StoryCorps, the initiative that helps give people the opportunity to record, share, and preserve their own personal stories, has been around since 2003. What started out as just an idea and experiment from founder Dave Isay turned into an American success, and it’s now a global project. Isay is the winner of the 2015 Ted Prize, and with the funding from the million-dollar award, he and the StoryCorps team have launched the new StoryCorps app.

A week after the app launched, I got the chance to talk with Isay on Skype about StoryCorps, its app, and what it means for the future of the oral history project. Below is our edited conversation with some audio clips.


Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps, accepts the 2015 Ted Prize and announces his Ted Prize wish -- a StoryCorps app. Screenshot courtesy of

Sonia Paul: Dave, could you please just introduce yourself and StoryCorps a bit more, for people who might not know much about it?

Dave Isay: Sure. I’d been in public radio for many, many, many years and used to make documentaries for NPR. But I was always an independent journalist, and then had this idea about a dozen years ago to start StoryCorps. I did all social justice documentaries, and saw when I did these documentaries that people who felt like they hadn’t been listened to before, that the act of being interviewed could be an important moment in their lives, sometimes a transformative moment in their lives. I could literally see people’s backs straighten when they’d be listened to for the first time, whether it was in a prison, or psychiatric hospital, or wherever it was.

So I had this crazy idea twelve years ago to start this project that kind of, in a way, turns documentary on its head, at least broadcast documentary. And it says that the purpose of what we’re doing is not about the final product. It’s not about doing interviews to create the final product; the purpose is the interviews themselves.

I wanted to give many, many, many people the chance to be listened to in this way. So I put a booth in Grand Central Terminal where two people can come, and they’re met by a trained facilitator. You sit in basically a soundproof booth for forty minutes. And you have a conversation. And a lot of people think of it as, “If I had forty minutes left to live, what would I say to this person, or ask of this person who means so much to me?” So very intense conversations.

Photo by Renée Johnson on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

At the end of the interview, you get a copy. And another copy stays with us and goes to the American Folklore Center at the Library of Congress. So your great-great-great grandkids can somehow get to know your grandmother through her voice and stories.

So it was a kind of crazy idea that took a little while to take off. But it worked, and we’ve now recorded about 65,000 interviews, with about 100,000 to 110,000 people. Most people come in pairs, across America, all fifty states, thousands of cities and towns, in eighty different languages.

It also turned out that there was pretty amazing content coming out of these interviews. So we also have broadcasts on NPR every Friday, and we’ve done animations for PBS. We have a couple of dozen of those, and we have books that have come out, all of which just celebrate the poetry and wisdom and beauty in the words of everyday people all around us. And it’s a project about listening, and helping us recognize our shared humanity — that if we spend a little more time listening to each other and a little less time shouting at each other, we’d be a better and stronger country. So it very much speaks to the core values of public broadcasting.

Here’s an example of one of a StoryCorps animation: “Danny and Annie,” a married couple who recount their twenty-seven-year romance, from their first date to Danny’s final days with terminal cancer.

Dave Isay: And then a couple of months ago, I got word of this Ted Prize. Ted is the amazing organization that has the conferences and does these videos that everybody knows about. I had actually never even seen a Ted Talk. I was the last person in the universe, when they called me and told me I had been nominated for this thing. But I’ve since seen a bunch, and they asked me to come up with a wish for humanity, which I did, and then got a call a few weeks later which said that I’d won, and then a couple of weeks ago gave a Ted Talk where we announced what that wish was. And we’ve created an app that takes StoryCorps out of the booth and gives anybody, anywhere, the chance to record a StoryCorps interview. It’s basically a digital facilitator that walks through the StoryCorps process, and then with one tap you can upload your interview to the Library of Congress. So that’s a very, very long answer, from Brooklyn to India, to your question!

Sonia Paul: Ok, thank you. And so, just to make sure we’re understanding correctly, has StoryCorps always worked with the booth setup, in that two people or more duck into the booth to do the interview?

Dave Isay: Yes, well they don’t duck into a booth. Because now it’s very hard to get an appointment. You know, you make a reservation. And you come into the booth, and you record the interview with the help of a facilitator. We also do these in quiet rooms around the country.

