What You’ll Learn

Michael Rovito, deputy director at the Alaska Power Association, explains the role of photography and finding your focus in storytelling. He’s watched Alaskan utility storytelling in Ruralite magazine evolve from a focus on utility news to shining light on more compelling stories about the people and programs connecting rural Alaskan communities. Michael’s Instagram channel, @ShootingAlaska, showcases landscapes from The Last Frontier.

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

 

Intro: A production of WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. StoryConnect: The Podcast, helping communicators discover ideas to shape their stories and connect with their customers.

Megan McKoy-Noe: What kind of stories resonate with your readers? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. Hello, my name is Megan McCoy-Noe. I’m one of the storytellers at WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources and your host for this episode, filling in for Andy Johns. We’re recording live at NRECA’s Connect Conference in Seattle, Washington, with 500 of our closest co-op communicator friends. Now, as Andy always says, any noise you might hear in the background is ambiance or in this case, the sound of a very large and much needed group hug. I’m joined in this episode by Michael Rovito, the deputy director of Alaska Power Association. Michael, thank you so much for joining me.

Michael Rovito: Great. Thanks. Thanks, Megan. Nice to be here.

Megan McKoy-Noe: Now, I have been a fan of your Instagram channel shooting Alaska for years. You share pictures of hidden moments and scenic parts of the state. If folks aren’t already following you, they should. It’s just beautiful storytelling. Why are pictures an important part of storytelling?

Michael Rovito: Well, I think, you know, there’s the old adage, a picture is worth a thousand words. And I think when people look at photos, they can connect really quickly with what’s in the photo. They don’t have to really do a lot of work, which I don’t know, maybe that’s depressing to some people who like to read long stories and like to, you know, read well-written articles. But I think a picture is an easy way to really connect instantly with somebody, especially if they have other people in them. And my Instagram, when I post the photo, it’s interesting because if I take a picture of a nice landscape, you know, a beautiful sunset or a river or something like that – and I try not to live my life by likes, but, you know, you look at what gets the likes, right? And so that might get a lot of likes. But when there’s something that has a person in it doing something interesting, boy, the response is just astronomically more than just something without a person. So I think there’s that connection where somebody looking at a photo can really quickly identify like, wow, this person or this event is happening and how can I relate that to my life? Or How can I look at it and really just kind of get something from that very quickly?

Megan McKoy-Noe: I love that idea of making that connection because I don’t know if – did you get your start in reporting?

Michael Rovito: I did. So I was a newspaper reporter. My first job out of college was at the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, which is in Wasilla, Alaska, reporting on local issues, school board, you know, high school sports and stuff like that. And you talk about connection. I mean, for a guy who was brand new to Alaska in 2006, the local newspaper reporter job connecting me with the community in a way that I could have never done had I just landed there and gone to work at some other job that wasn’t in media. So it’s a really formative experience for me.

Megan McKoy-Noe: I know we love words. We love writing long, beautiful stories, but pictures. I mean, it’s so true. They connect, and they bring us there. And they bring us into the story. And it’s such an important part. And I love that you’ve seen the power of having people in those pictures for your storytelling, too. Now you help utilities across your state find and share stories inside Ruralite Magazine, which we love partnering with you on. Very fun. We were speaking earlier, and I thought it would be really nice to talk about it now, how your storytelling and how utilities in Alaska, their storytelling, has evolved over the last few years.

Michael Rovito: Yeah, I think, you know, it all goes right back to that connection with people, right? And I mean, you know, if a utility is doing something interesting, what we try to do when I write a story for Ruralite is if there’s something that’s happened at a utility, maybe something mundane, you know, like they’ve done some new construction project or they have some, you know, some other new program connected to the people that are doing it. And I always like to start a story with an anecdote, if I can. You know, so-and-so woke up early on Tuesday and fought 40 mile an hour winds to get out to the project site or something that kind of paints a picture in someone’s mind. I mean, one of the things I learned from great professors in journalism school was that first paragraph is key, right? You got to pull that person in the story, especially as people’s attention spans nowadays have become very limited. You have to hook them very quickly. And so I think the way it’s evolved is, you know, Alaska especially is a very community driven place. I mean, it’s dark and cold for a lot of the months. It’s very remote from a lot of places in the United States. So people really rely on each other in a lot of ways. And I think when, you know, when I write a story, I try to find where are those connections at? So like somebody’s reading the story in one part of the state, maybe they’re in Anchorage or they’re in the southeast part of the state, can read about something going in the Arctic and say, Wow, I connect with this. I understand why the person who works at the co-op in the Arctic is doing this, even though it’s a different lifestyle than how I live down in southeast Alaska where it’s more rainforest and those sorts of areas. Like I live in the Mat-Su Valley just north of Anchorage. And the way we live there is very different than the way you live in Arctic Alaska or other parts. But we’re all in the same boat. And when it comes to utilities and writing about what they’re doing, you know, you find those common stories. Everybody’s in the same, everyone’s in the same battle, I guess, at these these utilities. And so I think it’s really evolved from focusing on kind of nuts and bolts type of stuff. And we still do that – to really like, how can we connect this to the people who are actually doing it right? Because people care about other people in the long run. They want to know what they’re doing, right? And so I think that’s how we try to write these stories.

Megan McKoy-Noe: I love that connecting to the people that are being impacted, the people involved. I have seen an evolution in how some utilities are writing. It always used to be stories about us as the utility. Utility is doing this, the co-op is doing that and switching the focus on what your consumers, your members are doing is such a powerful way to connect with them, with your readers, and not just think of the story as the utility story, but it’s your community’s story. So…

Michael Rovito: That’s right. You know, I mean, a lot of our members have begun doing that. You know, they find youth programs or, you know, kids, I won’t say kids, but sometimes kids getting assaulted. We call them kids. Young adults, thank you. Who have done something great in the community. And they highlight that, even if it has nothing to do with the electric cooperative, right. I mean, people they get their news from so many different places nowadays, and the co-op can be a place for news really. It can. And because, you know, the co-op is so connected in everyone’s lives. Everyone’s got to flip a switch once in a while to get power. Even if you’re young or old, it doesn’t matter. And so I think that, you know, since electric co-ops are so entwined in folks lives and how they live and how they help them live with the electricity they provide, you know, they can be a real source of that community connection. Look what this great group is doing. Look at these groups are doing or just this person or whatever. And people will say, wow, this is great. And that’s also good for the co-op, because that really further bolsters their own connection with the community. And people say this, my co-op cares, right? They’re highlighting my kid. One thing we always used to say at the local newspaper, when I first started my career, you know, we would talk in the newsroom about the importance of the paper. And one of my coworkers would say, hey, everyone loves reading about their kid in the newspaper. And I think co-op members are the same way, right? They like to see what’s going on in their community, their own kids doing something. So I think it’s a real powerful tool.

Megan McKoy-Noe: Well, in line with that, are there any story topics that seem to really hit home that maybe other utilities could get an idea from? We love sparking inspiration at StoryConnect.

Michael Rovito: I think, you know, I think, when there’s a challenge in a community, that somebody’s come up with a solution. You know, maybe it’s a long standing challenge or maybe it’s something that maybe the co-op has helped with. You know, there’s been a problem. A lot of our co-ops in Alaska have charitable foundations or other organizations that they work with. I think there’s, you know, the technological advances and how you’re making people’s lives easier. And also on the energy efficiency side, you know, a lot of, especially in Alaska, where electric prices are much higher than the rest of the United States, although our members in Alaska are so APPA is the statewide association. Our members work really hard to keep those those rates low. But, you know, there’s a lot of interest in what are you doing kind of for me? What are you doing for the environment? Right? What are you doing to keep prices low? How are you innovating? I think those stories really resonate with people.

Megan McKoy-Noe: I like that. Do you have any photography tips or storytelling tips? Things that you’ve learned over your career, both as a reporter and then working at the statewide in Alaska that could help other utility communicators really strengthen their stories?

Michael Rovito: Yeah, I think the number one thing is just getting out there. And that was difficult during the pandemic. Of course, you know, a lot of us folks, you know, like me and you, who like to get out and talk all the time and visit with folks, you know, we really had a hard two years in front of our computers, but it was tough. But, you know, like so with photography, I always say, you know, I’ll take these photos and people will say, wow, I mean, how do you get that picture? And of course, there’s, you know, there’s some technical aspects. You have to know how to compose a shot, but really it’s just being there, right? If that sunrise comes up, I mean, in Alaska, the sun nowadays is coming up at like three in the morning. If you want to get a great sunrise, you’ve got to get out there. Right? You got to get out there. And I think the same is for writing. And I think co-op communicators should follow the same sort of process. You have to be out there in the community. You have to be at these events. You have to be meeting with people because you really can’t experience the things that create a good photo or create a good story by sitting behind your desk. It just doesn’t work. And, you know, I think coming out of the pandemic, people are going to be looking for those sorts of stories.

Michael Rovito: Everyone wants to reengage, so they want to see people who are communicators that put out content. They want to see them back out in the world. They want to see them taking beautiful photos, writing about beautiful topic. But the number one thing, you know, like it’s kind of like what, you know, a mentor would tell you about, hey, 90% of it is just showing up, right? So you got to get out there, experience things. Take good notes. I mean, I as I get older, I tend to have to take little field notebooks with me to write things down. Remember where you were. Go back to what you learned. If you went to journalism school, in journal school, use your five senses, right? I mean, when you’re writing something, talk about what you smelled, what you saw. You know, if you tasted food, you can even say what you tasted. You know, give someone the whole picture. But really, I think the number one thing is you got to be out there. You got to be in in the world. You got to see things. You’ve got to report on them. And, you know, you can make things beautiful. Anything’s beautiful if you’re looking at the right angle, you know, and report on it the right way.

Megan McKoy-Noe: I love that. Everything is beautiful if you’re looking at it from the right angle. And the way that angle has shifted in Alaska to really focus on those community connections is, I think, something that we can all learn from. A lot of us are doing that as well at our utilities, and it’s just exciting to watch. Well, Michael, thank you for sharing your story with our family of utility pioneers. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Alaska’s beauty on your Instagram channel @shootingAlaska, and I’ll be there this fall. Several of us will be for a conference, which is very exciting. Now he is Michael Rovito, the deputy director of Alaska Power Association. And I’m your host, Meghan McKoy-Noe at WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.

Outro: StoryConnect is produced by WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. Both companies are built to share your story. Our associate producer is Sarah Wootten. StoryConnect is engineered by Lucas Smith of Lucky Sound Studio.