Tag Archives: Stry

You Don’t Know Who Jerry O’Keefe Is. But Here’s Why I Remember Him.

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 12.31.20 PM

I was reading through the paper this morning when this headline caught my eye: “Jeremiah O’Keefe, Ace in His First World War II Battle, Dies at 93”.

I didn’t recognize the face of the man in the fighter plane, but down the page, there was a second photo of a man — the same face, but older, well into his 80s. I recognized that one.

I’d met him before.

I met Jeremiah O’Keefe — Jerry, to everyone around town — during my summer in Biloxi, Miss., in 2010. I interviewed him once at his home that July, just as I was getting started on Stry.us. I didn’t have a working website yet. I hadn’t published a single story. But he was gracious and gave me an hour of his day. We talked about his time in the Navy and his work running the town’s funeral home; about how he came to politics; about the time he tried to stop the Klan; about the projects he built in Biloxi, and the ones he didn’t. I wrote a story about his time as mayor, and gave it the headline, “The Man Who Tried to Save Biloxi.” Below that headline, I wrote:

“Four years after Hurricane Camille, in a town the storm left for dead, the man running the local funeral home decided to give his city new life.”

I wrote a lot of stories that summer about death and rebirth in Biloxi, but none quite as literal as Jerry’s.

And it’s really something that today, of all days, is the day Jerry’s obituary appeared in the New York Times. You might not realize this, but today is the 11th anniversary of the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast, and changed that part of the South forever. It would be easy not to know about the anniversary — after all, if you’re living pretty much anywhere outside the Gulf, you won’t be reading about the storm today. Those of us in the media simply don’t cover the 11th anniversaries of disasters — even those as life-changing as Katrina.

Here’s what I wrote about Katrina a year ago today over on Stry.us:

There is a particular disaster narrative that springs up after an enormous storm, and Katrina was no exception to the rule. The storyline is simple:

In the days after the storm, the story is one of loss.

A year after the storm, the story is one of recovery.

Five years after the storm, the story is one of remembrance.

10 years after the storm, the story is one of rebirth.

That’s the disaster narrative, and Katrina’s story has followed it to the letter: Loss. Recovery. Remembrance. Rebirth. Joplin is four years in to the disaster narrative; the Jersey Shore is two. But the stories of tornado recovery in Joplin will be everywhere next summer; in two years, we’ll read recovery stories from Sandy. On the 10-year anniversary, we’ll read of rebirth, same as it always was.

But this is the last Katrina anniversary you will ever read about.

After 10 years, an interesting thing happens: The disaster ceases to be a part of the present, and becomes something of the past. After 10 years, reporters stop writing about how the storm is affecting people’s lives today. Remember: This is a story that began with loss, and ends with rebirth. The story doesn’t go on forever; there is no epilogue.

So for Katrina’s story, this ends here. You will not read a front page story in the New York Times about the 11th anniversary of Katrina. You will not see a site like BuzzFeed put together a package on the 15th anniversary of the storm. And by the time the 20th anniversary rolls around, or the 25th, Katrina will simply be something of the past.

Of course, I opened the paper today, and there was no front page story about Katrina.(1) But on page B6 of the New York Times, there is a story about Jerry O’Keefe. And his story is the coast’s story, too.

So on this day, 11 years after Katrina hit the coast, I wanted to say:

Jerry, I’m grateful for the time you gave me back in 2010, and the conversation we had. You didn’t need to give a young reporter a chance, but you did. Thank you for sharing your story with me.

And Jerry, I wanted you to know: Whenever I think of you, I think about this stretch of beach out in front of your Mississippi home. Dating back to the 1950s, you told me that you’d planted palm trees out front. When a big hurricane came through and knocked the trees down — like with Hurricane Camille, and later Katrina — you’d go back and replant new ones in the sand. It was one of my favorite symbols of Katrina, those trees down by Highway 90. What the storms would take away, you’d find away to bring back. In Biloxi, there was death and rebirth — always.

I know, Jerry, that you’re gone, but there will be another storm. On the Gulf Coast, there’s always another.

