Downtown Bentonville Inc. widens outreach through in-house media platform

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 1,949 views 

Dana Sargent Schlagenhaft is the executive producer of DWTN Media, a digital storytelling platform operated by nonprofit Downtown Bentonville Inc.

Dana Sargent Schlagenhaft is passionate about creating hyperlocal digital media, especially when the subject is her hometown.

“Someone said to me recently, ‘You are going to run out of stories in Bentonville at some point,’” she said in a recent interview. “I said I could come up with 300 stories right now. This community is unique. There are endless stories. We will never run out of stories.”

Schlagenhaft, a former television anchor and producer who joined nonprofit Downtown Bentonville Inc. (DBI) two years ago, is the executive producer of DWTN Media, a digital storytelling platform operated in-house by DBI. She is also the organization’s communications director.

Most Bentonville residents likely are familiar with DBI for its work organizing high-profile events First Friday and Farmers Market. DWTN Media is the group’s newest outreach effort. The platform launched in 2020 almost unintentionally after the pandemic halted the organization’s original strategy.

“This was born out of the idea that none of the major [television] networks has a bureau in Bentonville,” said executive director Andrew Heath. “Bentonville generates so much news, but no [TV] stations are located here.”

DBI’s original thought was to partner with a regional television station to establish a downtown Bentonville office. The idea, in theory, was that the proximity would give Bentonville-related content a leg up on story decisions. Heath said meetings with news directors from a couple of stations were on the calendar when the pandemic arrived in March 2020.

“Three months in, we realized we needed to pivot,” he recalled. “We thought, ‘Why do we need an existing news outlet when we have a pretty healthy reach through our social media? Why don’t we generate this ourselves?’

“That’s when Dana grabbed a desk lamp and a GoPro camera and started running around downtown Bentonville creating content. Some of those early stories were getting 10,000 to 15,000 interactions on our social media. That’s when we realized we had something.”

DBI shares its stories through various channels. That includes social media platforms, where DBI has more than 75,000 combined followers on Facebook, Instagram, Linkedin and Twitter, and Bentonville movie theater Skylight Cinema before show times.

The project has produced dozens of interviews and stories and has evolved to include a 30-minute television series called “DWTN Now” that airs each Saturday on local NBC affiliate KNWA-TV. It debuted on Nov. 2, 2021.

“We wanted to find a place to put our content beyond just social media,” Schlagenhaft said. “To think you can market or tell a story only on social media, I don’t think is true.”

DBI’s production value has also ticked up several notches from Schlagenhaft’s early GoPro efforts and hasn’t gone unnoticed. The 43rd Annual Telly Awards, the world’s most significant honor for video and television content across all screens, announced its award winners on May 24, including a pair of projects from DWTN Media.

“Lighting of the Square in Downtown Bentonville” received Gold recognition. The video offered a sentimental recap of the city’s annual Lighting of the Square community event, which showcases the first glimpse of thousands of holiday lights strung across the downtown square by the Bentonville Parks & Recreation department. Schlagenhaft, Heath and Sean Campbell with Bentonville firm Campbell Creative produced the video.

The “DWTN Now” television episode “Fly Oz” won a Bronze recognition. The segment showcased the region’s aviation experiences. Schlagenhaft, Campbell and content contributors Brooke Bierhaus, Chandler Harris and Heather Shelton produced the episode.

DBI is one of just three Arkansas organizations to win a Gold Telly this year (see Page 5). Ad agency titans CJRW and Stone Ward are the others.

“We’re very fortunate to have Dana at the helm of DWTN Media,” said Kirk Gober, a DBI board member for the past four years and president for two. “Her energy is what downtown Bentonville needs. She is a very upbeat, positive, out-of-the-box thinker.”

Schlagenhaft was born in Hartford, Conn., but moved to Bentonville — her father’s hometown — when she was 7.

She graduated from Bentonville High in 1999 and studied journalism at the University of Arkansas. In Fayetteville, she worked part-time at KNWA, doing everything from operating cameras and teleprompters to cleaning bathrooms and washing windows.

“Entry level,” she recalled. “But my whole thing was I showed up wearing a suit, dressing for the job I wanted.”

Schlagenhaft progressed at KNWA to television news producer, weekend and weekday reporter and ultimately to morning show anchor.

“The person who stuck his neck out for me was Mike Nail,” Schlagenhaft said. Nail was a television sports reporter at KNWA in the early 2000s and a former play-by-play voice for the Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team. “He was the one who convinced the news director to give me a chance to report. He was a big advocate for me.”

As KNWA expanded to include a Fox affiliate, Schlagenhaft helped launch Fox 24 News Edge, Northwest Arkansas’ first primetime newscast. Schlagenhaft was charged with creating a unique format and bringing the new concept to the air.

While anchoring the fast-paced news program, she used social media to interact in real-time with viewers. Fox 24 News Edge was the first news program in the region to feature social media interaction with its viewers prominently.

After spending her 20s in the television business, Schlagenhaft left KNWA in the summer of 2009. She had met the man she would eventually marry in May 2010 and was beginning to envision a life that didn’t involve frequently working until nearly midnight.

“I also didn’t enjoy the politics of the newsroom,” she recalled. “I loved the team there but didn’t always agree with the direction they were taking Fox.”

After leaving KNWA, Schlagenhaft did some consulting and marketing work and co-founded a retail company supporting small businesses.

Her passion for community and advocacy was evident and eventually led to an invitation to join the DBI executive board in 2018. She was part of the selection team to interview and ultimately hire Heath in March of that year.

Two years later, Heath turned the tables and hired Schlagenhaft, who had been consulting for DBI during the initial stages of standing up DWTN Media.

“We got a small grant to do a feasibility study on storytelling, and we brought [Schlagenhaft] on to test the waters,” Heath said. “As we got more engaged and expanded that program, we brought her on as a full-time employee.”

Heath said Schlagenhaft’s journalism background, institutional knowledge of growing up in Bentonville and enthusiasm for storytelling makes her a perfect fit for DWTN Media.

“She’s not like many other transplants who come here and may bring a good idea with them,” he said. “She’s a good storyteller because that’s what she is educated in and experienced in. But she wants to tell these stories about where she grew up and still lives and has memories.”

Heath said Schlagenhaft’s enthusiasm was evident during an interview late last year with Steuart Walton, Sam Walton’s grandson and a co-founder of Runway Group. The Bentonville holding company invests in real estate, hospitality and outdoor recreation in Northwest Arkansas. He is also a high school classmate of Schlagenhaft’s.

The interview was the basis of three “DWTN Now” episodes discussing the city’s past, present and future.

As for DWTN Media’s future, Schlagenhaft said she has ambitions of growing the platform through additional partnerships and funding.

“If you had asked me in my 20s what I wanted to do the rest of my life, this would have been it,” she said. “Maybe I didn’t know it back then, but this has all the key components. My hometown, storytelling, working with a great team. It’s a dream job.”