Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe

Esther Kezia Thorpe: What is live journalism?

Kim Last: Live journalism at The Wall Street Journal is exactly what it sounds like on paper. It is live interviews, hosted by our journalists in front of an audience. I oversee a team of journalists here in the newsroom, where we build agendas. We source our newsmakers who join our programmes and we work on the subsequent news coverage that you would see when we have a newsmaker who breaks news on stage.

Is that a fairly new team at the Wall Street Journal?

It is, it is. I actually just passed my three year anniversary at the journal, so I’m relatively new. There’s a young team. In a lot of ways, I like to think of us as a startup inside a well-established, well-oiled machine, which is the Journal newsroom.

You’ve got a background in conference production. What’s the difference between how conference production works and how you see this live journalism team?

It’s really different, but also production values are a key part of this. I started out in traditional digital journalism, and fell into events by almost accident, really. What I found was that there was a whole platform around leveraging events to create moments that could drive impact, that could drive news. The production qualities are really important to this.

These days, in these virtual events, the fact that you need to make sure people’s internet connection doesn’t drop during their interviews, that’s a really important piece to this. Making sure that audience members can ask questions, whether that’s live or pre-taped, or in a question box, that they type. The production values are really rather important to all of this.

I started in digital journalism, I had a stint at Fast Company magazine, where I sat in the news side and worked on live event franchises. For us, we source for newsmakers, we source for story ideas, we think of our sessions and our events as almost like a live magazine, if you will, or a live edition of the Journal print paper.

We investigate ideas, we talk to interesting leaders across business and media and technology. We look to have them say things that are really interesting that we then want to disseminate to our audience.

I like that idea of a live magazine. That’s quite a nice analogy.

Like I say to a lot of folks when people ask ‘what is live journalism’, it’s really another edition of The Wall Street Journal, in the same way that there’s a print edition, there’s a digital edition, there’s video, there’s audio, there’s social media. And there’s also this exciting, new, growing live component.

So you said you’ve been in the role for three years. I mean, the last 12 months is going to have been very, very different. Can you talk me through what changed in March last year and what did the events look like either side of that?

I mean, everything changed in March last year, like everything in the world. Before all of that, the live journalism portfolio at the journal consisted of in-person events that would take place around the world, ranging from our CEO council gatherings in places like London and Tokyo and Washington DC, to our in-person Future of Everything Festival, which was three days and attended by thousands of people, all the way to our Women in the Workplace Forum, which was a full-day event we hosted in San Francisco.

The measurement of success was butts in seats and making sure that room had the buzz and the energy. That was one indicator of success. You wanted to be, not to quote Hamilton here, but in the room where it happened. All of that, obviously, was turned upside down once the pandemic hit.

We had to quickly and swiftly put a pause on everything that we did and say: what does it mean to be virtual? Do people actually want to tune in and watch webinars? What can we do to go beyond the webinar and look and feel? What can we do? This really sat in my universe and realm: who can we get to participate in this?

Really, the silver lining was, of course, when we were in-person, we assembled newsmakers. We’ve had a great cohort of business leaders from across the spectrum. But now that we’re virtual, our track record over the last year has been incredible. Newsmakers ranging from Elon Musk, and Eric Schmidt to Sarah Cooper, right at the peak of Sarah Cooper. If I look at this year, we had Jerome Powell, the chair of the Fed, and he really dominated the business news cycle the day he appeared on our virtual stage.

I’d say the thing that’s really different now is, while we physically aren’t together, the  halo and reach of the Journal and our live events is larger than it’s ever been before. It’s exciting because it’s really now growing from there. We’re finding really unique ways to engage with our audience, to grow our audience and, what I think is really exciting, to dominate parts of the news cycle with what we do with the questions and the sessions that we design for our stages.

And were there hurdles you had to overcome when you’re first putting this together, or was it fairly easy to hit the ground running?

