Local Edition: How to create events with your community, not for them
Welcome to our third week talking about holding events. Last week, we spoke with a number of people, from the Texas Tribune to Gannett to Honolulu Civil Beat to Spirited Media, who answered your questions about holding events. Before that, KPCC's Jon Cohn stressed the need for strategy. This week, we learn how one newsroom has grown a storytelling project into a series of events by, for and about their communities.
This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can sign up here.
Here are the notes I hurriedly clacked out a few months ago that led to this week’s conversation:
FOLLOW UP ON THIS
Frank by WDET photographer and producer tells story of community
After they finish, release in an art gallery in the community, take and move to a suburban community
ALL EVENTS HAVE FOOD AND MUSIC COMPONENT
DEER JERkey for gun
A few years ago, Melody Kramer wrote a piece for Poynter about a partnership between a photojournalist and a digital specialist at Detroit’s WDET. The two worked together to tell the story of a community dress shop. The images and the audio later went on display in that community.
I had totally forgotten that story when WDET’s Candice Fortman spoke about her work late last year at a gathering by the Lenfest Institute in Philadelphia and I wrote myself that sloppy note.
Last week, I spoke with Fortman, marketing and engagement manager, and her colleague, Courtney Hurtt, Associate Director of Product Development & Business Operations, about the project Kramer first reported on, (it’s called “Framed By WDET,” not “Frank By WDET.” But the hummus bit was legit.)
We talked about the series, what they’ve learned since “Framed by WDET” began and how their events impact their journalism.
Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Courtney, will you go back and give us a sense of how this series started?
Hurtt: It ultimately came out of the relationship that Kenny Karpov has had with the station. He’s a documentary photographer. He just came in one day and said, instead of just taking an assignment, I’d really love to craft a story as a photographer with a reporter. At that time, I had just started as a studio specialist, and we worked together to tell the story of Hamtramck's dress shop. Melody Kramer’s story is about that.
What’s happened since then, both with your job and the series?
Hurtt: The series itself, at that point moving forward, was grant-funded to do eight over the next two years, which just ended last year. Throughout that time, we’ve repeated the pairing of photographer and storyteller ... and we’ve captured the story in total of 10 different communities that live throughout southeast Michigan. It’s as diverse as John’s Carpet House, which is a speakeasy. The demographic there is longtime residents of the city. They’re older. All the way to lowriders in southwest Detroit. All the way to young boxers. We’ve done gun ranges in McComb County. There’s a diversity of all the people that represent Detroit.
In terms of my role, instead of telling the story, we’ve brought on storytellers and journalists. Some work at WDET as reporters, and others who just had such intimate relationships with their communities, we brought them on to tell the story.
One thing that I think is cool about this series is that it’s visual and audio storytelling, and people go into this physical space, either in that community or outside of it, so it becomes an event. Candice, tell us about that piece of it. You’re essentially putting on an art show with every one of these, right?
Fortman: Yes, Courtney has become quite the art curator. The concept is that for every exhibit that opens, it will open in a space that speaks to the nature of the community first. So for instance, if you think about the dance community, it opens at a live bar that plays a lot of house music, that has identified itself with that community very naturally. But then that same piece will move to a place that’s outside of that community, so maybe that means outside being a suburban community, or outside meaning that it looks different based on race or gender or economics.
You had a grant from the Knight Foundation for those two years, (disclosure: Knight funds my coverage of local news and is a funder of Poynter,) but talk to us about the ins and outs of how this worked financially. Was this something that made WDET money? How did you view the revenue part of this?
Hurtt: A huge chunk of the funding did come from grants, so Knight Foundation was an Arts Challenge matching grant. The unique aspect of that was that it’s arts money versus journalism money or engagement money. The unique aspect was that it leveraged those grants, and we paired the Knight grant with a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.
We did have underwriting sponsorship attached to three of the series, and we also took donations from our major donors and attendees. But a huge portion of that definitely did come from grants. And we’re actually working on a project now, in our fifth year, bringing the stories back to life in a combined show. The whole project is based on its ability to be self-sustaining financially.
What does that look like?
Hurtt: Well that’s what we’re going to explore. It might look like doing a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign and then shaping that as our membership strategy or shaping that as our underwriting strategy based on the different levels of funding. It might look like ticketed events, having an early preview with major donors. It might look like capturing value in ways that are not monetary, like community members who volunteer or spread the word on our behalf. It might look like dealing with small businesses we work with and putting on these series in the galleries that we work with and them becoming new underwriting leads.
We don’t know. The whole year is dedicated to approaching this in a more sustainable way.
Courtney, before you did this, had you ever held an event before? How do you, now several years later, think about the process?
Hurtt: No. And that’s why Candice was hired. (She laughs.) I was hired maybe six months before Candice was brought in, and that’s when the station really started bringing in a lot of events. To be honest, a lot of the work, I’m project managing it, but it’s a huge team effort to put these things on.
Fortman: I’m fortunate enough to have someone on my staff, who’s part-time, but part of her job is to help coordinate events. She has been really integral in working with Courtney on this project and making sure that things like food have been ordered, and like, how are we going to get tables to the event if the venue doesn’t have tables. Sort of the logistics that people don’t like to think of about, but if you don’t think about them, you don’t have an event. If you don’t think about them well in advance.
She has the heavy lifting job of having to make sure those details are worked out. For every event, the catering is different because the catering speaks to the community that the piece is about. So we had kids at a boxing gym, the food was stuff that appeals to kids. It was gummy bears and Chex Mix and that sort of thing so they felt comfortable being in this art event. But it was still for them.
