Where’s the Party?

News startups bring their readers together offline

Burnt Orange Report, a popular political blog based in Austin, Texas, held its first Republican “debate watch party” in September at The Tavern, a local pub. “Misery loves company,” said the post publicizing the event, “and there’s nothing more miserable than watching the state you love be destroyed by a self-serving politician.”

The bar was filled to capacity with mostly progressive Austinites who came to discuss and jeer at GOP hopefuls over drinks and free food. At the second event in October, attendees played debate bingo, listening for terms like “9-9-9,” “border,” and “Jesus” in order to check off their squares.

While connecting in the Internet realm can be enjoyable, it isn’t usually our natural preference for socializing. Commiserating in person is, and web startups around the country have the goods to make those meetups happen: audience members linked by common interests and geography. Party planning seems a logical next step. Katherine Haenschen, editor in chief of Burnt Orange Report, says they work out a minimum bar tab in exchange for the hosting space, and the events get cosponsored by local groups that are interested in reaching the audience. It’s not a huge money earner, (the last two brought in a few hundred dollars), but direct revenues aren’t the point. Haenschen says it’s fun to see readers meet for the first time: “The benefits are getting what is essentially a virtual community of [Burnt Orange Report] readers together to socialize and build stronger bonds.”

Get-togethers are a regular part of the audience-outreach efforts at Ohio-based news site Columbus Underground. The site often plays host to events ranging from trivia nights to happy hours to their annual holiday party. Anne Evans, who co-founded Columbus Underground with her husband, Walker, says that transplants from other areas use the occasions to find a social circle in their new city. People get their first impressions of each other via the comment boards, talk further over the private message tool on their site, and then come out to meet in person. On occasion, the site has even played matchmaker: a number of couples have met through its events, and one pair recently married.

And while these events don’t make money, they don’t lose it, either. As Connor Boals wrote in the March 2011 News Frontier profile of Columbus Underground, “The site earns warm feelings rather than revenue from the events.”

But warm feelings bring reader loyalty, and even without any extra cash to show, Eric Vessels, cofounder of Ohio political blog Plunderbund, says the investment is worth it. Plunderbund held a well-attended cocktail hour this summer at Camp Wellstone, a political action summit, where it handed out T-shirts and met readers and political scenesters. Plans are in the works for another happy hour this January. “It’s all about brand building and being top of mind when folks think about Ohio politics,” says Vessels.

The Bold Italic, a San Francisco-focused site owned by Gannett, hosts the types of gatherings their creative type readership enjoys: food and drink tastings, shows from up-and-coming musicians and artists, local vendor fairs. “I think that offline experience really endears people to the site and lends itself to our credibility,” says Nicole Grant, a producer at the Bold Italic. “Our readers have started to trust our opinion on things in the city, and we’ve built the reputation that if we put our name on something, it’s going to be an interesting experience.”

Unlike the above examples, The Bold Italic events have become a part of that site’s revenue strategy. While certain events are free, tickets are sold to others, and Grant says they’ve only had a couple events that didn’t sell out. They recently leased out a new office space, and the bottom floor will be their official venue from now on. “The only thing we want to be doing is more of them,” says Grant.

To read more about Burnt Orange Report, click here.

To read more about Columbus Underground, click here.

To read more about Plunderbund, click here.

To read more about The Bold Italic, click here.

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Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , , ,