Fast Chat: Erik Martin on Reddit’s Coverage of the Aurora Theater Massacre

In the immediate aftermath of the Aurora theater shooting, social news and community site Reddit quickly became a prominent resource for coverage. Well before most awoke on Friday morning, 18-year-old Redditor Morgan Jones had a comprehensive news thread with over 50 updates. Throughout the day, major news outlets pulled video and followed leads from the Reddit community, causing many to praise the quality of the site's crowdsourced citizen journalism. Adweek spoke with Reddit general manager, Erik Martin, about the platform and how it is changing breaking news coverage.

Adweek: Has this type of painstakingly curated and investigative citizen journalism been going on for a while and people are just getting wise to it on a national level, or is this something new to Reddit?
Erik Martin:
Well, on a much lighter note in some of our sports communities are pulling in real-time data from FIFA or the NBA or whatever league, and they'll pull those in to create informative threads. For the Euro 2012, users used the data from the games to find a different way to cover these live events. This has been going on since the beginning in that people have always been taking our very simple, minimal and open platform and using it to do interesting things—using the self posting and editing functions to tell stories. There is always some evolution that comes from users trying it out. As far as the real-time, live on-going threads, like the Aurora shooting one, that is a little more recent.

As the Aurora shooting thread has been a big part of the news coverage of this tragedy, have you seen a big spike in traffic?
Perhaps a little higher for a Friday afternoon, but honestly, not anywhere outside of what we normally see. Maybe, maybe 10 percent more just by eyeballing it.

A lot of the early video we saw from the theater first surfaced on Reddit and a lot of journalists have not only cited, but also used Reddit to get in touch with primary sources. Is there a future with this crowdsourced journalism to create a reliable picture?
It is reliable in a sense. Two weeks ago there was a great comment thread about Obamacare where someone went through a huge comment thread and broke down the bill section by section in a very detailed and neutral way. That got passed around by Twitter, and people thought it was either funny or telling that some of the best information and analysis on this came from basically what is a message board. But then that user went and followed it up by going through the bill page by page and this thing is 900 pages long. I don't know this user at all. The user could live in Australia or something, but my guess is because there is this anonymity or pseudo-anonymity, the user probably wouldn't have said or done this on Facebook or Twitter or by blog. This individual clearly had a great knowledge of healthcare, and who knows he or she could get fired or something had they shared their insights with a large body of people.

Do you believe that Redditors who do this type of work aren't looking for notoriety, but rather are taking on a more altruistic role?
Some of that is because—take the people posting their pictures from the hospital on Reddit—none of them were popular users or anything. On Twitter or Facebook you need to have a built-up audience of followers, or you need to get noticed by somebody who has a lot of followers to spread information. On Reddit, that picture that the kid posted from the hospital got to the front page and was seen by hundreds of thousands of people in well under an hour, and that doesn't really happen that quickly in other places.

Have news outlets reached out to Reddit?
Yeah, quite a bit—like MSNBC and The Washington Post. I wasn't sure if we should respond at all, but—you know, the fact that BuzzFeed reached out straight to the user and not us, that feels like how it should be. To be frank, more traditional news outlets go in contact with us to try and get in touch with this person, and I was like, "Well, I don't know much more about them than you do."

Reddit is always about the community, but when you see what a powerful impact it had on covering the news, will you now consider developing more tools for citizen journalism?
Part of my job deals with how do we educate publishers and journalists?—whether it is breaking news or sports. How do we educate them to use Reddit as a source for news, information, commentary and to get into the feedback loop of the Internet? As far as technical tools, our approach is to look at what people are doing organically and how they hack our platform and try to make this easier and more accessible for those who don't have that ability to hack. We don't particularly or exclusively think of it as a place for updating breaking news though.

We never thought of Reddit as a platform that could be used specifically in this way. We just really provide a space, and because it is very open, we go on faith and try to give [users] tools. People told us we were crazy to let users edit the site, and we let people create their own categories (subreddits). In many cases, they create things we would have never thought about. I mean, those Aurora posts were edited way over 50 times today. That is not why we put those buttons there. They were there to correct spelling mistakes, but look, it is awesome to see.

Will we will start seeing Redditors hired by major newsrooms? Almost seems like they could.
I agree they should. The people who do the sports work I mentioned also really deserve jobs at places like ESPN. What is great is that what is on the news isn't always the story that people want to talk about and be involved with. On this site, you can get into and explore what you're truly interested in.

What have you learned from experiences like the Aurora shooting?
With this particular thread, you see that all the people who are following along and commenting or adding news tips, those people are there in the moment and they were part of this. They are part of helping to get this information out or are trying to comfort each other and trying to make sense of something horrible in a way that they wouldn't be able to do if they were just watching on TV. You see this too with the different fundraisers on Reddit. Maybe half the people are genuinely interested in the causes, but the other half are doing it because they just want to be a part of something.