What changes with the app is that the app becomes the facilitator. So that allows us to do many, many more interviews, and you don’t have to come to StoryCorps, you don’t have to make a reservation. Anyone can do these interviews. And, you know, it’s an experiment just like StoryCorps was an experiment 11 years ago when we opened up. And we’re going to see — you know, we’ve seen, really, a tremendous response.

I don’t have the stats today, but it’s obviously growing very, very quickly. If you go on the site and see the interviews that are coming in from all over the world. And we’ll see what happens.



Screenshots from the StoryCorps app. It walks you through the process of doing an interview.

Sonia Paul: Yeah, and so I was curious about this idea of the app becoming a digital facilitator. Do you think that having the other human being there in the beginning ever added to the experience in any way?

Dave Isay: Of course, yes! I mean, having the facilitator there was huge. But you can’t scale. You know, obviously our facilitators are paid; they’re highly trained. But, you know, we’re doing 5,000 interviews a year, 6,000 interviews a year. And that is the gold standard of the StoryCorps experience, and it always will be. But it was time to experiment and see if we could spread this wider and spread this to places where we couldn’t necessarily go with facilitators.

So again, it’s an experiment. And having a facilitator is great. We do our best to approximate the facilitator with the phone; we’ll see how it works. I’m very encouraged by the interviews that are coming in that, from what I’ve heard, and again, they’re coming in far more quickly than what I had expected, a week into it.

But people are being respectful, and they’re taking it seriously. You know, they’re not the same as StoryCorps interviews, but people are having the opportunity with this app to, you know, have meaningful conversations. And that’s what it’s all about.

Dave Isay expands on the differences between the app and the original StoryCorps experience:

Sonia Paul: And so what kind of hurdles are you anticipating in getting the app off the ground, if anything?

Dave Isay: My first hurdle was that I didn’t think anybody would use it. I mean, the technique is the easy part. When we started StoryCorps, no one actually came to the booth. And it took years before people understood what was going on, and we ended up kind of selling out the booth, and that was because of the public radio broadcasts. But, you know, there are stories coming in from all over the world every couple of minutes now. I did not expect this kind of pick up this quickly.

I’m not sure what’s going to happen with it [the app]. But I think what we need to do is we need to keep pushing out best practices to people, and encouraging them to do interviews that approximate the StoryCorps experience as closely as possible, and get the word out. And especially because StoryCorps was born out of a kind of social justice, documentary work to, make sure that people who feel like their voices are least heard know about this and have the opportunity to be heard through the app.

Sonia Paul: Right. Yeah, and I downloaded it, and I was looking through it. I mean, obviously not everyone in the world speaks the same language, but the default language for the app right now is English. So I was curious, how do you plan to make it available in other languages and work around issues of translation and interpretation?

Dave Isay: We’re going to translate it into other languages. I mean, this is all very new. But, you know, the app has been created in a way where we can swap other languages. Ted has a community of translators who are getting to work to start translating this thing, and we’ll have a plan and slowly roll it out, depending upon resources, in other languages, as time goes on.

Isay discusses a potential model for how StoryCorps could work in other countries:

Sonia Paul: So I have a question now that’s not directly related to StoryCorps, but it’s kind of related. Have you been paying attention to the emergence of these sort of live broadcasting tools like Meerkat and Periscope?

Dave Isay: Yeah, two weeks ago, yeah.

Sonia Paul: Yeah, so now people can essentially livestream their lives to the world. And now, with social media, putting a status update on Facebook or Twitter is pretty normal for a lot of people. And obviously, StoryCorps is very different from those things because the point has always been to preserve the art of that interview. But do you think we, as a society, are sort of heading in a direction in which people are becoming more accustomed to simply blasting out their lives more, rather than asking the kinds of questions to others that we need to ask in order to actually understand?

Dave Isay: Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I do feel like StoryCorps is different. I mean, StoryCorps is an act of generosity. It’s about listening to another person. And it’s kind of the opposite of the selfie, right? And I do see there are some interviews where people are getting on and doing their own life story, and it seems to be helpful to them. I mean, I’m looking at what’s come in in the last couple of hours, and, you know, it’s mostly people talking to each other.