It was not easy. Luckily, like you’ve mentioned, there is a whole team of wizards behind the screen, as I call them, here at the Journal and at Dow Jones, who are our partners in this. They are the people who handle the tech checks with every speaker and every one of our journalists to make sure that the Zoom connection isn’t going to fail, who build out and have pivoted from a role where they may have handled hotel arrangements and the menus of what you would eat at our physical conferences, and are now building and encoding event platforms.

It’s all different and it’s all changed. Of course, there were hurdles along the way. We had no idea that Zoom was going to be the thing that powered the engine to all of this, but Zoom was the best thing when you can’t really control someone’s internet connection at home, or if they’re working from some Airbnb somewhere or some rental from halfway around the world. That was a quick learning where we had to make that adjustment and move fast.

The same thing goes around even audience development on this. How many people are actually going to sign up for a free event and show up? We started to see that there’s at least a 50% attrition rate, so if we want 5000 people to listen in and tune into this, then we must make sure we’ve got at least 10,000 people registered.

I don’t even think they’re that they’re that special in terms of insights, but they’re just what we have learned along the way, and have helped in terms of designing contingencies to make all of this successful.

You mentioned the Future of Everything Festival that used to be a three-day, in-person event. That’s coming up in a couple of weeks in it, so what does that look like as an online event?

The festival, back in the day, when we were all together in person, was the largest event franchise at the Journal, just in terms of the breadth of the programme to stages, I think it had more than 90 speakers. We really made it an inclusive experience for our colleagues in the newsroom to participate as moderators, I think we’ve had somewhere between 35 and 40 moderators when we’re in-person. Some folks have said to me in the past, it used to be like Journal Camp, because everybody would get together and do this.

Now that it’s virtual, it’s bigger than it’s ever been before. The exciting bit on this is that we’re really aiming to have close or more than 50,000 registered subscribers log on during the three days. We’ve kept a lot of the DNA of what the festival used to be in-person, meaning back-to-back, newsmaker conversations, interesting, intriguing voices who are rising, interspersed in between those big moments with an Ed Bastion from Delta, followed by a Dwayne Wade-Gabrielle Union conversation.

We still carry that DNA to this. I think what’s really exciting is that my colleagues on the conferences team are really thinking deeply about what’s the networking experience in all of this. They’re looking at designing new ways to do that when you’re online and not bumping into someone in the line to get your cocktail during the happy hour.

So what does that look like? Because I think that’s something that a lot of people haven’t cracked, that kind of networking.

No, and quite frankly, it’s all an experiment for us too. But what does that look like? It’s a couple of things. It’s finding ways for people to find connections if they happen to have an interest in a shared area, or shared industry.

One thing we’re experimenting this year is that we will have attendees identify if they’re interested in AI, for example, or if they work in the tech industry and they want to meet people in those same realms. You won’t be able to access the festival platform until you fill out and personalise a profile where you check all those boxes of things that you’re interested in.

It’s kind of like speed dating.

It is. What they’ve been calling it is almost like a Tinder for business, where you would be matched with folks who are of like-minded thinking, hopefully, and of interest. That’s one thing that we are piloting this year that we’re gonna try to launch and if it’s successful, hopefully it will then be applied to some of our other events.

So you mentioned that some of your events earlier were free, but the Future of Everything festival, I noticed it’s actually got ticketing options. How have you found audiences have responded to paying for virtual events, because that’s been another aspect a lot of publishers have really struggled with.

We have found that it is working. Now, the price point is a lot different than what it used to look like for an in-person event. There is a bit of a gate fee, it’s a low gate fee, in some cases. For some of our events last year, it was as little as $50.

I would say, it’s a case of where it’s just enough way you feel like you can either cover it yourself, or maybe your company can reimburse you for it, and just enough too so that we can ensure that you will participate and hopefully log on and show up. I think that’s the big thing here, too.

The other sort of big, new thing that we’re trying this year with the festival in particular, is it’s linked to a journal membership. This is a chance where it is a part of your subscription benefits and that’s really exciting. We’ve never experimented with that before. Again, I sit on the newsroom side of things, but my commercial colleagues have really shepherded a new model for that. When we look back on how this all looks and feels, it’ll be really interesting to see how that works for us.

