Tommy Tomlinson has been a local columnist for The Charlotte Observer for the past 13 years but recently announced that he’s switching jobs to embark on a storytelling experiment for the paper. A former Nieman fellow and Storyboard contributor, Tomlinson was also a Pulitzer finalist for commentary in 2005. We’ve covered other innovative storytelling efforts at daily papers, such as The Washington Post’s Story Lab and The Wichita Eagle’s unusual multimedia project on Father Emil Kapaun. So we were interested in learning more about what Tommy was up to. In these excerpts from our phone conversation, he talks about working on the fly, building a community around storytelling and being given “plenty of rope” to hang himself.

In August, you introduced a storytelling experiment that you’re heading up from your perch at The (Charlotte) Observer. For people who haven’t already seen your column on it, describe what you’re doing.

What I’m going to try to do is three things. The thing that I’ve been doing so far, the main thing, is collaborating with readers with interactive projects, where I will throw out a topic or an idea that’s designed for people to build their own story. For example, I started out with this project – I’m trying to give them names – called “One Good Thing.” I wanted people to say one good thing about some group that they’re normally opposed to.

The idea is to get people to tell stories or to say things that can be gathered together and aggregated into something maybe a little bigger, to get an idea how people react to certain things and see what stories people tell around certain topics, and then to put that together. It makes for an interesting group of little mini narratives. I’m also going to be doing a lot of my regular writing on my blog, some of which may end up looking more like the regular columns that I had been doing for the paper, with some shorter and some longer.

And then down the road a little bit, I want to do some longer feature story-type things with an eye on trying to figure out ways to make those more presentable, especially online. I think we worry that people won’t read longer pieces there. I’m trying to figure out how to make those stories more enticing to readers online and in print.

You’ve launched a few project topics already: “Scars,” “One Good Thing,” “12 to 1.” What’s gotten the biggest response so far?

For “12 to 1,” I’ve gotten somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 responses from school kids all over Charlotte. I think a couple of teachers have assigned it in their classes, but we’ve also gotten a bunch from other folks. I’m now in the process of gathering that stuff together and trying to put a little bit of design to it, to make it flow in an interesting way. We’ll be putting it all online at some point, and we’ll be culling the best of those and putting that in print in some way, too.

The “Scars” stories came right before that, and that was one that I just threw out on a whim, without really thinking much about what people might say. That one turned out to be the most interesting one so far, I think, because of the way people reacted to it, and because there was a dramatic change in it part of the way through. What happened was that people had told fairly straightforward – I wouldn’t say lighthearted, but at least interesting – stories: one woman had been bitten by a rattlesnake, and then someone else had been fighting with her sister. And then about two-thirds of the way through, this person posted at like 1:30 in the morning that she had a mastectomy because of breast cancer. She talked about how she felt untouchable, and that this was something she was going to live with for the rest of her life. The end of the thing was “And that’s my happy, uplifting scar story,” written kind of sarcastically.

What I thought was interesting was that the very next post was from somebody reacting to that one. And that person, I believe it was his stepmother, had had something similar, but it had been years ago, and she had really struggled but she had come to terms with it, and she was living a full life now and was not feeling untouchable. I just thought it was interesting how because of the way we’re doing it, people could not just tell stories but also react to each other’s stories and add something meaningful to make a little narrative out of it.

So you introduce an idea and call for people’s stories. You get a bunch of comments and reactions or mini-narratives. And then you turn it into something larger for the paper. Will that be a more traditional long-form-style piece?

I think they may be the stories that we’ve always told in the newspaper and in the business, though part of it is multimedia — to add video and audio and slide shows and things. We’re doing some of that already. I also want to figure out whether there are ways to break the stories up, ways to make them serials, which we have done in our business some but not to any great extent. I want to experiment with those things, too. Are there ways to get people to follow along with a story for a couple weeks or a month?

I think of a Roy Peter Clark story he did several years ago called “Three Little Words” as a kind of a model, in my mind, for how to do these things. I believe he did it for 30 days in small pieces. We ran it in our paper and got a very good response, I believe. In some ways, when we do these long stories now, they tend to end up in the Sunday paper with a lot of gray type, and people who feel pressed for time or intimidated by those things just don’t pick them up. The bottom line for me is that I want people to pick up my stuff and read it, so it may mean breaking it up in smaller parts, it may mean mixing it in with multimedia components. I’m just trying to think of some ways to do longer stories that we feel will grab a larger audience.

You mentioned Roy Peter Clark. Do you have any other role models for the project, or do you feel like you’re coming up with this from scratch?