And when that storm comes, and when it knocks down your palm trees, I wonder: Will someone come now to replace them?

I hope they will, Jerry.

the trees in the sand in front of Jerry's house

  1. Of the major national publications, only the Huffington Post ran a story about Katrina today. Credit to them for keeping the story alive.

A New Thing On Stry.us? A New Thing On Stry.us!

For the first time in three years, I wrote an essay today for Stry.us about the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and the way we in the media cover disasters.

I write:

Five years ago this summer, I was in Biloxi, Miss., talking to anyone who wanted to tell me their Katrina story. The people on the Gulf Coast were weary then of discussing the story; many felt forgotten. And how could you blame them? They had been forgotten. They had stories to tell, and even five years ago, we had stopped listening.

I’ll tell you a journalism secret: There is a particular disaster narrative that springs up after an enormous storm, and Katrina was no exception to the rule.

You can read the whole thing here.

Building Big Things Never Happens Fast.

“Velocity, not speed.” — Siqi Chen

 
There is a funny misconception that exists in the general public about building big companies. They see something like Instagram, which sold for a billion dollars, and think: The path from A to B(illionaire) doesn’t take that long.

Wrong.

Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

I work at BuzzFeed now. That photo at top is what our office looks like today.

But this is what it looked like in 2007, in the earliest days of BuzzFeed.

Not quite as exciting, right?

I remember those types of days at Stry.us. I remember sleeping on the floor in a small apartment next to a cow pasture. I remember that when I hit the “Sleeping On A Floor In A Small Apartment Next To A Cow Pasture” point, that was actually a big milestone for Stry.us.

Good things come slowly. You build with good people. You find ways to hang in the game as long as you can.

The road is slow and long and kind of boring sometimes. If that doesn’t sound like your idea of fun, that’s okay. Building big things isn’t for everyone.

But if that sounds like something you like? Well, start as soon as you can. You’re going to need all the time you have.

Too Late/Too Soon: The End.

When do you know that it’s time? The eighth and final post in a month of posts about how I learned to stop worrying, buck up and do the work.

 
So if you’re ever trying to decide whether or not to end a project you’ve been working on for the previous 30 months, here’s a recommendation:

Drive across Kansas.

Take a few hours to drink something strong. Sleep it off.

Then drive across Wyoming.

After Springfield, the team shipped off to various parts. The rest of the team got jobs. I headed west for a few days, to visit friends, and to think.

I’ve always found that my best thinking happens when I’m moving. Sometimes, it’s when I’m actually running. Sometimes, it’s when I’m just traveling long distances.

It sounds dopey to say it aloud, but I find that the literal act of heading toward a fixed destination makes me think about where I’m going in my own life.

Some 25 hours in the car across the Midwest and the West gave me time to reconsider where Stry.us had taken me. It had given me amazing opportunities. It had taught me far more than I could have ever imagined about business, and about working with teams, and about learning how to screw up royally and then get up off the mat. It showed me what I could do when I put the right parts in place, and it showed me that I wasn’t going to be able to go back to some desk job.

It humbled me.

But I also started to think about whether or not I wanted to keep it going. It felt like Stry.us was just starting to grow and get moving. Was now the time to put it aside to go work on something else?

I thought about what I had at my disposal with Stry.us. I had a really great website. I had a little bit of attention for the project. I had plenty of time.

But I also thought about the timing for me. I had some momentum, personally. I had a lot of new things I wanted to learn.

And with Stry.us, it had been 2.5 years. Either it had to make money, or I had to.

In the end, it was time to face a hard truth: I was ready for something new, and that meant that Stry.us had to step aside.

It was hard putting the project behind me. It felt like I was breaking up with a longtime girlfriend. I wasn’t really sure who I was if I didn’t have “Stry.us” attached to my name.

But in time, I started to recognize it for what it was: An amazing experience, and an amazing opportunity. It carried me so far, and I’m not really sure how. But I’m sure thankful for it. I got to speak at conferences because of Stry.us. I got to travel all over the country for it — to Biloxi and Boston and St. Pete and Phoenix. I got to tell stories because of it.

