Digital & Social Media

All the Conferences Fit to Hold

All the Conferences Fit to Hold
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TRUE discusses with Gerald Marzorati of The New York Times the challenge of extending an iconic brand to new platforms. Marzorati runs the Times conference series.

Q: As director of the Times conference series, how do you see it fitting into the brand?

Marzorati: A successful conference is like a pop-up magazine. This is The New York Times live. It’s a way to create Times-quality content in a live setting, and convening the audience is like bringing together a room full of our readers. I see it as a very natural extension of the brand.

Q: For years The New York Times put on Times Talks. How is this conference unit different?

Marzorati: Times Talks were essentially a development of our marketing team. They weren’t a development of the newsroom. They were meant to be largely on cultural topics. You had a single interview conducted by a Times journalist with one person or maybe sometimes a panel. My job straddles editorial and the business side. Our conferences are all-day events, and as we see them, conferences are a way for us to look beyond the horizon line of a typical news cycle, to grapple with those bigger topics that you can’t cover in a single article or even two or three. It might be issues that relate to the environment and climate change, or higher education. We’re looking at realms where there has been some disruption, where there’s a big sense of change, where we can bring together the best thinkers and the best minds to really begin a deep conversation. Then, we convene an audience, which is deeply interested in the specific topic because it involves their profession.

If you look at something like our Schools for Tomorrow conference, it’s focused on higher education. Higher education is being disrupted. There’s the question of the very business model of the university changing, the question of globalization of universities with NYU and others creating campuses in the Middle East or in Asia. There’s the idea of who gets to go and who doesn’t because the price has just become too high. Our attendees are either coming out of fear, like, “oh my god, what’s happening to this business I’m in,” or opportunity, if you’re someone who is a startup business creating online courses in Silicon Valley.

We’re doing two new ones this year, one having to do with health, Health for Tomorrow, which we’ll do in San Francisco in May, and another conference in November called Food for Tomorrow. Now, there are two areas where dramatic change is going on. In health, you have change happening in everything from developments related to the Affordable Care Act to technological innovations to the digital empowerment of patients. In the food area, you’ve got industrial agriculture under all sorts of pressures, and globally we’re facing the question of how we’re going to feed a population of 9 billion people by the middle of the century. These issues may not be on the front pages of our newspapers every day, but they are among the biggest societal problems we face.

Q: Why did the Times feel the need to start the conference business?

Marzorati: The conference business, as an official separate unit, is technically only about a year old. We got into the business relatively late, quite frankly. A lot of other news organizations were there already. It’s something, when I was on the masthead of the newspaper, I felt very strongly that we should have a presence on this platform, but there was a lot of resistance. I think for a lot of good reasons. There were people, colleagues of mine, who worried that you would have a situation where you would be putting in jeopardy our newsroom values by interviewing advertisers, for instance.

I made the case that everything we do at a conference is open to the public. These aren’t salons being held behind closed doors. These are public events, and anyone who can’t afford to come to the conference can watch it on live stream. When our journalists are on stage interviewing someone, it’s no different than when they’re interviewing them for a news story.

Q: Does the Times see the conference unit as a profit center or as a support vehicle for the other platforms the Times is on?

Marzorati: In our first year, we made money in the conference business, and I would hope that that continues. The conference business, for any news organization, is never going to be a silver bullet. There probably are no silver bullets, but I think you want to be in as many areas as possible. This fits into our overall strategy of global expansion. We’ve held conferences in Singapore and in the Middle East, and if by bringing our journalists and the quality of our content to these places happens to sell some digital subscriptions, that’s great. And in that way, I think conferences can possibly be a marketing tool. You can also look at conferences as a talent retention tool because it makes many of our most talented journalists happy to be able to participate. And yes, it is a profit center as well. But I don’t think any news organization can count on conferences to be the be all and end all.

Q: What is the typical demographic of the audience?

Marzorati: We do curate the audience in a sense. We open the admissions broadly and usually get 1,500 responses or so. Our typical conference however has only 400 attendees. So then we have to winnow it down. We like about 25 percent of that audience to be senior executive, C-suite executives from the particular realm that the conference is aimed at. So at a health conference, we’ll want men and women who are running health insurance companies or hospitals, that sort of thing. We’d like to get another 20 percent to 25 percent from the investment community — venture capitalists, investment bankers, commercial bankers, angel funders who are coming to hear ideas that they might want to invest in. We’d like another 20 percent to 25 percent to be government or NGO types. When we have the Health for Tomorrow conference in San Francisco in May, there’ll be a lot of state health officials present, for instance. The last group would represent authors and academics, thought leaders who really raise the level of conversation with the questions they ask.

Q: How do you see the Times series within the universe of conference series? For instance, how would you compare yourself with TED talks, also a thought leadership platform?

Marzorati: TED has its own secret sauce, and I think that’s hard to replicate. It’s almost like a pop phenomenon, the same thing with Davos. I don’t think we’re that, exactly. On the other hand, our news competitors, like the Financial Times or The Economist or the Wall Street Journal are very much business publications that put on very specific and siloed conferences of the kind that we wouldn’t do either. I think I saw an ad today in the Wall Street Journal for a compliance conference, and I know the FT does one of these too, which basically brings together lawyers, corporate lawyers, to talk about changes in regulations that would affect their companies. We’re not going to do those kinds of conferences. By and large, we’re a more general interest publication, and I think our conferences have a wider breadth of topics.

Q: Is the playing field for conferences too crowded? 

Marzorati: We live in a world where increasingly people communicate with each other through digital channels, and in an odd way, it has raised the value of face-to-face conversation. I think this urge to attend conferences and to be heard at conferences is somehow connected to the fact that we spend so much time Skyping and texting and tweeting. The Times has always had a tremendous convening power. We bring people together in our news stories and we bring them together on our op-ed page, different voices. We bring them together in the comment stream that we run with our articles, and what we’re doing here is bringing all this together live. There just is a hunger for that now. People really want to be able to encounter real people in real time and talk to them about things of consequence that matter to them, and that’s the business we’re in. That’s the product we’re building.

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About the author

Gerald Marzorati is the editorial director and general manager of New York Times, conferences. He oversees the Times global thought-leader conference business and that of the International New York Times. For three decades he was a magazine editor, working at Harper’s Magazine and the New Yorker before joining the Times Magazine in 1994. He was the editor-in-chief of the Times Magazine from 2003-2010. He also served a term as an assistant managing editor of the Times, a masthead position.

He has written for numerous national publications and writes regularly about tennis for the Times. He is the author of A Painter of Darkness, which in 1990 won the PEN/Martha Albrand award for a first book of narrative nonfiction. He is at work on a memoir about tennis.