Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Storytelling 101: Community Media Workshop

Ingredients for a good story: a main character, a compelling plot, a conflict, a climax, a resolution.

Today I had the opportunity to attend a panel workshop through Community Media Workshop called “Reframing Stories of the Great Recession,” and I was reminded of some of the lessons I learned as a kid about how to write a story.

This workshop, aimed at nonprofit leaders, included media panelists who discussed ways to approach journalists with stories that reach communities, donors, and clients during these challenging economic times.

As the panelists emphasized and as common experience demonstrates each day, the recession has hit everyone…nonprofits, businesses, the government, families, and yes…even the media. Just as nonprofits are experiencing massive limitations in resources and personnel and just as businesses are struggling to stay afloat, media agencies are cutting back drastically on staff and reporting. One nonprofit leader discussed how she recently sent press releases to a reporter from a small paper only to discover that the reporter did not have access to Microsoft Word.

Clearly, members of both nonprofit and journalism sectors are stretched thin. For nonprofits, it is important to reevaluate strategies for approaching the media during this shifting landscape.

I wanted to share a few of the major points I learned during this informative panel. I know these are important lessons for me to keep in mind when trying to approach the media surrounding our November Conference, the Tutor/Mentor Jam, and volunteer recruitment campaigns. Hopefully, these strategies can also be useful to other programs as they evaluate their approaches to drawing public attention and understanding toward the importance of tutor/mentor programs through the media and through storytelling.

Major Takeaways:

1) Understand who you are pitching a story to: Writers are approached with hundreds of stories each week. They are more likely to respond when someone has researched them and understands how their story fits the reporter’s writing niche or role. Tailor the story to the specific reporter and pose it as “You are the best reporter to cover this story for X reason."

2) Stories need a “main character”: One panelist said that he flags any email with words in the subject line including Fundraiser, Benefit, Anniversary, or Annual Event to go directly into his spam folder. He doesn't want to write about it, and people don’t want to read it. The media wants to sell papers, and that takes compelling stories that tie into larger themes and specific policies. In order to get media attention on an event or fundraiser, approach them with a specific story of an individual that illustrates an issue relevant to the event, then use the story to draw attention to your organization and the events it is holding.

3) Learn to tell ‘conventional stories’ from nontraditional perspectives: As callous as it may seem, people are growing weary of doomsday recession stories about how organizations need more funding. Everyone is hurting right now, and as the media panelist asserted, that is not news that reporters are excited to cover. Journalists will be more likely to pick up stories when they are approached with new takes like how the recession is impacting middle class neighborhoods or other less expected places.

4) “There’s no good news without bad news.” The media is often criticized for harping on bad news, and oftentimes nonprofits are hesitant to bring forward stories with any negativity. The panelists, however, agreed that in order for readers to appreciate what an organization is doing, they must also learn about the problems, needs, and issues—even if the organization hasn’t solved everything quite yet!

5) Make the reporter’s job as easy as possible: As several panelists mentioned, reporters are currently stretched so thin that they often do not have the time to do much more with a story than tweak an original press release. It might sound obvious, but the better a press release, the more likely a story—and even a particular angle you hope to express—will be published.

I hope to incorporate these strategies into my work this coming year as I aim to draw visibility toward tutor/mentor programs throughout Chicago in a manner which motivates people to action.

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