September 15, 2015
The audience watches the 125th anniversary of The Arizona Republic "Stories About Stories" Storytellers event at Phoenix Theatre on Monday, May 18, 2015. (Photo by Michael Schennum/Arizona Republic)

The audience watches the 125th anniversary of the Arizona Republic “Stories About Stories” Storytellers event at Phoenix Theatre on Monday, May 18, 2015. (Photo by Michael Schennum/Arizona Republic)

Next week at the Online News Association’s annual conference, a group of journalists from nine Gannett newspapers will spend a few hours learning how to workshop a story before trying a bit of live storytelling. Their coach? Someone who has worked through the process with hundreds of people during the past four years — the Arizona Republic’s Megan Finnerty.

Gannett has chosen nine newspapers to build their own versions of Finnerty’s Arizona Storytellers Project, which brings together journalists and the community regularly for a night of live storytelling.

Like other news organizations, Gannett is increasing its focus on live events and working on scaling them from one market to another. Elsewhere, The Atlantic added Margaret Low Smith, previously NPR’s senior vice president of news, to run its live events. Washington Post Live hosts events for The Washington Post and POLITICO has POLITICO Events.

The papers taking up Gannett’s storytelling project are:

— The (Palm Springs, California) Desert Sun

— The (Fort Collins) Coloradoan

— The Greenville (South Carolina) News

— Lansing (Michigan) State Journal

— The (Louisville, Kentucky) Courier-Journal

— The Indianapolis (Indiana) Star

— The Des Moines (Iowa) Register

— Cincinnati (Ohio) Enquirer

— The (Nashville) Tennessean

Recently, Finnerty spoke with about 40 people in a conference call introducing the idea, “and I was like, listen, you don’t want Phoenix’s weather, and you don’t want our storytelling nights. You just want our best practices.”

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Arizona Storytellers Project started in 2011 and has held monthly nights of storytelling since, drawing hundreds of people each month. In 2012, the series won a National Headliner Award for Journalistic Innovation. And it’s reaching a younger market, which is the holy grail for most news organizations, Finnerty said. In Phoenix, the demographic each month averages 40 percent under 40.

“The series is dedicated to the idea that oral storytelling and journalism are dedicated to the same goals: serving and reflecting a community while fostering empathy among those people,” Finnerty wrote in a description about the series. “These nights blend the authenticity and hype-free discipline of storytelling as an art form with the truthfulness, community-building and empowerment that’s at the heart of great journalism.”

During the past year and a half, Gannett has recognized the importance of engagement as a way to connect with the community and reach new groups, said Liz Nelson, director of strategic consumer engagement at Gannett.

“We know, for instance, that Millennials and Gen Xers are very big consumers of experiential content,” she said.

They might not subscribe to a community’s newspaper, but they just might come to an event.

“Everyone at Gannett is a huge fan of what Megan has done and what the Arizona Republic has done in Phoenix with the Storytellers Project,” Nelson said. “It’s really unparalleled.”

Finnerty has started working with the people involved in each market during weekly conference calls. They’ll meet at ONA to workshop and present. Then, each newspaper will roll out three storytelling events by the end of next March. It’s important, both Nelson and Finnerty agreed, to try something more than once and really get the feel for how it works. Like in Phoenix, each event will be named after the city or state where it’s happening.

Gannett isn’t just taking the idea to nine other papers, but also the revenue it can bring. It’s working with one ticketing company across each market. But ticket sales don’t generate much revenue, Nelson said.

“We’re really are looking to make money off sponsorships.”

In Phoenix, a recent presenting sponsorship brought in more than $100,000 in revenue, Finnerty said. Advertisers want something new, Nelson said, and they want a way to engage with a younger demographic. The storytelling nights offer both.

Arizona Republic reporter Bob Ortega tells a story during the 125th anniversary of the Arizona Republic "Stories About Stories" Storytellers event at Phoenix Theatre on Monday, May 18, 2015. (Photo by Michael Schennum/Arizona Republic)

Arizona Republic reporter Bob Ortega tells a story during the 125th anniversary of The Arizona Republic “Stories About Stories” Storytellers event at Phoenix Theatre on Monday, May 18, 2015. (Photo by Michael Schennum/Arizona Republic)

The closest The Desert Sun has gotten to a storytelling night came from reporter Bruce Fessier in an event that was part of the paper’s Gangsters in Paradise series.

“Besides the throwback print covers, videos and stories in the series, the event is an example of how we’re approaching audiences on all platforms – it’s experiential storytelling,” said Sarah Day Owen, consumer experience director at the newspaper, in an email.

That event was planned by Owen’s predecessor, Nelson, and “it represented the beginning of a lot of experiential journalism.”

Some other examples:

— A pop-up art walk with live demonstrations.

— Back Story, which creates experiences around content for Desert magazine, including inviting people along for a hike.

— For hunger action month, the paper invited people along to bag food at a food bank.

“This is what we do now – whether it’s partnering with an organization to moderate a forum to creating an event ourselves around our journalism,” Owen said. “It’s part of our newsroom culture.”

Both Nelson and Finnerty recognize that the storytelling nights won’t be the same from city to city — what works in Phoenix may not work in Palm Springs. It’s up to each newspaper to figure out how the storytelling best fits them. Cincinnati, for instance, which has held storytelling nights already, closely aligns the themes of those nights with the paper’s investigative and enterprise work. In Phoenix, the themes have stood on their own.

“I want them to make their own mistakes in their own markets,” Finnerty said. “I just don’t want them to have to do all the math that we’ve been doing in Phoenix for four years.”

That includes how to build collaboration with marketing and advertising from the start, she added, and how to survey the audience after the event to collect data on how it went.

Gannett is like every other media organization out there, Nelson said, “especially legacy media organizations, trying to figure out how we’re going to spend the next 100 years contributing to our communities like we have for the past 100 years.”

Editor’s note: The author is on a panel with the Arizona Republic’s Megan Finnerty at the Online News Association’s annual conference next week.

Correction: On second reference, Sarah Day Owen is Owen. Also, an earlier version of this story put Greenville in North Carolina. The Gannett paper is in South Carolina. It has been corrected.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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