Q+A: Noah Rosenberg, Narratively
Narratively is a media platform, production company and creative agency focused on telling stories from the human perspective. They produce podcasts, video, written stories and animations, and work with partners and clients to craft strategy for sharing that content far and wide. Their work is far reaching and well respected, winning awards and accolades from the LA Press Club, the South Asian Journalist Association, and The Telly Awards, just to name a few.
We sat down with Founder and CEO of Narratively Noah Rosenberg to talk about where the passion to promote authentic storytelling came from, what makes a "Narratively" piece, and how the future of storytelling is changing.
How did Narratively come about? What do you do, and how is it different from your peers in the field?
Narratively launched in 2012. Prior to that my cofounder Brendan Spiegel, and I were working as journalists for major media outlets like the New York Times, New York Magazine, Wall Street Journal, GQ Magazine, things like that. We were growing tired of the mainstream media’s focus on breaking news and clickbait. We were hungry to do more human interest stories that we really cared about, but there was never really the time or the resources to do the kind of stories that we thought were important.
We launched Narratively to focus on celebrating humanity through authentic storytelling. Early on, we found out that other journalists and storytellers here in New York and all around the world had a similar passion; they too thought something was missing from the media landscape. This focus on refreshing, authentic, human-centric storytelling immediately took off. Fast forward to now: Narratively has become a storytelling platform, production company, and creative agency that strives to celebrate humanity through authentic storytelling.
The majority of the stories that Narratively showcases have a heavy focus on the human experience. Is that a key element to what Narratively is all about? Why?
Yes. The common denominator across what Narratively does is that we want stories that truly illuminate the human experience. Before launching Narratively, I was covering a lot of breaking news. I would get a call to cover a story in the middle of the night and be at the scene with a bunch of other journalists from different publications, all doing the same story. Narratively really aims to showcase stories that no one else is telling.
Personally, the first thing I do in the morning is I turn on NPR and look at the New York Times because I want to know what’s happening in the world. But I’ll also engage with Narratively by listening to our stories read aloud, or by reading them during my commute. We’ve experimented in the past with doing more stories that are connected to the news. We had a semi-regular series going on a while ago called “Humans Behind the Headlines” where we were doing more stories that were connected to the news itself. Our whole philosophy now is telling stories and packaging them in a way that they’re accessible to many people.
The sky's the limit when you start off with high quality storytelling.
How do you decide the appropriate medium for each story being told?
It definitely can be a challenge at times. Especially for a smaller independent company like ours, there are so many different options out there and there is this fragmentation of content and consumers across so many different segments of the landscape.
For us, a big thing we do when we’re evaluating stories for publication across those platforms is we always ask a few questions.
The first is, “Has this story been told before?" Our ideal answer is no; we want something different, fresh, and valuable. If it has been told before, we always try to figure out a new angle or perspective, a new way into the story.
Number two is “Who are the characters?” Who are the humans that universalize this story and make it relatable to you, the consumer?
Lastly we ask, “What’s the narrative structure for this story?” We need to know how we’re going to be telling it. And part of how we tell the story is knowing what the format is going to be. We never want to fit a square peg into a round hole. If a story really feels immersive, maybe that’s an audio piece. If there is music, or sound design etched in, and if it’s something that feels truly visual, maybe that’s better off as a film. For stories where we want to show off some really powerful prose and we feel that the words can do enough on their own with some supporting images, that's an article to us. Once you have a feel for the medium, then we figure out what’s the best platform or partner to distribute that story.
For example: podcasting, which has become a really exciting space for us, has many free platforms where we as creators and you as consumers can flock to and engage with stories. By default a lot of our podcasts are distributed by Apple Podcasts, and all their affiliate apps as well as Spotify. But there are new players now such as Luminary, iHeartMedia, Audible, etc. that are buying audio projects, and each has a different niche or a different sensibility. It’s interesting to think, much like what we’re doing now with TV and film: who is the buyer? Is this a Netflix series or is it a PBS series? There’s very different ways to think about how each buyer would work with it. A lot of it is like playing a game of chess where you have to move a bunch of pieces around and see what works best. It can even evolve too; maybe it starts off as an article and then eventually becomes a documentary on the History channel. The sky's the limit when you start off with high quality storytelling.
What stories are you working on today that you’re particularly excited to be telling?
