by Carrie Watters
The Arizona Republic / azcentral.com in Phoenix launched The Storytellers Project in 2011 as a series of live storytelling nights. The 90-minute events, emceed by journalists, are now in 21 cities from Fort Collins, Colorado to Nashville, Tennessee. The nights blend the authenticity and discipline of first-person storytelling with the truthfulness, community-building and empowerment of great journalism. Excerpts of the stories are aired by local NPR affiliates.
Project Goals: Megan Finnerty, the founder and driving force behind The Storytellers Project, explains that its main goals are to “connect with new audiences and find new ways to serve and reflect the community… as well as develop empathy among those community members.” Financially, the goal is for ticket sales to sustain the project and for sponsorships to support other newsroom initiatives.
Tools and Technology: The project’s tech needs include a ticket vendor to manage registrations; social media accounts to document and promote the events; recording equipment to capture audio for syndicated broadcast; production equipment, including a microphone, lights, and chairs, and an event venue with capacity for 100-400 people. (See below for details.)
Impact: The project’s major impacts and outcomes include (1) Audience growth: After averaging 60 to 80 attendees in Year 1, the storytelling events in Phoenix now draw an average of 250 to 350 attendees — 40 to 60 percent of whom are non-subscribers and about 25 percent of whom are under 40 years old. Across the network, the goal is to have 100-400 attendees per night; about 77 percent of these events sell out. (2) Strong audience satisfaction: About 90 percent of attendees who have completed a post-event survey said they were satisfied. (3) Revenue growth: In 2011, the Phoenix program’s first year, the Republic made $2,000 in net revenue from ticket sales. In Year 3, the project brought in its first sponsor for $110,000.
Organization Background: The USA TODAY NETWORK includes USA TODAY and 109 local media organizations in 34 states. More than 110 million unique visitors access network content each month. The network is owned by Gannett, which is a publicly traded company. The Storytellers Project currently operates in 21 Gannett newsrooms.
Project Resources: This model can be adopted by any newsroom in any town with almost any budget. At Gannett, the project pays for itself in ticket sales, which range from $10-$20. Sponsorships add funding for other newsroom initiatives. (Each newsroom seeks no more than three sponsors. Sponsors are recognized by the emcee at story nights and logos are used in event ads and other materials, but they have no editorial input on themes or tellers.) In terms of staff time, it takes about 60 hours to launch the first night and schedule out the year, and about 20 hours to do each subsequent night. Once you have seven to eight storytellers committed to a night, the coach spends two to six hours working with each participant. These 1-on-1 sessions, typically conducted by phone, allow the teller to share their story with honesty and allows the coach to ask sometimes personal questions in an emotionally safe setting. Some tellers require one individual coaching session, while others require more. All of the event’s storytellers then come together for a group session with dinner or snacks. In Phoenix, they meet at a local restaurant with nachos and practice telling their stories. “That’s the polish,” Finnerty said.
Here’s how it happened
The Storytellers Project launched with one journalist, Megan Finnerty, who pursued it outside of her full-time job as a reporter and editor. Finnerty partnered with two professors from South Mountain Community College Storytelling Institute in Phoenix to learn the art, ethics and logistics of oral storytelling, which differs from journalists’ usual mediums. “It’s unlikely newsrooms will pull this off if they do not educate themselves in the art of oral storytelling, both to know the art and how to teach it to others,” Finnerty said.
Finnerty started focusing on The Storytellers Project full-time in 2016, when the project began expanding across the USA TODAY NETWORK. Currently, Finnerty and two full-time staffers support journalists leading The Storytellers Project in their newsrooms. One staffer helps produce the events and train local storytelling coaches, and the other oversees sales and business development. The goal is for each newsroom to have 2 to 6 journalists trained as storyteller coaches, depending on the newsroom’s size.
Newsrooms in smaller markets host at least one night per quarter, but a monthly or bimonthly rhythm is even better. Phoenix sustained 25 events in 2015.