No, I’m not inventing it from scratch at all. I’m stealing from lots of people.

Drop names.

What got me thinking about this years ago, the first thing I remember seeing that made me think about new ways we could gather information and present it in stories was PostSecret, where people send in postcards telling secrets about their lives. I could read and have read that for hours at a time. It’s amazing to me, the little mini-stories, obviously the size of a postcard – you’re talking many times about no more than 10 or 15 words. But by being well-edited, curated and given a flow, it’s fascinating to me.

More recently, in the last year or two, I’ve been fascinated with this guy Ze Frank and the stuff he’s doing. He does games and video work, but the stuff of his that I’ve really become attached to is little reader projects very much like the one I’m talking about. The one I linked early on my blog as an example is what I think he called the 52to48 project, around the time of the election, where the split in the eletion was 52 to 48. What he asked people to do was if you voted red to say something nice about people who were blue, and if you voted blue, to say something nice about people who were red, with the idea that we really do have more commonalities than differences. It was done through photos. And the photos are great. There’s a couple kissing, and one says on the cheek, “I voted red,” and one says “I voted blue.”

That made me think. People are creative. If you give them an interesting idea and let people riff on it, there’s the possibility of getting some really interesting material out of it. So those were a couple role models for me. And then more things that have been more long-term or are more traditional stories, things like “This American Life” and StoryCorps, which is a really great audio series doing something similar to what I’m doing.

So there are a lot of great things that I’ve been looking at over the last three or so years that coalesced. The only thing I’m doing different is that I’m doing it in the framework of a newspaper. I’m taking from all these good things and trying to do it in a newspaper setting.

How long have you been given to make this work?

Well, I haven’t been given any particular time. I’ve been given plenty of rope to hang myself with. My bosses here at The Observer have been bold and generous in letting me do this. I know full well the difficulty there is in taking a columnist – I’ve been doing this for 13 years, and in that time you build up a following – to take me off the board as a columnist and let me try this new thing. I’m very grateful to them for doing that.

We agreed early on when we talked about it that it’s an experiment. I keep saying “Six months,” but nobody has put a timeline on me at all. What I’ve told everybody is six months down the road, let’s reevaluate. If it’s working real well, we’ll keep going, and if it’s a disaster, we’ll do something else.

I think the other part that’s interesting about all this is that at the paper, when we’ve done something like this in the past, we’ve planned it pretty thoroughly. We’ve done a lot of research and held a lot of meetings about how we want to do it, how we want to design it, and how we want to frame it. We didn’t do that as much with this idea. In sort of a Web way, we’ve thrown it out there. I hope and believe we’ll be enhancing it as we go along, making it a little easier to look at, refining some of the ways we reach out to people. But we didn’t answer all the questions before we started.

That’s sort of terrifying, but it’s also kind of cool, that we’re just going to try something, see if it works, and try to make it better as we go along.

If everything goes really well, what will this look like in a year?

Well, my hope is a couple of things. We talk about communities a lot now, especially on the Web, building a community, a readership that stays with you. We’ve been really good so far on the Web and in print in building communities around news topics. We have a community of people who are interested in crime news, we have a community of people who are interested in politics, and we have a community that’s interested in sports – all of which are subdivided in certain ways. We really have not – I’m talking about the newspaper business in general and maybe the larger media business in general, too – we have not thought about building a community around stories. That is what I think “This American Life,” PostSecret and Ze Frank have done. They’ve shown that you can build a community around good storytelling, stories that people are really interested in, stores that people want to be a part of.

So I guess a year from now, what I’d like to be able to see is a good, solid community that we’ve built here around the storytelling that I’m trying to do, that we’re trying to do. I think it’s out there, and part of what this next year is going to be about is figuring out how to reach those folks and what they respond to – to ring some bells with the larger community out there.

That’s not just from a journalistic standpoint; it’s from a practical standpoint. I need an audience, or it doesn’t make sense to keep doing this. So I want to try to find that audience that responds to those things. I don’t know if it needs to be gigantic, but it’s got to be more than 20 people. I hope you can build a pretty big audience by talking about these things and doing it in a way that brings people back. A year from now, I’d like to see that we have a community.

Back in the 19th century, Dickens wrote these serialized novels, and I’m sure everyone who knows about his books has heard the stories of how people were waiting on the docks for the latest installment to come out. I hope that I can build a community that’s waiting on the docks, so that when we get ready to do something new, there’s a ready-made group of people who are excited about and interested in what comes next.

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