I do think that this is different. The stuff that I’m hearing — and I’m not a tech person, I am not that interested in a lot of tech stuff. But from what I’ve seen from social media and elsewhere, the kind of stuff happening on this app feels very different than what you see elsewhere.

Dave Isay and I discuss more the kinds of conversations StoryCorps produces. But should we need an app to do this?:

Sonia Paul: And if you happen to know, what countries are using the app?

Dave Isay: You know, you’d have to look. I don’t even — I can’t even recognize the languages. If you browse, it seems like a lot of them are in the U.S., from like, all kinds of different towns. It’s largely younger people who are using it.

But, you know there’s Arabic and there’s French, and you know, I don’t know. You’d have to check. And I haven’t had. And you know, it’s Monday morning, and we haven’t gotten the status yet of what’s happened over the weekend. But they’re clearly coming in from all over the world. And unfortunately, we don’t have geo-locate yet on this app, so I can’t easily tell you. But that’ll happen in a couple of weeks.

Sonia Paul: Right, and so, just to be clear, you’re using the funding from the Ted Prize to go forward with this app, that’s how you’re able to do it?

Dave Isay: Used.

Sonia Paul: Oh, right, used! But was the idea for the app something you had before the Ted Prize, though?

Dave Isay: Yeah, but it wasn’t going to happen. Doing something global and doing this app wasn’t going to happen in the next five years, until the Ted Prize came around. But you know, Ted is about digital, and it’s about global. So there was only one way to yes to work with them. And I’m glad. You know, it’s a great thing. It’s great to be pushed out of your comfort zone, and this was a real push. And it’s exciting to see where it’s going.

Here’s the full audio interview with Dave Isay:

Sonia Paul is a freelance journalist based in India, and is the editorial assistant at PBS MediaShift. She is on Twitter @sonipaul.

This piece originally published on April 7, 2015, on PBS MediaShift.

With the recent release of his new book “Engaged Journalism: Connecting with Digitally Empowered News Audiences,” it seemed like high time to have a long conversation with Jake Batsell on the future of news. The journalism instructor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, previous Seattle Times and Dallas Morning News reporter, and now, book author, was inspired to research and write a book focusing on news engagement when he found himself in a new “hybrid” position at the Dallas Morning News. Half the time he was pursuing and filing stories as he always had, and the other half, he was shooting and editing video.

Now, that sort of “hybrid” position is probably not anything unusual to many newsrooms. But at the time, it was an eye-opener for Batsell on the future direction of news. After getting a teaching position and applying for several grants and fellowships to visit various newsrooms across the U.S. and U.K., he’s come out with a book on best practices in engagement journalism, and theories on how journalists and newsrooms can continue to explore this connection.

Below is an edited transcript of a recent conversation I had with Batsell.

Sonia Paul: Engagement is a buzzword across media circles all over the world now. How do you think most media makers are understanding it, though? Is it similar or different from the way you understand it?

Jake Batsell: There’s a whole different conversation on how the wider world of communications defines engagement. I think from a journalism perspective, I think the sort of default knee-jerk definition a lot of people have in their heads is that engagement means interacting with audiences on social media. But especially after doing my work for the book, I’ve found it’s a much wider understanding than that. It’s not about tweeting links to stories half-heartedly. It’s about really and authentically integrating the audience into your work and mind when doing your job. It’s a way to not only deepen and engage loyalty, but it’s also a revenue opportunity.

My definition of engaged journalism is the degree to which a news organization actively considers and interacts with its audience for its journalistic and financial mission.



Just as “engagement” is part of the everyday lingo of newsrooms now, so too are the ideas of “sustainable business models” and “financially viable revenue sources.” The 1990s and 2000s saw the expansion of a more civic-oriented journalism method — newsrooms experimenting with town halls and other events where journalists could interact more personally with the public. In Batsell’s mind, this hasn’t necessarily stopped. Organizations are now just thinking more strategically about how they can also make money and fill a need for their audiences.

How might the financial incentives around engagement work? 

