Conference Accomplished: Northern Exposure 2020

How the three-day visual journalism event went from in-person to online in just three weeks.

When the University of Minnesota and the state of Minnesota decided to enact stay-at-home orders and cancel all in-person gatherings, many event planners were left to decide if events should be canceled altogether or adapted to virtual events. The Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication had to make a quick decision—the School’s second annual visual journalism conference, Northern Exposure, was just three weeks away. Conversations between event organizers, guest speakers and more made it clear: the show will go on. Online, that is. 

While the conference was originally planned for three days (like its inaugural event the previous year), organizers decided to condense the event into just one day on Saturday, April 4, 2020. The conference, a gathering for visual storytellers, was held primarily using Zoom, so students and professional journalists could meet, listen to experts and chat about photography and video. 

During 8.5 hours, attendees heard from four keynote speakers and also separated into breakout groups that covered a range of topics. Keynote speakers included photographer David LaBelle, photographer Stephanie Sinclaire, and Alexandra Garcia, director and producer of The New York Times’ The Weekly.

Regina McCombs, Hubbard School senior fellow and one of the event creators and organizers said, “Many people seemed excited to have something to think about, be inspired by, or from which to learn.”

In preparation for the virtual event—a new venture for many of those involved—advance testing was the core element in ensuring a smooth execution. Although Zoom is designed as an easy-to-use video conferencing platform, hosts were trained beforehand in screen sharing, polling, handling questions, and how to remove attendees if needed. Organizers also incorporated the use of Slack, a business communication platform, that allowed all hosts to talk and share screenshots of the event to be posted on social media while the conference was running.

When they entered the sessions, all attendees had both audio and video muted automatically. Attendees were asked to submit questions through the “chat” function, but people used both the chat and Q&A functions. “For each webinar, we assigned a host to welcome attendees, introduce the speaker and manage the questions,” said Sue Couling, Hubbard School events manager. “We also assigned a tech host to monitor any technical issues, disruptive attendees and to begin and end the recording.”

In order to combat the security issues Zoom has been addressing, including a worldwide concern of outsiders being able to “bomb” meetings, each participant was required to register in order to attend.

The event also hosted five separate breakout sessions: Intro to Lightroom, Staying Safe in the Field, Advanced Lightroom, The Freelance Hustle, and Lenses and their Purposes. Event organizers used the waiting room function in Zoom for the breakout sessions so they could control entry from the start. “The tech host for each breakout would admit the speakers and hosts immediately to give them time to get started, and test screen sharing and audio/video levels,” Couling said. “Once all testing was done, the tech host would admit all who were waiting and then turn off the waiting room function so others would be admitted automatically.”

More than 230 unique viewers attended the virtual event. McCombs said the event attendance didn’t suffer, and they even saw an increase in attendees from around the world, which was a benefit. Attendees came from the U.S., Brazil, Germany and Hong Kong, and from 33 different universities or educational facilities. 

Zoom recordings were taken of each session, and are now available on the Northern Exposure website. The sessions remain popular, with some sessions receiving more than 100 views weeks after the event. 

By Courtenay Parker & Amanda Fretheim Gates

Northern Exposure: By the Numbers
Unique viewership was steady throughout the day. 


Overall attendance
235 unique viewers total

4 countries represented (U.S., Brazil, Germany, Hong Kong)

33 universities/colleges/high schools represented

101 people from educational facilities 

124 industry professionals


Keynote addresses
David LaBelle: 102 

Sara Quinn: 63 

Stephanie Sinclair: 86 

Alexandra Garcia: 78 


Breakout 1
Intro to  Lightroom: 62

Staying Safe in the Field: 60


Breakout 2
Advanced Lightroom: 28

The Freelance Hustle: 75

Lenses and Their Purposes: 22