When we did "Hummus in the Heartland," it was hummus.
Tell us about "Hummus in the Heartland." I remember we talked about this in Philly and, as a hummus fan, I was very interested to hear more.
Fortman: We are very fortunate to live in a region that has a very rich Middle Eastern population. And hummus in those communities means something different; it might change a bit depending on who’s making it. So this was a celebration of those differences and similarities. And it was a delicious difference.
Hurtt: It was delicious. It also ended up becoming an interfaith narrative, when you have people from Muslim backgrounds, people who are Jewish, people who are Christian who all share this dish and their families and their heritage.
We have a hummus manufacturer here that began in Highland Park, which is nearby Detroit, and they were a part of the series. So we had entrepreneurship and small businesses, restaurant entrepreneurs, those stories came through as well as families who have these secret recipes.
Fortman: So very easily out of just that one series, you can pull all these stories out. There’s a story about religion, faith, community and family, but also about immigration. The great opportunity in that is that then our news and editorial team can take those stories and start to build off of them.
How has “Framed By” changed over time?
Hurtt: It’s just become more refined. And it’s become more templated. When we first did it, it was like, oh my gosh, how do we get this work installed? Who do you go to to print photos? Oh, we have them, but we forgot to hire someone to put them on the wall.
One thing that WDET does well is we have relationships. For us to call a gallery owner is not a big deal. But the logistics of what it means to put on an exhibition is not a specialty of a radio station. We had to do a little backtracking and do some meetings with art installers and other artists to see how they put on their shows.
The audio installation is another challenge. Now we’ve got the pictures on the wall, how do people hear the stories?
Fortman: And what is the actual tech behind that? Courtney spent a lot of time dealing with what the headphones would be. Are they wired? Are they wireless? If they’re wireless, who’s going to charge them?
There are these pieces that you could not have — well you could have anticipated it maybe, if you worked in that field — but if you don’t, you just couldn’t have anticipated it. I think Courtney is really, really, really good at evaluation. I think going back and looking at what you’ve done and how it informs how you move forward has been a big piece.
Hurtt: I will tell you, at the fifth one, I was like, alright, maybe it’s time to wrap this up. It’s a lot of work. It’s like a whole other nonprofit we’re running. But then when we got to the seventh one, everybody knew their place, everybody knew what to expect, and it became much more streamlined.
In hindsight, there are ways it could be adapted and simplified without the pressure of the grant deliverables. But the heart of the project has never changed. It always was two storytellers, one of them was a part of that community or is very intimate with an existing community. They go tell that story. And they actually would advise us, in some instances, on where to have it, who should cater, etc.
It really taught us how to build relationships in a way where people that are in the community are part of the process and planning.
With the lowriders, the cars, they have these beautiful Impalas and Cadillacs. And we had an event at a church on the Mexican side of town. They actually were able to have the riders come park their cars out during the series because the location where they were was just down the street from them, and they liked the guy who catered. Things that just become impossible, for us to get these lowriders to bring their cars to WDET, are impossible unless you’re leveraging those relationships while you’re actually planning the event.
Courtney, what do you wish that you’d known early on that you know now?
Hurtt: A lot of things. I wish I would have known how better to build this within the confines of what we do on a day-to-day basis. Start from there, versus taking these ideas that are on the periphery and trying to force them in.
We produce features. We produce radio content. We produce digital stories. That’s what we do. We don’t produce photo exhibits. Trying to figure out a way to start inward out versus outward in so those lessons become embedded into our day to day, and not just on the periphery of whichever partner we’re working with at the time.
That’s the biggest lesson this project has taught us, and it actually comes up in conversation while we’re planning new projects. These are all great ideas, but how do we start at home first so we can sustain it and do it in a way that multiple staff members can be involved versus a passion project on the outskirts of our reporting.
Candice, do you have advice for other newsrooms that want to hold events but haven’t started yet?
Fortman: I think that you have to scale for where you are. But don’t be afraid to push yourself. I hope those two things make sense at the same time. We work with a limited staff, limited resources, like any other newsroom, and so you get scared. Like, that’s not what we do. Start really, really small. Try something out and build on those projects until you have something that works with your community goals or your editorial goals or your fundraising goals.
I definitely think there shouldn’t be newsrooms that aren’t doing events. Your consumers want to hear from you. They want to see your faces. They want to be a part of what you produce.
Thank you both for your time and insights. There’s so much here, I want to quickly break down a few lessons.
– Like Courtney said, start with events that are close to what you do and expand out.
– Like Candice said, push yourself.
– Working with the community, not at them, opens doors, builds authenticity, uncovers stories and sources that go beyond the event itself.
– You've got to think about the small stuff. All the small stuff. But you can also start to template that thinking so it’s a process.
– Look for opportunities such as grant funding and partnerships that create a kind of incubator atmosphere, giving your newsroom time to test ideas and get them right before making them sustainable.
Next week, we’re going to talk to someone who’s not a journalist. I’m looking for great ideas on this one. I may start calling wedding chapels in Vegas, but if you know of someone who isn’t a journalist and can talk with us about events, let me know!
In the meantime, I’m going to be at the alt-weeklies’ digital conference in Portland, Oregon, on Thursday and Friday. If you’re there, say hi! Nieman Lab’s Josh Benton has a clear-eyed look at the Boston Herald’s new owner. Community Information Cooperative is raising money to build community information districts. And check out this Webinar from Poynter’s News U with the Tampa Bay Times’ Lane DeGregory on the art of the interview.
See you next week!