‘Chief Storytellers’: The Newest City?Trend?

Denver, Atlanta and Detroit have embraced ‘chief storytellers,’ hired to help city’s shape their?narratives.

By Joseph P. Williams Staff WriterMay 14, 2019, at 10:30 a.m.
U.S. News & World Report

Cities Hire ‘Chief Storytellers’

Traffic moves through the Campus Martius area of downtown Detroit.(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

To some, it sounds like a waste of taxpayer money, or maybe an Orwellian attempt to manipulate the image of a city that's had some really bad press recently. So Aaron Foley, local journalist, expected the blank stares, questions and doubts when he officially became chief storyteller for the city of Detroit back in 2016.

"It was such a foreign job title," Foley says, recalling how skeptics reacted when he handed out his business card: "'The government has police, the government has has firefighters. What the hell is the government doing with a storyteller? Why are my tax dollars going to this?'"

Now, two years later, Foley's work creating professional-quality news features on Motown's overlooked neighborhoods, forgotten history and local characters is pretty much an accepted part of city government – and a video he produced on Motown slang was popular around the city.

"The fact that people have become receptive to it – it's certainly taken some time," says Foley, a lifelong Detroiter. "Because it hasn't been done like this before."

Denver and Atlanta, have followed Detroit's lead and hired their own writers, videographers and historians to help spruce up the metro areas' images – and engage with residents – by producing stories about unique people and places, or local history, that the mainstream media has ignored.

Though some might consider it another frivolous government expense, consider: In Phoenix, a newspaper-sponsored night of live neighborhood tales, told by residents, exploded from a one-off event into a sold-out run in 2018 and 2019. Now, USA Today's publishing company, which owns the newspaper, is taking it nationwide, giving people a stage to tell stories from their cities.

Aaron Foley(Courtesy of Aaron Foley)

With the popularity of storytelling podcasts like The Moth, experts say, there's an apparent appetite for real stories about real people.

Raju Narisetti, a journalism professor at Columbia University, says the storyteller position, typically filled with former TV and print journalists, is a staple of corporate communications. Fortune 500 heavyweights from Citigroup to J.Crew employ "content officers" who profile CEOs or other notable employees as well as keeping workers up to date on company goings-on.

"It's a broader trend of companies and organizations," says Narisetti, former CEO of Gizmodo Media and director of the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship in Economics and Business Journalism at Columbia. "Governments are starting to embrace storytelling for its ability to reach people directly and not have to go through the conventional media."

Unlike journalism, where editors and institutional ethics hold journalists accountable, there aren't any obvious constraints for storytellers like Foley and his five-member team of writers and videographers. That creates a dangerous void, Narisetti says: "In the absence of scrutiny, it can easily become propaganda."

Foley, however, says he gets it, and is mindful of self-imposed ethical boundaries.

"I'm always careful to say we're not journalists. Journalists don't work for the government. We don't cover City Hall," he says, adding that Mayor Mike Duggan, who hired him, gives his office "a long leash." Nevertheless, "we follow a lot of principles of journalism," Foley says, including balance, accuracy and independence.

The mandate, he adds, is to give viewers and readers a glimpse of the real Detroit, the side of the city that doesn't involve sports, crime, politics or the city's financial hardships. The side, Foley says, that's not necessarily covered by Detroit's local newspaper or TV stations.

"The way I look at it is, where can we fill a gap? Where we can be of service?" Foley says. "We don't call ourselves a true media outlet. But we're providing something many media markets lack," which is coverage of the city on a neighborhood level.

Though Foley's first-of-its-kind position made headlines, Narisetti sees parallels with the 18th-century town criers, who delivered news and information directly to neighborhoods. Other analysts see a prototype in Humans of New York, which started out as a photography project to document The Big Apple's street people and has evolved into a worldwide urban-storytelling phenomenon.

Denver’s chief storyteller, Rowena Alegría, assumed the position in 2012, operating out of its Human Rights and Community Partnerships office, and in March launched the I Am Denver storytelling project. In an interview with the news website Westword, Alegría says the position was inspired in part by an informal series of City Hall-sponsored community conversations, centered on race and the city’s history.

Those conversations, which included topics like gentrification and swept in the city's complex racial history, "helped me to see firsthand the community stories that weren't being told," Alegría told Westword.

In Atlanta, the vision for the chief content officer is more forward-looking, described as part of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms' One Atlanta blueprint – a plan to make the city more affordable, resilient and equitable.

To get there, the city has to ensure "our residents are knowledgeable of the programs and initiatives that are developed on their behalves every day throughout the City," Bottoms said in a statement announcing the hiring of Keith Whitney in October. His job, she said, will deliver "real-time updates" about city services in an "accessible and relatable" way so residents "can play a more informed and engaged role in building a city that works for everyone."

In his statement, Whitney described his role as more of a journalist than the town crier.

"Atlanta is a city full of stories, and we should not have to rely on the news media alone to tell them," he said. "I will make sure we disseminate those stories directly to our residents, across all of our platforms, with unprecedented speed, depth and accuracy. We have a team of award-winning journalists on staff with decades of experience and credibility."

Corrected on May 14, 2019: A previous version of this article misstated details about Rowena Alegría's position.

Joseph P. Williams, Staff Writer

Joseph P. Williams is a news editor with U.S. News & World Report. E-mail him at ...? Read more


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