Here’s what worked
1. Put quality stories as the No. 1 goal and never cut corners.
Unless it’s a real barn burner, each story should be no more than 12 minutes. (Ideally, each is between 8 and 10 minutes). Each night has a theme that 7 or 8 storytellers are instructed to address, either literally or metaphorically. There should be a take-away to each story and it should meet journalistic standards, including that it is true, avoids slander, avoids inappropriate language and is in reasonably good taste. Each teller is identified without use of a pseudonym, and stories are prohibited if the teller has been compensated by a brand or organization. All of this relies on good coaching. (See ‘storyteller suggestions’ attachment for the document shared with tellers at the outset.)
2. Consider your audience and how to serve them.
From the type of the venue to the event’s purpose, consider the needs of the audience. The night must feel familial or familiar, and the venue setup should feel intimate. The evening should have a distinct value proposition that only you or your newsroom can provide, setting it apart from other community events. The evening should have a nut graf – a point that couldn’t be accomplished through other mediums. If you can do in a written story, a Facebook Live or a newsletter what you can do in this night, it’s not a good event. Attendees should walk away feeling more connected to their community. This is not a press conference, an argument or a debate. The evening should not feel tense or super formal. People attend events based on price point, venue proximity and style, topic, timing and duration. Keep each in mind.
3. Know what you are and set direct, measurable goals.
People will ask if a night could be this or that, or tweaked slightly to suit some need. Stand firm that the nights are for authentic, first-person storytelling. And measure the heck out of it to show its value to your bosses. That includes meeting news values, serving and growing satisfied audiences, adding diverse voices to community conversations, covering bills and bringing in extra revenue to support other newsroom initiatives. Post-event surveys can be painful when you put your blood, sweat and tears into a night, but the critiques are necessary to learn and improve. (See the ‘Live Events Planning Questionnaire’ attached.)
Here’s what could have worked better
1. Hire a bigger team sooner.
Running a complex project involves so many people, and we haven’t always had that capacity. In a perfect world, we could’ve hired more people sooner.
2. Figure out sponsorships sooner.
We could’ve aligned the sales staff and event hosts more quickly to better promote sponsorship sales.
Here’s what else you should know
- Community partnerships: The Storytellers Project at times partners with community groups, especially ones that can help create buzz. Partners might be co-emcees, co-promoters, etc. Partnerships can help the project reach new audiences, but they must be politically neutral and align with the newsroom’s public service values.
- Podcasting: The Storytellers Project recently launched a podcast.
- Subscriber benefits: Representatives from the Insider subscriber program are on-hand to pass out swag, sign people up for benefits and educate attendees about subscription perks and deals. Subscribers get discounted tickets to any specialty storytelling nights.
- Everyone has a story: A skilled journalist-coach, paired with a professional storytelling mentor, can train all kinds of people to tell a compelling story, by focusing on the craft of story and not just the charisma of the person.
- Popular topics: Popular events have featured universal themes such as love and heartbreak, family, growing up, life and death, outdoor adventures, food and family, fashion and beauty, immigration and migration, and life in City X.
- Diverse voices: About half of the storytellers at Phoenix events are from non-dominant identities.
- Ticket vendor: The Storytellers Project uses TicketSauce to sell tickets and register for events. Sites such as Brown Paper Tickets provides this at no cost to the event organizer. Ticket-buyers pay a fee.
- Equipment and rentals: Venue rentals range from free to $1,000 or more with capacity for 100-400 people. It may also be necessary to rent or purchase a microphone and PA system, chairs, lights, and a stage.
- Recording/ archiving: In Phoenix, a videographer films the events, and KJZZ, the Phoenix NPR affiliate, pares down audio for broadcast. The audio and video are housed on the project’s website.
- Social media: Each night is documented on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook by staffers and attendees with hashtags relevant to each community.
Carrie Watters is the community editor at the Arizona Republic. She collaborated on this case study with Megan Finnerty, who spearheads The Storytellers Project for the Republic’s parent company, Gannett.