Batsell: For example, the Texas Tribune has an ideas festival where they have keynote interviews with newsmakers, and there are panel discussions as well. For the last couple of years, they’ve drawn over 2000 people to attend this festival. People attend partly out of altruistic reasons, but it’s also in their self interest to attend, because if you’re interested and involved in Texas politics, it’s THE place to be. The Texas Tribune translates that interest and attention into opportunities for sponsorship — you’ll get a mention in the program, on the stage, and so on. It’s because these sponsors want to reach this influential audience … It’s really through sponsorships that events have the most revenue potential.

But is it too much pressure for the journalist trying to engage an audience to think about the economic implications of engagement? Take me, for example. How should freelancers figure this out if they’re not attached to any one organization?

Batsell: If a freelancer is doing a job or assignment for a magazine or a newspaper or whatever, then first and foremost, she needs to do that job. It might be a little harder for freelancers to crowdsource on the front end if they don’t have institutional support — like someone guiding them, “Oh wow, this could be a better story if you put a call out on Twitter.”

Photo by Robert S. Donovan on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

More fundamentally, it’s true this is a lot of pressure! The book is not all rainbows and unicorns. Many journalists [I talked to] came out with the sense that, if done well, engaged journalism never really ends. We’re on social media, on Facebook and Twitter and Google Plus, and still — how can I do the shoe-leather reporting I still need to do? I can see from the freelancer perspective that it can be even more tough. It’s a matter for the freelancer what your approach is. I think there is still an opportunity to build a community and be there.


In the introduction to your book, the idea that “journalism is about people, not technology,” is really emphasized. It sounds obvious, but how do you think that mantra might fit into this paradigm of what we call “engaged journalism?”

Batsell: I think it’s really essentially a mindset to open yourself up to an audience, but to be strategic about it. Look for opportunities to find readers and viewers where they already are. Like take Snapchat’s new Discover tool. My students loved it, and all these twenty-somethings are already on Snapchat … So they will consume the news in their natural habitat.

But being aware of all these available channels doesn’t mean deploying them for every story you do … you can’t do every form of engagement on every story.

On a similar note, you wrote, “At its core engaged journalism is the latest incarnation of the age-old journalistic dilemma between covering what the public needs versus what the audience wants. And that “audience-focused engagement is essential to help sustain the watchdog journalism that benefits the public. Boiled down to a single tweet, it might read something like this: Engagement is crucial to journalism’s survival. But to be effective it must fill a specific audience need. And it comes with perks & costs.”

Can you just unwrap that a bit more? The differences between the audience and public, and what they need and want? Because I don’t think most people distinguish the two!

I had that same moment myself when I read [about it] in the Tow Center report on post industrial journalism … those two terms, audience and public, had seemed indistinguishable to me as well. It presents the age old dilemma of feeding people their spinach and giving them the candy they want. Obviously, this is not a new dilemma. Newspapers have comics and puzzles all the time. I think we as journalists arrogantly assumed people want our news, versus maybe they want cartoons or puzzles or the classifieds.

Photo by NS Newsflash on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

So it’s not necessarily a new dilemma, but it is a present dilemma. The first thing is to understand that distinction. But it doesn’t have to be an either/or debate … To me, it’s how you navigate that balance, and the moderate way of how a news organization balances competing interests.

Yes, and you mention that solving a problem and filling a need is at the core of building an engaged audience. So is that to say that engagement is different for different news outlets? Or is engagement different for different audiences? How do you negotiate the two?

I guess both, but ultimately it comes down to really understanding that audience well enough to understand the need you have to fill, especially niche audiences that have different sensibilities, different interests, and so forth. The Texas Tribune has an insider’s newsletter, for example, and most of their news is for free. But they do have a niche subscription service, Texas Weekly, and it’s really insider stuff. It’s the inner workings of Texas politics. They poll a 100-plus insiders every week, and they respond anonymously because they don’t want to be public on the comments section, trading opinions. That’s the sensibility of that crowd.

It boils down to understanding your audience and knowing your audience. I think just about every news organization just has to have head of audience engagement to see what really resonates with people. Because the stories that strike a chord with communities might not necessarily be on the front page.

Sonia Paul is a freelance journalist based in India, and is the editorial assistant for PBS MediaShift. She’s on Twitter @sonipaul.

This piece originally published on February 18, 2015, on PBS MediaShift.