 euro per month ($5.85 USD) or 50 euro per year ($58.84 USD).


The Lessons

•  It’s hard work: Rue89 Strasbourg has a tiny staff, and it doesn’t have many resources to spare. But because it decided to go all-in on in-person convenings, France has had to step back from the day-to-day news coverage to organize and manage the program.

“While I’m doing this, I don’t produce any new articles,” he said. For the time being, the site has decided that the investment is  worth it to try and generate excitement in the community, which will lead to subscriptions.

Dedicating the time, energy, and resources to planning and executing events is a commitment, and if your news organization — especially if you’re a smaller outlet — is going to experiment with in-person community engagement, you have to be willing to make trade-offs.

• Find a friend: One of my favorite things about Rue89 Strasbourg’s approach to in-person engagement is that the site has been able to partner with so many community organizations in different ways.

From hosting get-togethers at bars or movie theaters to receiving financial support from local organizations, the site has been able to leverage existing resources to get the program off the ground.

Many of these groups also have built-in communities, so Rue89 Strasbourg is able to reach new audiences that might not typically read its coverage. Typically about half of the attendees at events the site runs with partners are affiliated with the partner organization, France said.

It’s likely that if someone is associated with a like-minded organization, they might be willing to support the news organization as well.

If you’re a news organization looking to establish more community discussions or gatherings, finding groups to partner with could be a great way to help advance the cause. A word of caution though: If you’re getting funding from groups, you’ll want to be clear about the ground rules of the sponsorship. If it’s an editorial event with your newsroom, you’ll need to make it clear to the sponsor that they will have no editorial control.


The Future

While Rue89 Strasbourg has been holding these gatherings for a few years now, this fall is the first time it’s explicitly tying them to membership. The site previously hadn’t been keeping track of how events directly impact subscriptions.

The site is undergoing a redesign and creating a marketing campaign and is going to work to do a better job of letting event attendees know that it needs their support.

“We’re all journalists here,” France said. “We really don’t know how to sell ourselves nicely, so we need to work on that.”

The high level of engagement from the site’s live programming is worth celebrating, but France said he recognizes that the events are going to need to start to produce revenue and lead to subscriptions if Rue89 Strasbourg wants to be able to continue to put them on at the same rate.

“The main issue we will have is that to keep the pace, we need to generate a bigger income,” he said. “It’s an investment. This year is really an investment. If it doesn’t produce new subscriptions, we’ll have to lower the pace.”


Want to Know More?

• Better News recently profiled The Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s approach to live events. “Memorable in-person experiences and face-to-face interaction will always lead to deeper connections, which we hope influences consumer behavior,” said Steve Yaeger, The Star-Tribune’s vice president and chief marketing officer.

• The Engaged Journalism Lab’s Todd Milbourn and Lisa Heyamoto published a post yesterday outlining strategies to host better engagement events.

• Josh Stearns has published a thorough best practice guide for local engagement events on the Local News Lab.


Anything to add?

I wanted to let you know about a new grant opportunity we have at the Lenfest Institute. We’re now accepting applications for our Local Business Model Challenge, which is offering a total of $350,000 in grants of up to $50,000 each.

We’re looking for projects that explore new business models for sustainable local news and information organizations. These could be new products that generate revenue, or new business models that add or replace existing revenue streams. We are interested in ways to improve on existing models like subscriptions or membership, advertising or events — and also to explore totally new ways of sustaining a local news business. This can be a digital product that could be scaled beyond one locality and used by others. It can also be a project that serves as an demonstration of a new revenue model, and provide a toolkit for applying it elsewhere.

You can learn more and apply here.

Please feel to reach out with any other questions, and I’ll see you next Thursday!


Creative Commons photo of Strasbourg by monikawl999. 
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