ProPublica Asks Reddit: What Should We Cover?

This week, the non-profit investigative journalism group ProPublica decided to take its quest to uncover the untold stories in a different direction on the Internet: Reddit. And here’s the twist, they’re not seeking sources — they’re seeking stories. They’ve opened up a channel, InvestigateThisNews, asking users to tell them what they should be covering.

Now Reddit, which has been around for years, seems to be having a heyday these days. I mean, even the President did an AMA (Ask Me Anything) during the campaign! But for ProPublica, it’s part of their Get Involved strategy, according to senior engagement editor Amanda Zamora. She discussed it in a Q&A over at Niemen Journalism Lab, in which she talks extensively about user engagement and where the Reddit channel fits in. I think she nailed it with this point on why places like Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, etc. matter not only as a reporting source but as a story source:

…[W]e still pay attention and use social media to build a general audience for our work. We are using it to get the word out about what we report. But we’re just as concerned at using these tools to help attract people who want to participate in our work. We’re doing a lot of community building.

In other words, if you want to know what the story is, or if there’s a story people in your readership and your community think is uncovered and important, why don’t you ask them. Engage them in the reporting process before there’s a reporting process.
So much has been made about “crowdsourcing” stories (this was the huge buzzword when I started j-school a decade ago, maybe even before that). But really, why wait to source until you think you know the story? Why not fish for story ideas too.

Every day in my Twitter stream and Facebook newsfeed I get pitched by reporters who are “working on a story about X and Y, and if you know someone or this applies to you get in touch.” Every single day. (I obviously follow a lot more news organizations and reporters than the Average Jane, but still.) I can’t remember the last time — never? — I saw someone throw this out there: What’s happening that I should know about? What stories did we miss? Is there something we should look into in your community? Yeah, these questions and conversations take place on the beat level. At least, I know they did when I was a beat reporter and I took every opportunity to ask for story ideas and ended up with some cool ones because of it. But on a grand scale, I’m as guilty as the next journalist of thinking I knew what news was and what was worth looking into. (I also spent plenty of time chasing “rumors” that made their way up the chain of command and ended up being nothing but a few hours of my life and work week I’d never get back. But, you know, it happens.)

Anyway, Zamora’s whole interview is worth reading, but what I think other news organizations can learn from is this:

Zamora:Yep, voting mechanisms, and also having a central channel for discussion that we can actually point to, beyond a comment board on our site. We’d rather go to Reddit where there’s already a vibrant and active community. We’d like to focus some of that energy onto investigative and accountability journalism.

What she’s saying is you don’t need a focus group. You don’t even need Reddit, if that’s not where your readers are. But what are the places in your sphere or neighborhood that already have “a vibrant and active community” that can act as a sound board, offering tips and asking you to cover specific items? Maybe it’s the PTO or a student group if you’re a schools reporter, maybe you’ve built up a group of long-time letter writers whom you can tap for ideas and immediate feedback, or maybe it’s your own organization’s Facebook page? If you think about it, chances are there’s somewhere in your community or related to your beat where you can look to find average people with ideas you’d never encounter but really ought to cover. Even if they’re not the investigative work ProPublica focuses on, they might be pieces other people would want to read. They might be important stories you haven’t asked about because you were too busy asking about the story ideas hatched in editorial pitch meetings or because you saw something someone else covered somewhere else.

If nothing else, you should totally keep track of the ideas already streaming into
ProPublica’s reddit channel. Because some of them are things you should look into in your own backyard.