Q&A with Elena Rue and Catherine Orr of StoryMineMedia

Elena Rue and Catherine Orr are the founders of StoryMineMedia, a North Carolina company that specializes in documentary storytelling. In 2011, they were among the News21 fellows who produced Coal: A Love Story. In this interview, conducted by email, Rue and Orr talk about their company’s mission, projects and business model.

Q. What is StoryMineMedia, and what do you hope to achieve?

A. StoryMineMedia is a visual storytelling company. We come from a photojournalism background with a focus on documentary-style video stories. We produce independent projects — stories we are passionate about, and are not necessarily getting paid to tell. And through those projects, hope to attract clients who like our style and see the value of using stories to communicate their message.

Q. How do you decide what projects to work on, and how do you go about reporting and editing them?

A. Most of our story ideas come from observing what’s going on around us. What stories aren’t being told, what stories are being told but could use a different perspective? How can we add to the conversation?

We recently released our first independent project, a quirky piece about a middle school student council election. “The Council” follows three eighth-graders as they navigate their way through the challenging landscape of middle school politics. The idea came from the flood of election coverage we’re all experiencing this year.

We wanted to offer a different perspective, and show what it could mean to “govern yourself accordingly.” Needless to say, we could learn a lot from these kids.Once we had the idea, we started contacting schools to learn about their student government systems and gauge interest. We chose a local middle school that was holding its first election in four years.

After meeting with the teachers and administrators, we did a round of pre-interviews with all of the candidates to determine which three we wanted to focus on. We chose Leah, Cara and Ryan because they are great and because they each represented something that added another layer of meaning to the project. (But we don’t want to spoil it, so watch “The Council” to see for yourself).

We filmed in the school and with our three subjects through the two-week campaign period and the election, and then came back for the first council meeting. We edit collaboratively, from identifying which parts of the interview should make the final script, to cutting scenes and choosing music.

In graduate school at UNC-Chapel Hill, professors and peers were constantly critiquing our work. Carrying that kind of constant back-and-forth into our business pushes us to be more creative and do our best work. Plus, it’s a lot more fun that way.

What we love about this startup is that we get to do any kind of story we want. “The Council” was light and quirky, but the next piece we do may be about astrophysics or race relations in college athletics (really).

Since the stories we’ll cover will differ greatly, so will the reporting and editing process. That too will keep us constantly challenged and hopefully mean that our work only gets better from here.

Q. How do you use social media to research your projects and promote them?

A. Viewing good work and seeing different ways of storytelling is essential to our process. Whether it’s a full-length documentary, photo essay, text piece, graphic or oral history, we are always looking for ways to build on our storytelling skills.

Social media is one of the main ways we are exposed to work on a daily basis. It is how we learn about new projects, share work that we find interesting, and follow other people in the field.

We also apply that same principal to promote our own work. Our hope is that other people who are looking for work might find our multimedia pieces interesting.

As a small startup, we rely heavily on word-of-mouth, bloggers and tweeters to share our work beyond our own personal networks. In addition to our visual work, we use our blog to share our experiences as we try to build our company from scratch. We have learned countless lessons from people who have shared experiences with us, and we would like to do the same for people who are also starting out.

One of the beauties of social media is that everybody (who has an account!) has a voice. We of course learn every day from others in our field, but we also recognize that we operate in a relatively small world of multimedia journalists.

One of our goals is to use social media to hear from others who are not in our field. We used crowdsourcing to find our name, choose our logo and develop a launch strategy for “The Council.” We plan to reach out to people for many of our decisions and ideas as we move forward. We know this will make our projects better, and we hope that it will help others feel invested our work.

Q. There’s lots of talk about small startups like yours as part of the future of journalism. What have you learned from the experience so far, and what advice would you give to people considering similar businesses?

A. The most important piece of advice we have for people starting out is to make time for your own work. Our commitment to producing independent projects was made before StoryMineMedia was born. We believe that good work is the best advertising for our skills and our hope is that people who like our independent work, might ask us to do similar projects for their organizations.

In an ideal world, every client would want us to work creatively and push the boundaries. In reality, most organizations have specific needs that don’t always fit into the most creative package. We respect this, but we also believe that we need to push ourselves creatively to be able to grow and keep ourselves engaged. Our independent work allows us to spend as much time as we need on a project and think outside the box.