It was a big break for me, and it really sucked letting it go.

It’s been months now since I’ve done work for Stry.us. But something funny happened last week. I was at a party here in New York. A buddy introduced me to his friend. “This is Dan from Stry.us,” he said.

His friend looked at me. “Stry.us? Big fan.”

I still haven’t stopped blushing over that. It was a hell of a lot of work to make all of Stry.us happen. It’s nice to know that someone noticed.

I wish it wasn’t over. Maybe Stry.us will continue in some other form — the lessons from it sure will.

But for now, it’s been left behind, somewhere in the Ozarks. For me, for my team, for everyone who supported us, it’s onto the next thing.

Sometimes, you have to know when it’s time to move onto the next. I think I made the right choice this time. I hope I did.

What’s Next For Stry.us?

Solo.

“Moving forwards into the unknown is a lot better than falling backwards into the abyss.” — Simon Sinek

 
When I was in San Antonio, I got asked to cover a Los Lonely Boys concert. It was a bit of a surreal experience. I knew exactly one Los Lonely Boys song. They spent most of the night covering other bands, actually.

But then it came time for them to play “Heaven,” that one Los Lonely Boys song that everyone knows. It was their closer. They played the first three notes, and the crowd went crazy.

Three notes was all it took to make 1,000 people lose their minds.

I remember that at the time, I was thinking a lot about success. How do you measure it? How do you know when you’ve got it in your hands?

And I remember thinking: If 1,000 people immediately lose their minds at what you’re doing, that’s probably a pretty good sign.

I always thought that if I could ever pull something like that off, it’d be as a result of some simple thing — a story I’d written with a memorable opening line; a talk that got big laughs.

I guess I never thought about the idea that something big — an entire body of work — could be that thing.

But now I look back on Stry.us. People recognize the colors on the site as ours. The style of the stories. The themes that we report on. The design of the site.

This isn’t “Heaven,” but it’s pretty close.

We’ve gotten such a fantastic response to the project. Here’s one email I got this summer:

“Springfield is my hometown … For most of my life, it was hard to get past the conservatism, but your stories helped me learn that there really is more to Springfield than politics and religion. I’ve stopped to read every new story each time I received your weekly newsletter … You were good for Springfield. Thanks for the memories.”

It’s so wonderful to get an email like that — and it’s one of many that showed up in my inbox this summer. It’s feels fantastic to have created something that made so many people so happy.

But it’s also only a single step.

Here’s the other thing about Los Lonely Boys: You know that one song by them, but you probably can’t remember anything else they’ve ever done.

What’s coming — what’s next — matters. A great first album deserves a second.

So let me bring this back to me. The good news is, many people have been asking me lately, “What’s next for Stry.us?” That means they’re excited about what me and my team have already done.

But I don’t have the answer to their question right now. I wish I did.

What I can tell you is that I’m going to get back to doing what I love most: Telling great stories, building communities around stories, and committing to the work. I hope Stry.us has a role in all this going forward.

I can also say this: I don’t think you’re going to be seeing a Biloxi- or Springfield-like bureau anytime in the near future. The amount of work — and money that it takes — to make one of those happen just isn’t sustainable in the short term.

So we’ll see where the road ahead leads. The work has only just begun.

Check It Off The List: The Stry.us Team Made a Live Event Happen Last Night.

“Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is at hand.” ― Henry Miller

 
On Jan. 12, 2012, I laid out six goals for the then-TBD Stry.us project. I did not have a location set for the project. I did not have a team.

I only had these six goals:

  1. Put together the team.
  2. Lead them.
  3. Tell amazing stories.
  4. Syndicate our content.
  5. Host a live event.
  6. Package our stories into a final printed/digital product.

So 1 through 4 — check ’em off. No. 6 on that list is coming in August.

Yesterday, we made the fifth thing on that list happen.

We got a panel of five Springfield experts to come to the Library Center here in Springfield and help answer questions from the community. In one hour, we got real answers to eight big questions in town. We streamed the thing live on the City’s website. We had a small audience watching from the Library.

Getting to yesterday wasn’t easy. It took a long time to figure out what the event should be, and a long time to get the letters. It took weeks to lock down our panelists, and then to go through everything with them and make sure that they understood what they’d be doing on the panel. There were lots of concerns and questions.

And then there was this: I was leading a panel of six, for an hour, and I’d never done anything quite like that before.

So many things almost went wrong yesterday. But only one actually did: One of the thumbtacks holding up the Stry.us sign broke, and our sign titled awkwardly during the talk. (Oops.)

In the end, the event was a fantastic showcase for Stry.us — and for our partners, and for the role that journalists can serve in our community.

I’m so proud of the Stry.us team for making the “Letters to Springfield” panel happen. It’s not easy to make things happen in this world. It’s not easy to follow through.

This team made it happen, and I’m just thrilled about it.

Five down, one to go.

Big Auto’s Failures Can Teach Us A Ton About Building A Better Future For News.

“You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do.” ― Henry Ford

 
In the late 1880s, Karl Benz built the first modern automobile. In 1908, the first Model T rolled off the assembly line.

And then came the dawn of a new age in America: The age of the automobile.

You know this part of the story.

When most people talk about the birth of the American auto movement, they talk about companies like Ford and Oldsmobile. They talk about the handful of companies that broke through and got their cars into driveways across America.

But they leave out names like Auto-Bug and Biddle and Vulcan, three of the 2,000-some car companies founded in America that have since closed their doors.

2,000 companies entered this space, and today, we’re left with about 15.

This is how it often works at the start of a big movement. In the wake of a breakthrough invention, there’s a rush of people who enter the field to offer up a product. Some survive; most don’t.

And new competitors enter the field, too. Henry Ford wasn’t thinking about skateboards or bikes or subways or buses or helicopters when he built the Model T, but today, they’re all players in the field of transportation.

The point is, at the start, it’s chaos. Over time, chaos weeds out much of the competition. Some companies innovate, but far more die off.

Out of many, few.

So here’s what it means for news:

Right now, we have the web. We’re still not sure how to make this thing work. But we’ve got lots and lots of people entering the field.

We know that what we’re doing really isn’t sustainable. We have readers; what we want are paying customers and partners.

But what I want right now is more competition. I want more people entering the field. I want more people bringing great ideas to the table.

Like Clay Shirky said: Nothing will work, but everything might.

We need more doers. We need more action. Most of us will fail, but that’s alright. It’s entirely possible — maybe even probable — that Stry.us will go the way of the Auto-Bug or the Biddle, just another company forgotten in time.

But in order to build a better future for storytelling, we have to actually do things. I so admire the 2,000 founders behind those initial car companies. They had the right idea, just the wrong luck or team or execution.

But they made something happen. I hope my colleagues in news don’t give in to the inevitability that many of us are going to die off, and that we’ll be left with a few big media conglomerates running the show.

We have to build. We have to create. We have to do.

The rush to build a better story is just beginning. This is no time to idle.

Image of the Model T at top via @erinslomski.

How I Learned To Stop My Selfishness And Share Stry.us With Everyone.

“Just remember what was yours is everyone’s from now on.” ― Wilco

 
Two years ago this month, I officially moved to Biloxi to start Stry.us. In July 2010, it was just me, an apartment, some really expensive photo equipment, and an idea that was way bigger than myself.

A lot of people want to know if I was lonely in Biloxi. I wasn’t. I was so on fire with all the work I was doing that I never much noticed it. But I do remember wanting a team. I so badly wanted others to help me. I needed help. I was in over my head.

And a funny thing happened between Biloxi and now: I stopped wanting help and started looking for ways to share.

The difference has been enormous. What I wanted in Biloxi was selfish: Please, come copy edit this, fix that, do this — and do it all for me! In Biloxi, Stry.us was mine and mine alone. When you did something nice for the project, you were really doing something nice for me.

What I want in Springfield is totally different: I want to share this thing with everyone. I want to bring a community together to build something awesome for all of us. For the Ozarks. For journalism. For communities everywhere that want to learn how to better tell their stories.

When you help out Stry.us, you’re actually helping out everyone associated with the project — our team, our stakeholders, our readers, our friends — and everyone who might one day learn from the project.

At first, Stry.us existed to serve me. Now I exist to serve Stry.us.

See the difference?

There are so many people who own a little piece of Stry.us now, so many people who’ve come on board and helped take this thing far beyond me. I look at where we are right now, and I hardly recognize the Stry.us I launched two years ago.

What we’re working on now is really an incredible thing, and it all started the day I stopped being selfish and learned to share.

This thing is ours, and I’m so very thankful for that.

That gorgeous photo of a sunset over Biloxi via @katiewhite727

Focus, Dan, Focus.

The brilliant Hayes Carll one sang these words, a sentiment that I find holding more and more true by the day:

There ain’t enough of me to go around.

Of course, Mr. Carll was singing about a different thing altogether. Hayes loves women.

I love work.

To each his own, I suppose?

But these days, there really isn’t enough of me to go around. There is so much to be done with Stry.us, and so little time. This project lasts four months. Two are almost over.

Two! Where the hell did all the time go?

I serve so many roles at Stry.us. I lead. I organize. I build. I teach. I report. I listen. I generally keep us from going bankrupt or ending up in a court of law.

This is a lot for a single human. To get everything done, I either need more time or more Dans.

Or the secret third option: I need to focus.

I need to focus when my reporters talk to me. I need to focus when I report a story. I need to focus when I’m filing expenses.

Focus means that I need to look people in the eye. Focus means that I need to stop trying to hold conference calls with a soccer game on in the background.

Focus means occasionally putting down the laptop.

Yes, I have to multi-task. But what that really means for me is that while I have to accomplish many different tasks — all those different Dans need to take on their own tasks within the course of a single day — in a single moment, I need to find the will to take every bit of me and throw it into a single thing.

And then I need to find a way to finish that task, find the next task and throw myself fully into that.

I cannot give all I want to give to this project until I learn to focus.

Give Absolutely Everything You Have To Something You Love.

To partially steal a line from the band Dawes: If you can gives yourself to something, then you should.

Stry.us is the closest I have come to realizing myself in another thing. It is everything I care about — stories, the web, people, building, design, sharing. It is impossible to separate myself from this project. There is already so much of me in it.

And I am all in on this. There is no backing down from it now. There is no going back to normal jobs in journalism. Not after this. Not after I’ve put in the work. Not after I’ve learned how hard I can work.

You know how many athletes will refuse to retire even after their playing career is clearly finished? Oftentimes, it’s because these athletes can’t imagine a future beyond sports. This is all they know.

And on a much smaller scale, I’m starting to understand that mentality. I don’t know just yet what the next thing is for me, but I do know that this part of the Stry.us journey ends Sept. 1. And I know that to go from Stry.us to anything less than an equally absurd challenge would be a letdown. I’d be bored at a desk job, and life is too short to be bored.

I’ve gone all in, and I cannot imagine life on a lower plane than this.

There is something so incredibly rewarding about giving myself fully to this business. On a daily basis, I’m asking myself to do things that I couldn’t do the day before. I’m asking myself to take on challenges that I didn’t know existed a month earlier.

I feel the pressure. This is my baby, and if it gets screwed up, it’s going to be my fault. This thing goes as far as I can take it, and that means making the right decisions and hiring the right team to keep it going. I think I’ve made several excellent decisions so far. I really like my team. I think we’re kicking ass.

But we’ve got less than 70 days to go on this Springfield project. There is more reporting to be done. There are more stories to be told. I love the journey, but I’m also so excited to see where we’ll all be when Sept. 1 arrives. I have no idea where this thing will take us, but I believe that it will be somewhere great. I believe that if I keep pushing all of myself into Stry.us, if I keep reaching deep for all the talent and enthusiasm that I can muster from my team, we’ll have something awesome when the Springfield project ends.

There is more to give — so much more. I will give myself to this project, I keep telling myself. I will give it everything I can give. All the time, all the energy, all the joy.

I must.

Fortune cookie at top via @c_richa20.

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