Photo by Kasia Podbielski/NPR
NPR’s Local Stories Project officially launched on Wednesday with a Tumblr homepage and a Twitter account. But the idea of sharing local stories with a bigger audience actually started a few years ago.
“The project itself has kind of been churning and gradually expanding since it began as a really tiny experiment in 2011,” said Eric Athas, senior digital news specialist, in a phone interview. Athas works at NPR Digital Services on the editorial coaching and development team.
That experiment started in 2011 with KPLU in Seattle. Athas and his team took stories from the station and shared them through NPR’s Facebook page, geotargeting them to people in the Seattle area.
“What we found is that the stories that we targeted did really well,” he said. “They resulted in record traffic to KPLU’s website.”
They were also widely shared, Athas said, and the stories generated lots of comments. As the experiment grew, they started looking at the stories that got shared and developed internal tools to help local stations think through their pitches, polish and edit. NPR now targets posts from 36 stations.
“They’re a really specific type of story. It’s a story that’s unique, it’s interesting, stories that the local community cares about and stories that they’ll react to,” Athas said. “In curating these really unique local stories that are rooted and created by people at these stations, we discovered that many of these stories would be really interesting or relevant to a broader national audience.”
The stories are created, or tailored, for a digital audience, Athas said. And as the project ramped up, he and Teresa Gorman gathered the most successful, looked at the data from the stories and started labeling them. They found some similarities that, eventually, led to a framework of nine categories. He and Gorman wrote about their framework for Nieman Journalism Lab in 2012.
Graphic by Russ Gossett
Here’s more on the framework of nine stories Athas, Gorman and Ki Sung have found work best and will be featured on NPR’s Local Stories Project. (They’re not the only kind, Athas added, but they do offer a guide for what they’ve found works.)
1. Place explainers: “Every city has mysteries or traditions or things that eveveryone who lives there knows about but rarely do people stop and ask why or how,” Athas said. “Place explainers take those things and simply explain them. They turn them around and tell people, here’s why we are the way we are.”
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2. Crowd pleasers: These include positive stories about a city, state or region, Athas said. Maybe it’s a sports championship, or when that city, state or region is ranked. “It’s something that gives people the opportunity to brag about their hometown.”
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3. Curiosity stimulators: “These are just the weird, quirky, often times science or technology stories,” Athas said. “When you see them, you feel like it’s something you’ve never see before and you’re discovering something new.”
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4. News explainers: These stories take hard news stories and help make sense of them, Athas said. “It’s something that public radio has done really well in the past, providing clarity and explanation.”
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5. Major breaking news: These are stories that impact an entire city, often weather events. These are “Stories that are so big that everything else kind of gets put aside.”
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6. Feel-good smilers: These stories make people smile, Athas said. “The bat kid story in San Francisco is a perfect example.”
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7. Topical buzzers: When every one is talking about something that’s happening locally, it fits here.
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8. Provocative controversies: These stories are about topics that people have strong opinions on.
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9. Awe-inspiring visuals: This one is kind of self-explanatory.
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Often stories overlap in the framework, Athas said, but since creating the graphic of the framework in 2012, “we’ve used it regularly, training and coaching with NPR journalists and stations as a way to think differently about stories they’re telling.”
What’s exciting, he said, is seeing the collaboration between NPR and the 36 stations involved.
“The stations are the ones that know their local communities and they’re the ones creating stories. We’re working with them to refine them and make them work as best as possible and to get them to as many people as possible.”