Gannett takes Arizona Storytellers Project nationwide

By Maria Lopez

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Wei-Huan Chen kicks off the evening’s IndyStar Storytellers event, Indy Reads Books, Indianapolis, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. (Photo Courtesy: Robert Scheer/IndyStar)

Innovation in journalism is often tied to new technology that gives the community access to more, but the Arizona Storytellers Projectwhich fostered the tradition of oral storytelling through in-person events, has now been replicated in nine different markets.

Gannett has launched the program in nine of its newsrooms: The Desert Sun, The Coloradoan, The Greenville News, The Lansing State Journal, The Courier-Journal, The Indianapolis Star, The Des Moines Register, The Cincinnati Enquire and The Tennessean.

The IndyStar Storytellers debuted Feb.11, and sold out in five days. A crowd of 85 gathered at Indy Reads Books, a bookshop in Indianapolis, to hear eight people share stories about near-death experiences.

“There’s a hunger for these type of events,” founder of IndyStar Storytellers, Wei-Huan Chen said. “Our social media is being bombarded.”

There are storytelling organizations in Indiana that have been open for 20 to 30 years that do not offer events to the degree and style that the storytellers project does, Chen said.

Megan Finnerty, national coordinator and founder of the Arizona Storytellers Project, said everyone has a story that is equal and valid. Storytelling is not reserved for “white guys who finished college,” she said.

Finnerty said the live journalism experiment is “working for blind spots” of age and demographics and producing pro-social content that has meaning to everyone in the room.

Alexandra Smith, content strategist at The Coloradoan, said participating speakers enjoy the structure and criticism to craft their stories.

Intimately intricate stories, much like well-written journalism, become polished so everyone can digest and understand them. That type of coordinated environment can’t always be promised in an open mic night.

The Coloradoan has a much smaller market than Phoenix and Indianapolis, but its first event was free of charge at a coffee shop with an attendance of 35 in 2015. The second event had an attendance of 45 and attendees were then willing to pay.

The newsroom’s quarterly event this month will have a theme of “What does home mean to you?”

“It will take place in the basement of beautiful model home with couches for a relaxed bar setting and cozy experience,” Smith said.

Smith said The Coloradoan sends a survey for feedback after every event and has discovered that most of attendees are not subscribers of the news site, so the organization is reaching a new following.

Not only are these events another source of revenue for newsrooms through advertising and sponsorships, but reporters are also giving back. Mentors dedicate three to seven hours of coaching and editing with featured speakers.

Finnerty said the project is getting a lot of support from Gannett, and she was traveling this week to discuss plans of expanding this “space for non-dominant narrative to be shared.”

The storytellers project is scheduled to have 65 events nationwide in 2016.

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