INMA 2020: accelerating engagement and creating new communities

By Earl J. Wilkinson

International News Media Association (INMA)

Dallas, Texas, United States

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The power, the passion, and the soul of news media were never more evident than in the pandemic year of 2020. How could a year that started so horribly conclude with glimmers of inspiration? 

Like most business sectors, news media stared an extinction-level event in the face — revenue models under assault, advertisers under siege, and the idea of funding great journalism in question. Yet media companies embraced their communities in imaginative ways, deepened relationships with readers, made “work from home” functional, and accelerated digital transformations and subscription models to create a storyline hardly imaginable 10 months ago. 

I hesitate to say this too loudly, but when the history of this era is written, COVID-19 may turn out to be the greatest single contributor to getting media companies across the finish line of digital transformation. Our risk aversion went away, we jettisoned half-measures, and we ripped off the band-aid. 

INMA did the same.

In this most challenging year, INMA retained 93% of its corporate member and added 37 new corporate members.
In this most challenging year, INMA retained 93% of its corporate member and added 37 new corporate members.

INMA changes its game 

Mirroring our members, the International News Media Association (INMA) faced a similar story arc in 2020 by embracing its community in the most extraordinary year in INMA’s 90-year history. At the end of that arc were 12,160 registrations across 83 INMA events, record traffic for our Web site, and a content explosion. 

How did we do it? We super-sized member and news industry engagement in at least 14 ways: 

1. We made INMA a regular video presence on your computer and mobile. That included 73 Webinars, mostly global yet others targeting South Asia, Latin America, and French-speakers. By comparison, we conducted 33 in 2019. In total, INMA Webinars garnered 9,524 registrations in 2020 — including 3,684 unique users (yes, we have a lot of super users who have made INMA a habit)! 

2. We created six subject-based master classes over seven months. We leaned heavily into the Readers First Initiative’s focus on subscriptions, yet we also touched on “smart data” and advertising. The master classes generated 651 registrations, including 363 unduplicated attendees (more super users).

INMA Webinars in 2020 featured Sir Martin Sorrell (left) and New York Times CEO/president Mark Thompson (right).
INMA Webinars in 2020 featured Sir Martin Sorrell (left) and New York Times CEO/president Mark Thompson (right).

3. INMA was the first major press association to convert its annual conference from in-person to virtual. Other press associations followed our model. This inaugural World Congress generated 413 attendees from 36 countries.

4. We shared more of your stories. Thanks to hundreds of INMA members and our 56-person universe of volunteer bloggers, we generated 720 blog posts on issues related to advertising, audience, business intelligence, journalism, leadership, and product — many bending toward the COVID Moment. That’s 52% above anything we’ve produced in a year and almost three articles per business day.

5. We elevated knowledge about digital subscriptions unlike any association in the world during COVID. This was led by incredible coverage from Readers First Initiative lead Greg Piechota in 49 blog posts, 12 meet-ups, nine newsletters, four master classes, and one report on the subject. 

6. The Global Media Awards competition generated 922 entries from 262 media companies in 44 countries. This included nearly 100 post-deadline entries in April for a special category honouring COVID-related community outreach programmes. These entries represent the heartbeat of the news industry.   

INMA's Global Media Awards competition brought in 922 entries, including 100 for a special COVID community outreach category. INMA also added two new awards in 2020: 30 Under 30 and Elevate Scholarships.
INMA's Global Media Awards competition brought in 922 entries, including 100 for a special COVID community outreach category. INMA also added two new awards in 2020: 30 Under 30 and Elevate Scholarships.

7. We recorded our Global Media Awards ceremony. In the process, we got an audience double our normal in-person World Congress dinner ceremony. 

8. In partnership with the Google News Initiative and FT Strategies, INMA hosted a Subscriptions Town Hall based on the findings of an eight-month European Subscriptions Lab. Some 744 people from 69 countries participated via livestream and recording. 

9. We brought new audiences into INMA’s digital subscription conversation, thanks to the Facebook Journalism Project. These included 26 companies in the United States and India, including a tailored accelerator in South Asia.   

10. We used the power of a virtual community to re-think how we reach new communities. This ranged from a “30 Under 30” Awards competition for young professionals (160 applications from 26 countries) to an Elevate Scholarship programme for under-represented groups (173 applications from 18 countries) to an Africa Media Summit (567 participants from 52 countries). 

11. INMA created nine new reports for members, another record. We explored the fast-evolving state of subscriptions, the implications of the third-party cookie’s disappearance, where advertising goes next, newsrooms and work-from-home, leadership opportunities opened up by the pandemic, community engagement, branded content, content-to-commerce, and the economics of reducing print days. 

12. We continued to shine a light on the fast-moving developments internationally with the Big Tech platforms. Through 23 blog posts, we aimed to keep members updated on regulatory and legal happenings — notably in Australia and the European Union. 

13. We launched four new initiatives for members. A Young Professionals Initiative for the rising stars in news media was another example of a “community within a community” that emerged in 2020 (including a seven-person committee), as was the December creation of a Product Initiative for the quickly evolving product professionals’ community. Meanwhile, an INMA Knows feature introduced a new distillation effort for the association’s rich content, and a Premium Videos capability was added to extend training and development.