Networking aside, what sort of things you’re doing to bring the experience to life online for attendees and really keep up the connections and community with the event?

From a news content standpoint, what we’re always trying to do is pick the most intriguing person for that moment that we’re in. And then there’s a trickle effect, there’s a halo effect out of that. When you have somebody who is of the moment, you want to ask that question. You’re not holding back, so hopefully you’re interacting with the chat.

We’ve experimented with having attendees send us pre-recorded questions. Hopefully, somebody on that agenda sparks interest for you, so you get to participate in that way. We’re also experimenting in bringing on attendees to ask live questions, again to really up the ante on the interaction component here. That’s really important to us.

I’d say that that’s one way that we’re really trying to shepherd this along to break through the Zoom boxes we are all currently living in and that I think we may still continue to live in, even once we have more vaccinations.

Have you seen that any kind of Zoom fatigue from people or are people just a bit pickier about what they’re doing these days?

Of course, of course. I think that’s where we try to get as smart on this as possible, especially around timings, when we host things, depending on the audience and depending on the session and speaker. If we have a programme that is designed for working professionals who have kids at home, it’s really a bad idea to do it at 5pm.

We’re gonna make that a lunchtime programme, we’re gonna market that to you as such, and we’re gonna make sure our speakers are really targeting to that audience. Our journalists are going to be asking those pointed questions for tactical, practical advice.

But then we’ve also had a lot of success with having entertainers in the evening. If I look back in the last year, we had our Women in the Workplace Forum and the end cap of that evening was a conversation with Sarah Cooper and Tig Notaro together. That was one of the most highly attended sessions and it was like the popcorn moment. At the end of the day, where there was a lot of practical, solution-oriented discussions, this was the nightcap of ‘let’s bring on some entertainers to really dive into how this has worked in a place like Hollywood’.

When things start to get back to normal, what will the Wall Street Journal’s life journalism section look like?

I think we are headed towards a future of hybrid events. If I were to take out my crystal ball, I think the real plus side of this has been the reach of building new audiences through our virtual programmes. And the reach of convening a newsmaker or newsmakers plural, who we would have had a tough time getting them to commit a whole day to us, getting them to fly in a plane to show up at this particular time and this particular moment. There’s a real value to that virtual flexibility.

Now, that being said, hybrid I think is where we’re going to be moving towards and, in the immediate future, outdoor events, which luckily, before all of this, we were hosting some outdoor programmes already, with our Tech Live conference in particular. We used to have a whole evening outside. So there’s already some expertise there luckily.

With the festival, we’re hosting a drive-in experience in Brooklyn, New York, on the second evening of the festival, where there will be a screening and a discussion afterwards. Again, just embracing the things that didn’t get shut down during the pandemic that were popular, that were in the Zeitgeist of the moment, and could really elevate the experience.

We talked to a lot of CEOs, some are racing to get back to the office and to what it used to be. I think others are really finding the value of the remote lifestyle and the remote nature of hybrid events and online events. I think we have to be somewhere in the middle. Because the audience growth has just been too good to let it go away.

Also, it’s inclusive. It is a privilege, at the end of the day, to be able to expense a ticket, to travel, to spend on the hotel and the T&E. I think this allows us to be way more inclusive in a way that we weren’t before because it just wasn’t the norm.

Do you think we’ll ever see the festivals of tens of thousands of people turning up to things again?

Yes, absolutely. I think it will take a bit of time. I think there’ll be a lot of safety precautions around this. But yes, I do think concerts are going to return. I think festivals will return. I think all of these things will happen. But I think the big question will be, what do you do for that digital audience? What are you going to do for the people who can’t make it in person? What are you serving up to them?

I’ve forgotten how to be around a lot of people.

I do question, when we all emerge out of this, what’s everyone’s comfort level going to be around that? There will be some PTSD out of this for sure. There will be some folks who may not feel as comfortable in a crowded ballroom with chairs on top of each other, or in a packed tight, small round table, where you’re jamming twelve people in at a table that should be seating only ten. But that’s what all event organisers do because it’s the buzz. You want people to have a little bit of that FOMO.

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