Conversations: Dan Oshinsky

by on July 3, 2012

Nonfiction Talks

Here at The Bad Version, we’re interested in people who not only start new conversations, but also redirect existing ones. Take, for example, Dan Oshinsky, a self-described “creator of awesome stuff ”who is producing journalism of a different stripe through his project Stry (pronounced “story”), which began as a one-man bureau in Biloxi, Mississippi in July 2010. Stry, which now has six reporters on board, practices the sort of shoe-leather reporting that most news outlets are too financially straitjacketed to support. The demand for round-the-clock updates and bulk quantities of quick, snappy news items represents a formidable hurdle when trying to make a profit-driven argument for intensive, long-term reporting on the ground. Stry attempts to move against the current. The team is based in Springfield, Missouri this summer, collecting stories from townspeople and crafting long-form pieces that focus on narrative, color, and personal history. I had the opportunity to chat with Oshinsky, so hear about Stry’s mission of storytelling from the founder himself:

EY: Let’s start at the beginning, in 2010, when you decided to launch Stry. What was going through your head at the time?

DAN: I was working at a TV station in San Antonio, Texas, and I was looking at two things: I was looking out at the Gulf of Mexico—there was oil coming out of the gulf still—and the economy was not doing so well. And then there was this third thing: the Katrina anniversary was coming up, and I had been down to New Orleans about a couple months after Katrina. It stayed on my mind. But I wasn’t seeing stories come out about what people were dealing with down on the gulf. I was seeing stories about New Orleans, but not about Mississippi, Alabama, the gulf. It really bothered me. And what I should’ve done was left it alone and gone back to playing Tetris on my computer, but for whatever reason, I decided that it bothered me enough that I wanted to do something about it. So I left my job and moved to Mississippi to do this [Stry].

The other thing that was on my mind, and still is: right now, we—this larger journalism community—are deciding what the future of journalism and storytelling is going to look like. We’re in this transitional phase, we’re still learning how to tell stories on the Internet, and it seemed to me that I was far too passionate about reporting, about journalism, about storytelling to not try to do everything I could to have a say in this future. Stry is my first attempt at having a say in the conversation, and trying to figure out the things that I think more journalists can and should be talking about.

EY: In the beginning stages of the project, when you were working alone in Mississippi, how did you get people to talk to you?

DAN: The initial project was just me, by myself, in an apartment in Biloxi, Mississippi, talking to whoever wanted to talk to me. Nobody had ever heard of me, nobody had ever heard of my organization because I had just created it, and I had no idea if anybody wanted to talk. I had the hunch that people had stories they wanted to tell, and they weren’t getting the opportunity to tell them. At the heart of this project is, What matters to people? I would sit down with folks and ask them to tell me their Katrina story: Tell me what you went through, and is there anybody else you know who has an even crazier Katrina story? And at no point that summer did somebody say: No, I think I’m the winner. Everybody said: Yeah, I have one; call this guy. I found an endless number of people, especially down the gulf coast, so I’m just very grateful for them opening up their doors and opening up their schedules to tell their stories—many of which were incredibly painful, many of which were not fun for them to tell and certainly heartbreaking for me to hear.

I showed up for a lot of things. I showed up at council meetings, and people, two or three months later, would say, “You’re still here? I guess I’ll talk to you.” I got a lot of stuff that way—by repeatedly showing up.

EY: Stry’s About page states that it wants to tell those “stories that the community demands.” How do you determine what the “community demands”? How has this mission statement manifested in practical terms?

DAN: I’m a big believer that going forward, if we [news organizations] are going to sell ourselves as being part of a democracy, we need to actually get more involved in the process, we need to be more involved in our communities. That means listening to our communities. I think news organizations have kinda teetered on the edge of that: some have done a really good job of doing it, and some have done a less good job, let’s say. With Stry, we have our traditional reporting, but we wanted to make sure the voice of the community was heard.

One of the things that is definitely nontraditional is our campaign called “Letters to Springfield.” This is our attempt to bring in the voice of the city. There’s only six of us down here working on this project for the summer, and we’re not going to be able to tell all the stories we need to tell, so we came up with this idea of asking the citizens to write a letter to their city: Here’s what’s on my mind, here’s the good, the bad, what I think needs to be fixed. We’re going to host some live events around the stories in these letters. In July, we’re bringing out local officials, various power players to answer the questions and concerns addressed in these letters. And in August, we’re doing an event where the community is going to come out and read their letters out loud. We think the project is one of the things that’s going to allow the community to stand up and be heard, and if we can be a catalyst for that, fantastic. As a bonus, we’ll hear themes repeated in these letters, and we can reach out to certain members of the community for new stories.

EY: These days, the typical consumer of news wants a little bit of everything. Stry is offering something very different: in-depth reporting on a select few areas. For a lot of people, they’d rather have the former. How would you sell Stry’s offerings to a skeptic who wants a lot of news, fast and in small doses?

DAN: We have this 24-hours news cycle, and we’re pushing out stories all the time—and I have my project, which is slow news. I tell my reporters: We’re going to take as long as we need on stories. I’m going to give you time to sit down with sources and really listen to them and become familiar with them, because a lot of the best stories don’t happen until you take a significant amount of time with these folks. I’m trying to carve out this hole in the journalism universe to do something pretty juxtaposed against what everyone is doing.

You know, there are plenty of skeptics of the project. I heard it from people in the news industry, I’ve heard it from readers. But we’re trying to reach a consumer here in Springfield that cares about the community. We’re trying to do the best we can to help them understand the story of their city, and doing our part not just with reporting, but some of the live events. We’re trying to get some people in a room who otherwise wouldn’t get in a room, and help them create change. Not everybody wants to sit and read on their iPad a story about poverty in America, and that’s okay. That’s why we’re trying to target our stories to a number of different audiences. We’re also working with some other news partners here in Missouri: we have stories going out in a lot of different ways.

EY: With such specific areas of coverage, are you concerned at all about the content failing to reach a broader audience?

DAN: When I initially weighed out this Springfield project, there was, and still is, a really big component: the idea of an interconnected America. What I love about Springfield, Missouri, is that it’s right at the crossroads, where the Midwest and the South meet. So a lot of the issues we see across the country—issues with factories closing in the Midwest, with changing cultures in the South, immigration in the South—they come together here in Springfield. So the issues are relatively universal. That being said, it’s Springfield, Missouri, and it is in no way Anytown, USA; it is not representative of America as a whole. But the issues they have are pretty universal—issues like healthcare, immigration, poverty, developing their economy. I think people will recognize these voices and stories as representative of things happening in their community, whether they’re in Detroit, Spokane, or San Antonio.

EY: In your view, is story-telling the same thing as journalism? Is journalism a type of story-telling? Is story-telling always essential to journalism?

DAN: I try to avoid the word “journalism.” It has a nasty rap in our society. I never consider myself a journalist as much as I am a reporter first, so the storytelling and the reporting are grouped together. I frankly don’t know what “journalism” means anymore, or what people think of it. I think that the notion of journalism has gotten lost in a myriad of things that exist online and on TV. It’s difficult to say who is a journalist and who is not, but it’s clear to me who is a reporter and who is not. The reporters are out there in the field; they’re the ones actively chasing the story. So, for me, there is no distinction between storytellers and reporters. Anyone invested in who we are as a society and where we are going—people trying to tell that story are reporters and storytellers. That’s what this project is really about.

— For more about Dan and Stry, check out the site: