There are two things that are heating up in the media industry: multimedia exploration and true crime series. True crime podcasts are one of the top genres of audio streaming, and one Michigan media outlet set out to localize the trend.
I spoke with Darcie Moran, creator and host of MLive’s Michigan Crime Stories. Moran is an enterprise reporter for The Ann Arbor News/MLive.com, where she previously covered crime and lead social media efforts. While a student at Michigan State, she learned video and social skills. But this project, launched in March 2018, expanded hers — and MLive’s — audio portfolio.
What’s the background of this podcast? Where did you get the idea?
A little over a year and a half ago, we had been talking in a big meeting with our CEO about ways that we were trying to innovate in different storytelling formats. We’re trying to improve our reporting. It kind of started as a joke, because myself and the other crime reporter, at the time, we thought had a pretty good rapport, we thought we were pretty funny.
But our vice president was like, jokingly saying, ‘You should start your own podcast together.’ That’s one of the ideas I had offered as a possible form of innovation. And we paused and were like, ‘No, we really should do that.’ So, (former co-host John Counts) and I, we decided to look at Michigan crime stories, the title of it now, and use it as an avenue to look at legal issues and explore different communities.
MLive as a whole has hubs across the state. And we thought it would be a good way to reach into those different communities and have reporters there tell their stories and kind of give them more access to readers that they can hear and see and know more about these reporters and what they do and kind of behind the scenes.
What do you think you’ve learned in the past year? How much has changed?
Yeah, well, I mean, first and foremost, I now know way, way more about audio editing than video editing ever taught me. There’s this different kind of — when you have an image, it can kind of help you get over some different audio struggles. But in that realm, where you’re just delivering the audio, it really has to be tight and crisp.
When they do those little things, it matters a whole lot more when the only way people are going to consume this is the audio. So we learned a lot there, just production-wise.
We also learned a lot more about storytelling, to be honest. You have to use a different part of your brain and learn to tell a story in a different way because it’s consumed in such a different way. We learned a lot about that, and just marketing and trying to work through these different systems. You have to think a lot more than the old print style where it’s like, ‘Oh, we just posted it online, and they’re going to put it in the paper.’ Now we’re kind of trying to innovate, figure out how to access people in different ways and get this out there, and what else it can be used for.
What makes script writing different than traditional enterprise, written reporting?
It’s interesting, because there’s, I think, a movement in a lot of levels to make sure that traditional reporting is storytelling. But it’s what’s more necessary in audio format, where you really have to make sure you’re being descriptive, you can’t just shoot off a lead and give it away, right, right away. You have to really reel people in and set the scene for them, be really descriptive.
Think about how people consume even sentences. There are certain ways now, you really have to think about how certain ways deliver. You know, when you’re saying it and sometimes it’s just not consumable, when it’s a longer sentence, that would make perfect sense in a print format. And you really need to chop it up and think about how you’re saying things that it’s like said.
It sounds small, but it makes a huge difference in being able to convey the information, which is really the goal. This is all an avenue to help inform people.
I’ve noticed it in my own podcast production that it’s hard to trim yourself.
It’s hard even in a Q&A, because even then you have to remember even just the natural conversation with someone asked me so much more planned. The production and preparedness is so much different than when you are getting ready to write a story. Hopefully, you’re prepared to interview your subject for a written piece, but I would say it’s like so much more (challenging) now. Because you really have to make sure it sounds right, too, and you can’t call back.
What has been your favorite story that you’ve worked on?
It’s been really cool to work with the reporters that I have and work in this collaborative environment. I think I’d have to say, I did a big, investigative piece last year outside the podcast. And then it turned into a podcast, a short series within our crime stories podcast, on the disappearance of Tammy Niver and the death of Martha Agnew — two women, one disappeared and one died. They had the same husband.
Police weren’t telling us why Martha Agnew died and we didn’t have any information on it. They wouldn’t tell us how she died, or why they wouldn’t comment on it. And I did a lot of research to find out that she was going through a divorce and that man had been accused in this disappearance, and he was still loose at the time.
So during the course of my reporting, we kind of brought up new information that breathed life into the old story, the disappearance of his girlfriend, he was arrested — related to the new death. We turned that into a podcast series within our Michigan Crime Stories podcast.
That was easily the hardest part of the podcast we’ve done the entire time, because you’re taking things that are still in motion, and trying to walk through all the legal terms. That was one of the goals of the podcast initially, (we said) ‘Let’s keep it easy and tell stories that are done. We don’t have to involve our legal department every time.’ But this is one where it was a challenge because we thought it was important.
We wanted to tell it in a narrative format and have it be suspenseful and interesting, but also make sure we’re being really fair and careful and smart about it the whole way through. Hopefully you do that in all your reporting. But that’s not something we have done in this format yet. So that was a lot of work. But it was really gratifying. And I think we told the story very fairly to all involved.
What advice do you have for young reporters interested in turning different types of media into narrative, audio storytelling?
Take the shot. You learn the most by trying and talking to people who have done it. And don’t be afraid to make that transition.
I was a podcast consumer. I had been aware of other people who were experienced in podcasting, and talk to a lot of people before I got into it.
It was honestly the jump. Is everything perfect our entire first season? No, but it’s doing well and people seem to be responding. What excites me most is that we are able to explore big, legal questions and kind of pull back the curtain on the journalistic processes for people. That wouldn’t have happened if we had been afraid to jump in and try things and see what works.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.