14. While INMA could not physically come to you, we found structured ways to meet you virtually. In total, INMA engaged in 70+ corporate briefings, ask-me-anything sessions, and subscription consultations.

This was all orchestrated by an amazing team of 22 staff who easily adapted to pandemic restrictions. It helped that we have worked virtually since 2009!

INMA is the most-visited press association Web site in the world this year.
INMA is the most-visited press association Web site in the world this year.

INMA takes the lead

So, did these efforts make a difference? Did they have an impact? Was the juice worth the squeeze? 

The short answer is a resounding “yes”: 

  • INMA now No. 1: For the first time, INMA this year became the No. 1 most visited press association Web site in the world, according to Alexa.com.
  • Web traffic soars: Web site pageviews increased a dramatic 24% on 13% growth in unique visitors and 8% growth in visits. More people consumed INMA content than at any moment in our long existence — and at more than double the per-visit rate of any other press association. 
  • Members retained: We retained 93% of our corporate members in the most stressful environment imaginable. 
  • New member surge: We generated 37 new corporate members — our biggest growth year in our nine-decade history.

Although our treasurer suggests INMA takes its non-profit status too seriously many years, it is heartening to report we will actually contribute a small sum to our cash reserves. 

The game changes in a moment 

These outcomes could not have been imagined 10 months ago. 

What you have to understand is INMA’s business model is built on profitability from conferences, seminars, and study tours — and the pandemic swept those away. These immersive INMA events are among the most popular in the news industry. 

For all of our contingency plans, none quite met the Pandemic Moment. 

On February 25-28, INMA held its third annual Subscriptions Summit in New York: study tour, workshops, conference for hundreds of people from around the world. Little did we know this would be the last time INMA members would meet face-to-face for two years. 

The week before the New York Summit, we got some light questions about whether we would cancel or postpone the Summit. Yet even as the COVID-19 story was accelerating far away in Asia, we saw no need to take such actions. On-site in New York, Pam Siddall of Advance Local, an INMA Board member, lightly mentioned contingency planning for work-from-home. Changhee Park of Joong-Ang Ilbo talked of intensifying work contingencies back in Seoul and travel challenges. A top executive during the Summit chose not to shake my hand. 

What are these people talking about? Surely, these are isolated incidents. Surely, this is over-reaction. 

On the cusp of global lockdowns, INMA held its Media Subscriptions Week in New York City the last weekend in February.
On the cusp of global lockdowns, INMA held its Media Subscriptions Week in New York City the last weekend in February.

On the final afternoon of the Summit, I kept getting alerts about conference cancellations. Several of the Silicon Valley Big Tech giants, in particular, were sending ominous signals through cancelled events and suggestions they wouldn’t be restored anytime soon. 

One hour after the New York Summit concluded on a Friday evening, INMA Vice President Espen Egil Hansen of Aftenposten leaned in during a private meeting to ask about INMA’s Paris World Congress. Ashen, I looked down at my phone to see INMA Vice President Maribel Perez Wadsworth of Gannett asking the same. INMA President Damian Eales shared that News Corp was slapping restrictions on non-essential business travel. Treasurer Sandy Naude wanted to re-confirm the Paris Congress was happening. 

This isn’t how you celebrate the conclusion of a successful Subscriptions Summit! To say the least, this was humbling. 

The next morning, I got up early and started doing the math in my New York hotel room. Postponing the Paris World Congress — after two years of preparations — would be logistically challenging. Cancelling the event was financially nightmarish. While I was at it, what were our liabilities for the other events in 2020? What if media companies became financially distressed and that impacted membership dues? 

INMA went through the same thought processes that your company did — albeit with different hits. The INMA Board of Directors got deeply involved in the discussions with multiple conference calls, multiple Zoom calls. There was no road map, and there were no certainties. 

We navigated lockdowns, reimbursements, and cancellations while splashing some entrepreneurialism into the mix to create positive memories in a year we otherwise can’t wait to flush out. Cancelling events, notably Paris, was painful. Yet it was the right thing to do, and we did so swiftly and decisively.

The pivot to 2021 

Combined, INMA produced and distilled knowledge and insights about the direction of the news business in an unprecedented way in 2020. We rallied the collective wisdom of members around business models, subscriptions, data, product, and advertising. We created passion communities inside the big INMA umbrella. 

INMA could not have produced these results without the steadfast support of our 16,000+ members at 850 media companies in 72 countries — especially the 92 professionals serving on our InternationalEuropeanLatin AmericanNorth American, and South Asian boards and committees. You are not shy about your feedback, and we are appreciative as we constantly aim to improve. 

We already had a strong bond with members, yet I hope that our response to adversity further cements those direct relationships with the people and companies that occupy the news industry. 

I hope you trust INMA more deeply than ever. I hope you see the value of this unique INMA global community.

We have so much more to unveil for INMA members in 2021, yet I will save that for the New Year. 

On behalf of the International News Media Association, thanks for everything you do to make us the news industry’s most valued professional community.

About Earl J. Wilkinson

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