by Riley Stevenson
Iowa Ideas is a reporting and event series started by the Cedar Rapids Gazette in 2016 and designed to “explore the key questions and big ideas that will shape the future of Iowa.” The project’s hallmark event this year was its inaugural conference, which brought together more than 600 people to discuss Iowa’s education, workforce, healthcare, agriculture, energy, environment, and transportation. Speakers and attendees ranged from CEOs and elected officials to volunteers and community members. In addition to the conference, Iowa Ideas hosted 14 smaller events throughout the state and produced five editions of a magazine featuring stories found along the way.
Project Goals: Iowa Ideas is part of a larger cultural and mindset shift at the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Executive Editor Zack Kucharski envisions community engagement as a way to deepen the newspaper’s relationships with its sources from a variety of sectors and tell more contextual stories while also creating a valuable resource for the state. By bringing together a variety of industry professionals, Iowa Ideas aims to not only enhance the quality of the paper’s reporting, but also collaboratively create a “road map” for Iowa’s future. “A lot of people assumed [Iowa Ideas] was a response to the election but…this was a natural next step for us,” says Sarah Binder, community engagement manager for the Gazette. “Our mission has always been to inform, engage, and connect.” Iowa Ideas was intended to build off this local engagement history, while also reaching out to communities not immediately served in the Gazette’s coverage area of Eastern Iowa.
Tools and Technology: The Iowa Ideas team used Attendify for an event app, and a ticketing service. Additional technology included email newsletters, social media, and in-house advertising.
Impact: More than 600 people attended the September 2017 conference, and 250 people participated as speakers/panelists. Throughout the year, Iowa Ideas hosted 14 events in six cities. And since the project’s launch, 1,500 people have subscribed to the Iowa Ideas newsletter, 82,000 people have visited its website, and more than 50 solutions-focused stories have been reported for the Iowa Ideas magazine.
Organization Background: The Gazette is an independent, employee-owned news organization based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Founded in 1883, the newspaper is distributed across eastern Iowa and has a daily circulation of around 38,000.
Project Resources: In order to launch Iowa Ideas, the Gazette added staff in other areas in order to free up existing employees. Existing reporters, editors and event staff simply dedicated more time. “We knew we’d have to put in extra hours,” says Quinn Pettifer, the Gazette’s manager of community networks and engagement. “We do try and promote work-life balance, but the majority of employees are Iowans and committed to the community. It was aligned with what we’re passionate about anyways.” In total, the team estimates that 3,300 hours were invested in the project series. In order to fund the conference and event series, the Gazette found sponsors and sold event tickets. Binder says many of the speakers also donated their time to the event. The Iowa Ideas team didn’t expect the event to generate much revenue during year one, but the project is projected to be profitable in year two. The team is hoping to double attendance and grow sponsorships in second year.
Here’s what worked
1. Having buy-in at the top and work as a team
“Leadership support is what made this successful,” says Pettifer. “We couldn’t have done this without leadership that would invest staff hours and walk the walk.” According to Binder, staff members helped with everything from moderating conference sessions to developing stories to stuffing envelopes. Several reporters also participated in a four-week improv course in order to prepare for their roles as moderators. “It took a fair amount of coaching to get everyone comfortable with their new roles, but it was well worth the effort,” Binder says.
2. Finding a format
The Iowa Ideas team spent a lot of time thinking about how they wanted to structure the conference. Ultimately, they decided to host 80 panelist discussions. “It dramatically increased the number of people we needed to recruit (as speakers),” Binder says. “But it worked out really well in the end. Each issue had multiple points of view, our journalists were front and center as moderators, and it kept the discussions lively (no ‘death by PowerPoint’).”
3. Being solutions and future focused
The Iowa Ideas team wanted to be unwavering in their solutions and future-oriented focus. “We coached all of our speakers in this direction,” Binder says. “We told them to come to the table with solutions that come from other markets.” Speakers were asked to imagine an “ideal future” for Iowa and center their discussions on interdisciplinary ways to get there.
Here’s what could work better
1. Building momentum
In 2017, Iowa Ideas hosted a series of smaller speaking events throughout the state. These “mini-conferences” were intended to broaden the scope of the Gazette’s community engagement efforts. The events were a lot of work and didn’t necessarily translate into people attending the conference. Reporters and editors are now focused on how to ensure that the mission of Iowa Ideas is consistently reaching the whole state and is represented in the day-to-day work of The Gazette while still optimizing valuable staff time.
2. Anticipating the work load
“We underestimated how much time things would take at almost every step of the process,” Binder says. “From recruiting speakers to logistics to marketing.” Especially during the six-city statewide tour, coordinating travel, speakers, and other logistics proved to be taxing for the team. In the future, Iowa Ideas staff are considering less logistic-heavy engagement activities, such as “listening tours” where attendees generate discussion rather than the journalists.
3. Marketing the events
Because Iowa Ideas had many components (small events, the conference, and a magazine) and spanned across several focus areas (from agriculture to healthcare to education), finding a consistent marketing message was challenging. “We spent a lot of time just introducing the project to speakers and partners,” Binder says. Also, the time management and marketing issues (points 2 and 3) fed into each other at times (for example, if speakers weren’t confirmed on time, it further hampered the marketing efforts).
Here’s what else you should know
- Be community focused: The Iowa Ideas team knew that “if we didn’t have our backyard and community leaders in support, then the project was doomed,” Pettifer says. So the team went out into the community, attended high-traffic events, did television interviews, made phone calls, held meetings, and started building the project collaboratively.
- Go big or go home: “I think if we were to have started this small, it would have fizzled,” says Pettifer. In order to offer a meaningful experience for Iowans, the team knew they’d have to set lofty project goals (e.g. the group aimed for 700 attendees, and welcomed more than 600). Because the Gazette has a large circulation, a history of hosting community engagement projects, and a dedicated staff, they knew they had the support they needed. “We are a newspaper company that is evolving and finding ways to stay ahead of the curve,” Pettifer says.
- Find partners: The Gazette sought out partnerships that would allow them to strengthen each of its conference “tracks,” or focus areas (e.g. healthcare, education, etc.). For example, they partnered with Workplace (R)evolution, which helped guide discussions in the workforce track toward solutions for employers and employees in search of new company practices and policies. Another key partner was Iowa Public Radio. By partnering with another newsroom, The Gazette was able to reach a different audience and leverage additional staff resources during the event, and both organizations benefited from content sharing.
- Leave space for conversation: The Iowa Ideas team scheduled natural breaks between conference sessions that allowed attendees to mingle and make connections. The team thought this was a great way to encourage conversation between professionals from across the state who might not otherwise have the opportunity to interact.
Riley Stevenson is a multimedia journalism master’s student at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication.