When I first learned the business of storytelling at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, my professor Marcia Froelke Coburn told us about an editor who would skim through an article, roll his eyes dramatically, and groan, “Get me out of here!”
Coburn, who wrote profiles of big personalities like the Chicago Bulls’ Scottie Pippen, was trying to make a point: If you don’t make clear why your reader should care about your story, your story won’t matter. She was teaching the fundamentals of what journalists call the “nut graf”: Essential for every article, the nut graf is both the thesis statement and the journalist’s best attempt to explain why the story matters. Often, the nut graf follows a heart-tugging vignette and hits the reader with a barrage of data showing that the story in the lead is a common tale. This is happening at a large scale, the journalist is saying. It matters.
When I started my freelance editorial and communications business, I decided on a mission that speaks to what I do: Create stories that matter. For most of my career, I have created stories focused on sustainable business and corporate responsibility, social and environmental progress, health and wellness, and travel and outdoor adventure. These are stories that matter to me.
But why do they matter to me, and what makes a story matter to others? With respect to Coburn, her editor, and the prized nut graf, I believe that if we more clearly define what makes a story matter, we can write more of them, more effectively, and engage more people—which will ultimately inspire more positive change in the world. So I will try to craft a better definition here.
Love, Hate, Success, Failure, and the Other Great Truths
A few years before Coburn’s class, I took a magazine-writing course with Medill’s beloved Professor Bob McClory, who died on Good Friday this year. McClory believed there are certain Great Truths—a sort of natural law for stories—that matter to every one of us: Love, Hate, Success, Failure, Loyalty, and Betrayal. Touch on any of those themes in your story, he theorized, and your reader will care. (As if to illustrate his point, McClory’s own life story—a priest who left the church to marry a nun—covered many of the Great Truths.)
McClory’s universal truths point to what makes a story matter: These stories affect the reader. They change the way we think, act, or view the world. They connect us to something bigger, tugging us in and making us part of the story itself.
From Advocacy Journalism to Mainstream Media
In media, these stories were traditionally the domain of “advocacy journalism” outlets like my alma mater Mother Jones, but today they are becoming mainstream. Founded in 2007 to give readers the “information they need to navigate the heat and emotion of climate and energy debates,” InsideClimate News became the first digital publication to win a Pulitzer Prize in 2013. In 2014, Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill started the Intercept as an extension of Greenwald and Poitras’ Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on government surveillance of citizens. Also last year, Neil Barksy recruited former New York Times columnist and executive editor Bill Keller to lead the Marshall Project, which is devoted to covering America’s criminal justice system. And just this summer, former NBC and CNN anchor Campbell Brown launched the Seventy Four to cover America’s “education crisis.”
There are two hallmarks of this kind of reporting: a focus on solutions and a mission to engage the audience in the story itself. In December 2014, Sacramento’s Capitol Public Radio ran the multimedia series “Hidden Hunger” to explore food insecurity in the region. Applying the traditional nut graf definition, this story mattered: Despite living in one of the country’s richest agricultural regions, one in seven people in south Sacramento lack the money or transportation required to get the food they need. What set this series apart, however, was its focus on community engagement before, during, and after the series. As Josh Stearns detailed in Medium, Capitol Public Radio hired jesikah maria ross to “build people in from the start, craft a shared vision, develop trust, define common goals.” “Stories connect us across our differences,” ross told Stearns, who is leading a project for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation to, among other things, test new community-engagement strategies in journalism.
A New Brand of Corporate Messaging
It’s also becoming more common for companies to share these stories, as a way to connect with their customers through a set of shared values. The outdoor lifestyle brand Patagonia—whose mission is to “build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire, and implement solutions to the environmental crisis”—recently ran an effective campaign to get its customers to fix broken gear rather than replace it with something new. Earlier this year, Chipotle, which advertises “food with integrity,” removed pork from a third of its stores due to concerns over how the animals were treated in part of its supply chain. Just this summer, the owner of the Seattle-based credit-processing firm Gravity Payments, which describes itself as “a business with values and integrity,” decided to address inequality by setting a new $70,000 minimum salary at his company.
Like the media outlets that seek to engage their readers in the story and solutions, these companies are encouraging their customers to take action. Jonah Sachs, the cofounder and CEO of Free Range studios and author of Winning the Story Wars (Harvard Business Review Press 2012), calls these companies “pro-social”: “Unlike the ‘sustainable brand’ that says ‘buy our product because we’re making it less harmfully than others,’ the pro-social brand says ‘join us in making a better society,’” he wrote in an article for the Guardian Sustainable Business. And customers are eager to hear these stories: A 2013 Cone Communications/Echo Research study of more than 10,000 respondents in 10 countries found that 91 percent of citizens want to hear about a company’s corporate social responsibility initiatives and progress.
Nonprofits Building Human Connections
Not surprisingly, nonprofit organizations have long focused on storytelling aimed at getting people to take action. But instead of simply broadcasting stories intended to get readers to write a check for a cause, some nonprofits are trying to get people involved in the story itself.
My former Business for Social Responsibility colleague Ayesha Barenblat founded the organization Remake to build connections between consumers, brands, and the people who make consumer products. Remake’s theory is that consumers who connect on a human level with the “makers” of their stuff will be more inclined to select products from companies that treat these makers humanely. “Today, there is a long, unhappy story of how our stuff is made and where it ends up,” Barenblat wrote about the idea behind Remake. “I want us to reimagine that story. I founded Remake because I truly believe in the good that comes from human connections.”
My Business and the Life I Want
It’s inspiring to me that the creators of stories that matter are no longer just journalists but the thoughtful leaders of nonprofit organizations and businesses alike. That’s why I am using my business to create stories that matter, as a journalist and as a communications consultant for nonprofit organizations and businesses that want to inspire positive change in the world.
I also will be telling some of these stories in my blog, starting with a series, “The Life I Want,” profiling people who have made a conscious decision to craft the life they want—both personally and professionally. Crafting the life I want is exactly what I’m doing with my business, and I hope this series inspires others to follow suit. Stay tuned.