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How The Durango Herald created a storytelling series to connect with its community

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: The Durango Herald created a twice-monthly speaker series to connect with new audiences, existing readers and subscribers. The events focus on a wide variety of topics, and offer a new way to engage with diverse communities.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) to share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole.

This “win” comes from: Claudia Laws and Shane Benjamin of The Durango Herald.

Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

Answer: Up until 2017, The Durango Herald was a daily print newspaper. In April 2017, we reduced print frequency to four days a week. Of course we continue to serve readers daily (hourly!) on our site, but many readers were distressed with the reduction in print. In addition, prior to that time, we had a porous and poorly functioning metered digital subscription model. Basically, it rarely worked; readers very rarely encountered the “paywall” and were often under the impression that we didn’t have a paid digital subscription model. Around the same time we decreased print frequency, we switched subscription vendors to one that actually worked, asking a larger pool of readers to pay. This caused many readers to assume it was new; our communication efforts to readers about changes fell short of expectations.

Further, there was a sense we were disconnected from the community. We needed a way to reach out to them and illustrate that The Herald was still an ever-present and imperative part of Durango and La Plata County.

As a small news organization (we have 14 full-time newsroom positions), major changes can be difficult because of the time and resources involved. We also are a family-owned newspaper which gives us a lot of leverage to try new things, but also means we don’t have the staff or other resources of many corporate chains.

Q: What did you do?

A: As part of the Poynter Table Stakes program, we launched Durango Diaries, a storytelling series held twice a month. The free event features three to five speakers who each have 10 minutes to tell their stories on that week’s topic. After all storytellers share, we open the discussion up to questions from the audience. The speakers are chosen by the news team and invited because of their unique perspectives on the topic at hand.

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

A: Table Stakes #1: Serve targeted audiences with targeted content. Each episode of Durango Diaries features a different topic, such as Native American traditions, craft brewing, skiing in the San Juan Mountains and ways for parents to address marijuana use in a state where the drug is legal. As a result, both loyal and new audiences turn out each time.

Table Stakes 4, funnel occasional users to habitual, valuable and paying loyalists. Durango Diaries provides our audiences with added value – something more than our usual online and print products. It allows people to connect with us on a personal level, see us face-to-face, and know that we are a part of their community. This buys goodwill and, we hope, boosts loyalty with our readers. In addition, we have team members at the event from sales, editorial and circulation. No matter the question, concern or compliment, we have a staff member on hand to connect.

Table Stakes 5, diversify and grow the ways you earn revenue from the audiences you build. At Durango Diaries, we have a circulation representative who can answer questions and sell subscriptions to our print and online products (averaging one new start at each event) and we collect email addresses (averaging 15 new signups per event) for our newsletters and breaking news alerts. We’ve considered charging a small fee to attend the speaker series, but mostly the goal is to retain, build upon and connect with our base.

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: We tossed around and tried a number of test events: partnering with the Colorado Press Association on a news and brews event, partnering with the library on how to identify fake news event and while successful, the events had less focus on the Herald and connecting with our residents and local issues. So we opted to host our own intimate events. For our first event, we focused on why people live here with local speakers addressing the past, present and future of Durango. We staffed the event with our core Poynter team (the four team members who attended the Poynter Table Stakes program), a mini-publisher and a staff member from circulation, ensuring that we could assist anyone with any newspaper-related comment they might have. We also focused on a wide variety of topics, from immigration to a local yearly festival, identifying people and stories the community would want to hear, but stories that differed from what we run in print.

Q: What worked?

A: One of our initiatives was to connect face to face with at least 800 residents over a year. We were able to meet with 650 people in four months. We also heard directly from residents who were appreciative of our efforts to connect with them and give them something special, beyond what we already provide.

But one of the biggest wins for us was the makeup of the audience. Sometimes it was our typical print readers, but at two events, the majority of the audience members didn’t read the newspaper, those were rather small audiences, but were among our biggest wins as we connected one-on-one with people unfamiliar with our brand. One session — on guiding teens in a state where marijuana is legal — connected us with teenagers and their typically millenial-aged parents. Our history of skiing session brought in an audience ages 13 to 80.

How do we know people were engaged? Someone once said engagement is “like love — pretty darn difficult to measure.” But we typically had at least five staff members at each event, talking to a number of audience members. We aren’t a big city and we aren’t aiming to have thousands of people at these events; 175 attendees maxed us out at our biggest session. So they’re intimate. Our team interacts with the audience members. And, the best part about that? We got to hear from attendees: “The Herald is out in the public more.” “We’re seeing you more often.” “This is a great event. We’re so pleased to have the Herald putting these on.”

We’ve learned that our readers and subscribers are incredibly connected to what we do. They are cheering for us in all circumstances and they are so pleased to see us out in the community. It’s easy sitting behind a desk and only note the online trolls or those who are upset by a story, but to interact with our readers, to see the passion they have for what we do, is truly inspiring.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: We hemmed and hawed too much, waiting way too long to begin. We should have jumped in earlier. Also, audiences vary greatly: one event had 24 attendees, another had 177. Accounting for that shift in audience can be challenging, though the event with only 24 attendees were nearly all non-newspaper subscribers, allowing us to connect with a new audience in a new way. Via sponsorships, the program has broken even financially in its first season, but we have not yet found a perfect balance to leverage the events to grow revenue.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: Community members approached us directly to say they liked what we were doing; that we were making an effort to connect with the community and add value to what we were already providing. The buy-in from speakers has also been surprising. People have approached us asking if they could share their stories at Durango Diaries, and the speakers who have been selected have treated it seriously and put in a lot of effort as well as thanking us for giving them the opportunity to share their stories. Also, the buy-in internally has been exciting. Staffers who rarely go the extra mile are interested in assisting with the events and attend them.

Q: What would you do differently now? 

A: We’re working to get the topics and speakers planned out further in advance. Due to resources and timing, we weren’t able to plan as far ahead as we would like and we missed out on some promotional opportunities due to that.

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

A: Don’t overthink it; just get started. Be aggressive, but realistic with what you’re able to achieve. Something like this is easy to overthink and over-plan. We were aggressive by hosting two episodes each month, but it gave us the training wheels we needed to learn how to do it and be successful.

Q: Anything else you want to share about this initiative?

A: We are such a small team — the smallest paper in this round of the Poynter Local News Innovation Program. We are all incredibly busy and it was daunting to take on new things, new roles and new tasks. But we just plain did it. We all pitched in and the excitement for Durango Diaries has grown exponentially both within our company and outside of it. The Poynter program and the resulting initiatives at our enterprise have been a lot of work, but the payoff has been incredibly gratifying.