As a video journalist at The Washington Post, Jennifer Crandall developed a series of narrative video portraits spotlighting ordinary people and the parts of their lives that others would find fascinating. The project, called onBeing, was nominated for an Emmy Award and captivated Post web readers, who enjoyed hearing about the quirks and musings of ordinary people living interesting lives.
Crandall says the project helped break down walls of traditional thinking in journalism and taught her that she was comfortable taking risks and trying out ideas that had never been proven out before.
She says she’ll be thinking of onBeing as she embarks on a new year-long project, not yet named, which will be set entirely in the state of Alabama, where Crandall was just named an Artist-in-Residence for the Alabama Media Group.
“As far as I’m am aware, there hasn’t ever been [an Artist-in-Residence] in a newsroom before,” she says. “I will be taking advantage of the most rare of opportunities in journalism…the time and space to toy with both new ideas and new processes.”
The idea for a newsroom artist-in-residency came from Michelle Holmes, the vice president of content at the Alabama Media Group and a self-described “crazy advocate” for Alabama who says she fell in love with many of its cities after moving there in 2013.
“The idea of an artist-in-residency allows us to make more space to say ‘What can we be doing as journalists?’” says Holmes. “A lot of the talk in innovation is around tools. But I kept thinking, ‘What if we could create an artist-in-residence program where we made space for people to come in and think about new ways to connect with an audience and new ways to find stories?’”
Crandall is one of three journalists and artists who will be brought in to the Alabama Media Group to help develop opportunities for conversations around ideas in Alabama. Her project will lead her to all corners of the state, connecting with Alabamians of all stripes, including those who no longer reside there.
“Alabamians are fascinating folks — from the unknown to the notable that not many people know are from here,” she says, pointing to Tim Cook and Condoleeza Rice as examples. “[I will be] traveling through Alabama, letting curiosity and relationships take me where they will.”
Crandall also plans to incorporate an as-yet-unnamed classic American literary text into the project as a framework, though she doesn’t yet know how she’ll fill the frame.
“Having art as a framework is a reminder to think less about rules, to work outside normal news constraints and the traditional viewpoints of what journalism must be,” she says. “It’s allowing for the fact that there are so many ways to tell non-fiction stories.”
That’s exactly what Holmes had in mind when she decided to create the artist-in-residency program.
“Commissioning of work is not how we traditionally thought of things in journalism,” she says. “I hope we do something here that’s worthwhile for other companies in journalism to look at.”
Finding lost stories in the photography archives
The artist-in-residency program is not the only innovative project Holmes has championed during her time in Alabama. Her newsroom is also working on an archival series called Lost Stories, which is a partnership between the University of Alabama journalism department and the Alabama Media Group. Students taking the class, taught by Birmingham writer Chip Brantley, are currently combing through The Birmingham News’ photo archives and trying to tell the stories behind them.
The idea to revisit the people in the archival photographs came from Elizabeth Hoekenga, Alabama Media Group’s director of audience innovation, after a conversation with Brantley.
“He was looking through our archives for photos related to another project when he stumbled upon a photo of his grandfather from the 1950s,” she says. “That sparked a conversation about how cool it would be to let more people from the community spend time with our archives.”
The students in Brantley’s class are tackling a very specific archive — photos from a 1995 Grateful Dead concert held in Birmingham. (The students picked the archive and then asked AL.com’s Facebook readers for help in tracking down the people in the photos.) Though it might seem less newsworthy than say, a photograph of a historic moment, it resonates with readers, says Hoekenga.
“It was really important for me to find photographs and stories that readers could interact with and would want to share,” she says. “It’s all about nostalgia.”
Hoekenga offers some advice for other newsrooms that may want to run similar projects with their archives. “Spend time exploring your archives without a specific story or topic in mind,” she says. “Involve people in the process who will bring a fresh perspective — students, freelancers, interns, new employees — and let them work alongside people who have deep knowledge of the archives. And keep a record of all of the content you’ve reused so you won’t forget about it again.”
Hoekenga says she’s already planning to reshare the Grateful Dead concert material during upcoming planned reunion shows this summer and on the anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death.
“If you challenge your followers to help find someone in a photo, many of them will,” she says. “I hope to see more legacy organizations recognizing archives as another powerful tool in their toolbox. There’s no question that our readers are interested!”
The Red Clay Readers
I want to highlight one more project the Alabama Media Group is running to engage its audience because it’s also easy, cheap and easily replicable in other markets. They occasionally run a state-wide book group for anyone interested in learning about a classic Alabama text with other readers.
The idea stemmed from inside their newsroom, where people started kicking around the idea of a newsroom-wide book club.
“It didn’t take long to realize that …we could include our readers and offer up a new and dynamic feature,” says Jessica Sawyer, the news manager for Alabama Media Group’s Mobile division.
AL.com picked To Kill a Mockingbird for the first book, and prepared chapter reviews, features, opinion pieces and videos for each chapter of the book. They also ran a live chat with 88 high school students from around the state.
“We published 51 stories related to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’” says Sawyer, a native of Monroeville, the town where Harper Lee was born. “Since that initial book club, we have completed two other projects, a summer book group that looks at four Alabama-authored books made into movies….and an October book club that examined “One Mississippi” by Mark Childress.”
The program measured its success through engagement and encouraged readers to sign up for a twice-weekly mailing list.
“Through that tool we were able to get hundreds of people signed up and participating, not only for the book club, but for commenting on all stories posted on our site,” says Sawyer.
And the book club has plans to grow beyond Alabama’s borders.
“There’s a huge opportunity, through the book club, to have an international audience and a national audience,” says Holmes. “It’s really exciting that we have this book club to test out and try stuff. It’s served as a prototype for where we can dive deeper and serve our audience better.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Jessica Sawyer as the news manager for Alabama Media Group’s mobile division. She’s actually the news manager for Alabama Media Group’s Mobile (Alabama) division.