Milking the conference cash cow

Tina Brown speaks onstage at the 3rd annual Diane Von Furstenberg awards at the United Nations on March 9, 2012 in New York City.

Tina Brown is stepping down as editor-in-chief of the Daily Beast to do what she calls "theatrical journalism." That is, live debates and conferences and the like, which are becoming big business for media companies.

People will pay a lot of money to see Meryl Streep introduce Hillary Clinton, as she did at last year’s Women in the World Summit, a conference Tina Brown founded while at the Daily Beast.

“There’s money in this business,” says Ken Doctor, media analyst with the research firm Outsell.  Most of it comes from corporate sponsors, he says, who want to associate with big ideas and big names. “They want to be thought leaders as well as sellers of goods and services.”

Corporations spend about 10 percent of their marketing budgets on events, Doctor says. Media companies, whose traditional ad revenue is shrinking, want a piece of that pie.

The Atlantic launched its events business about twelve years ago to “reanimate” an old brand, says Elizabeth Baker Keffer, president of AtlanticLIVE.

“We were a bit of an underdog as a small print publication at that point,” she says. “[We] wanted a way to give ourselves a larger footprint and be able to punch above our weight.”

Now she says the company does more than 100 events each year, including the Aspen Ideas Festival. Events make up almost 20 percent of revenue.

“It’s a fantastic model,” says Evan Smith, editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune. The nonprofit publisher hosts dozens of live events around the state every year. “Sponsorship pays most of the bills for these events,” Smith says. He expects to bring in $1.2 million in revenue from events and sponsorships this year.

If good business isn't enough of a reason to do these kinds of events, he says, try this: an engaged and informed citizenry talking about the big ideas of the time.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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