One thing that we’ve invested a lot of time, energy, creativity, and passion into is our first narrative nonfiction podcast. It’s called “Believable." I'm the host and executive producer. This was a labor of love; our readers were begging us for years to get into the podcast space. It can be a very labor intensive and costly endeavor, especially if you want to do it right and have high quality, something that we obviously want to do of course.
The show explores how people’s stories impact their lives, it’s almost like a “This American Life” kind of show where we’re looking at ordinary people with extraordinary stories; we look across a large range of topics. We’d love for people to check out “Believable” wherever you get your podcasts and let us know what you think. Making a successful podcast has also helped us prove ourselves in the audio world. We now have projects for podcasts for Marriott Hotels and are now pitching new show ideas to other major audio platforms too.
How do you find your journalists, and how do they find you? What makes someone a good fit?
A lot of it happens organically via word of mouth. We’ve been around now for about 7 and a half years, and word got out very early during our Kickstarter campaign in 2012 that Narratively was creating this platform for journalists' and storytellers' passion projects. Over time, the very stories we published served as a magnet for other people. There’s a lot of overlap with our readers and our writers. Someone can start reading Narratively and go “You know there’s a story that I wanna tell too!” And that’s what’s really special about us. Reading the New Yorker and looking at this heavily researched, 30,000 word article, if you weren't a "professionally" published writer at that time, you never in a million years would think to pitch them a story.
What’s cool about Narratively is that you can read a Narratively story, having never been a professional writer before, and pitch a story to us. We try to encourage that because we really believe that everyone has a great story to tell. Another way we find content and people is when we have our stories featured on much larger publications such as The Guardian or USA Today. People will read our piece there and be drawn back to us. We’ve been fortunate to have a good amount of media and press about us over the years and have some awards which generate new interests. We have a deal with Warner Bros. right now to develop and produce TV series that are inspired by our stories on Narratively.com, so that is another wave of attention to Narratively and helps attract new people.
We are fortunate enough to have a constant influx of pitches coming to us, many of them unprompted. Sometimes though we get really great pitches from an idea or prompt we throw out there, such as “We’re looking for a story from the perspective of a Muslim American” or “What’s it like to be a transgender teenager in this generation?”, even some that are as simple as “Unusual Weddings” or stories like that.
We really believe that everyone has a great story to tell.
The theme of this year’s annual meeting is futurists. What do you see as the future of storytelling, and how is Narratively shaping that future?
I think in the future we'll see quality or authenticity/uniqueness really rise to the top. For better or for worse, there are so many options now, both for the creator and for the consumer. From platforms like Tik Tok, to more established entities like The New York Times or National Geographic, every media outlet now is launching their own video platform. One of the challenges of abundance is discoverability. When we all are fighting to find content that’s meaningful to us, it’s all the more important for creators to be publishing things that feel special and different.
It’s a really exciting time to be a creator: someone can blow up on Tik Tok and change the way we consume media. But it’s also challenging because you never know when those platforms will disappear and a new one will emerge. It’s hard to choose where to spend your time and your energy. But for a company like ours, who focuses on straying from the pack, it's an exciting time. We’ve succeeded so far because we’ve never really focused on the trends; we focus on what we think matters, and on creating long term impact and legacy. As a result, even as a small company, we’ve had some staying power and have a lot more room to grow.
What brought you to Dumbo?
When we were looking for an office space six years ago, there was never any question that we would stay in Brooklyn–we needed to stay here. Most of our team lives in Brooklyn, and as a result of that we know there’s a particular energy here, a vitality, and creativity to the area. When you look across the Brooklyn landscape to places that embody that spirit, I think Dumbo was very front and center. It attracts a very diverse group of people, it's accessible, and it's dramatic with the pace of development and the cobblestone streets. It’s a very exciting place to be everyday. In terms of collaboration, we can walk down the street and bump into people we’ve worked with before, or people we want to work with. It really is a one stop shop for us for anything we want or need; ranging from different kinds of food to places specializing in mindfulness. It feels like home and I can’t imagine working anywhere else.
Lastly, what’s your favorite place in Dumbo?
I do love, particularly on a muggy, hot summer day, to wander north a few blocks on the cobblestone streets to where Dumbo bleeds into Vinegar Hill. It makes you feel like you’re in a different era, a different time. I ride my bike to work often and sometimes I’ll just veer right and bounce down the streets of Vinegar Hill on my way down here. It’s a very peaceful way to start the day. Plus Vinegar Hill House is one of our favorite places to get a drink or a bite to eat.