July 24, 2017

Megan Finnerty started a live storytelling event in Phoenix for the Gannett-owned Arizona Republic six years ago. The initial concept was simple: produce live performances in front of ticketed audiences.

Since then, that show has grown into a company-wide initiative called “The Storyteller’s Project” that has taken off across the country, Finnerty said.

  • It’s spread from The Arizona Republic to 21 cities in Gannett’s USA Today Network, with another seven or eight interested in launching their own projects.
  • Newsrooms in their second years with the project are making a profit with sponsorships.
  • On average, half of the people in the audience aren’t print subscribers, and half fit the demographics that those newsrooms want to grow — people under 50.
  • Last year, a total of 19,000 tickets were sold, 460 people told stories and 77 percent of storytelling nights were sold out.
  • And with the launch of the Storytellers Brand Studio, the storytellers’ concept has become a product that’s starting to make money by offering coaching and custom live events to the public.

Storytellers take narratives from their communities and put them on stage, bringing stories from the newsroom and community to audiences through live events.

It takes about a year for each new storytellers project to prove itself as something worth sponsoring, Finnerty said. Ticket sales cover the cost of the events and sometimes even bring in a little money, she said, noting that The Arizona Republic earned $20,000 in ticket sales after costs one year.

“But that’s not keeping anybody’s lights on,” Finnerty said.

The focus is following the process she figured out in Phoenix — establishing the event, then reaching out to civic groups that want to sponsor events that impact the community.

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Last year, Finnerty wrote a 10-page business plan that explained how the Storytellers Project concept could be turned into a money-making product. Two weeks after pitching it, she was hired to launch the Storytellers Brand Studio for Gannett.

Finnerty now reports jointly to Gannett’s editorial and marketing departments, and the studio sells the process of live storytelling to people, organizations and communities. Here’s how the studio’s work is described online:

The best way to authentically reach your audience is to tell them your story, or better yet, let them share their story about you. Our custom events unlock meaningful and memorable stories to connect people with the work you do and the principles you stand for. When people share their stories, they feel more willing to invest their time, resources and talent.

Our team will work with you to develop a program and event that illuminates your brand and your message from theme and emcee selection, to venues and story coaching and pacing.

So far, the studio has made enough money to cover Finnerty’s salary, and she’s started working with a consultant to figure out where there’s room to grow. She didn’t share exact numbers but said that the concept has “made some money.” “It’s not embarrassing,” she said.

Having time to try, fail, and try again has been crucial to creating a template for other newsrooms to launch projects of their own, she said.

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“I was left alone to learn for a long time,” Finnerty said. “If somebody had pushed me and been like, ‘monetize this shit,’ I would have fallen on my face 100 times.”

She now hears from people across Gannett who have ideas they’re eager to grow and spread. Her advice to them: Wait as long as you can and figure out as much as you can before pitching. And write everything down — what works, what doesn’t and why.

And her advice to the higher-ups: Look around the newsrooms. There are people who have good ideas waiting for a shot. Gannett has innovation competitions, but the project wouldn’t have come from one of those, she said.

“Something like this, and the time to experiment with it and let it grow organically, only comes with time and encouragement,” she said. “Creating a way for people to shave 10 hours a month, or even a few hours a week off to work on a passion project or a big package or a big article or something, that creates shifts, too. But it’s not splashy or glamorous. It’s just small, and one little step and the next, until it’s something not-so-small.”

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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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