There’s a certain sad predictability that comes with trying to cover a long-running story — especially one that touches on areas of government and policy. It’s predictable in that there’s a set of knowledge, stats and “B copy” that has to be laid to bare and can get repetitive. It’s sad almost because of that predictability, which can drown out other parts of a story.
Consider the heft it takes to write about unemployment in the U.S., a story that usually gets reduced each month to a single number. Currently that number is 9.2 percent, and that makes it one of the biggest ongoing stories in the U.S. But covering it can be tricky without treading into predictability or reducing personal stories into soundbites.
The Lookout at Yahoo News decided to try and tack in a different direction: On June 27, they put out a call to readers to share stories on long-term unemployment. Call-outs are nothing new in journalism, but The Lookout was specifically looking for full personal stories, not just modular information that could be used to fill out copy. The result was unexpected: More than 6,000 responses through comments and email, so much that they went beyond a one-off story on long-term unemployment and created Down But Not Out a Tumblr devoted to the personal narratives of the long-term unemployed.
“I felt like people had become inured to seeing those numbers constantly,” said Zachary Roth, senior national affairs reporter for The Lookout. “Almost like the jobs crisis has gone on for so long that people have lost interest.”
Roth decided to try and look deeper, starting with the fact that out of the 14 million Americans out of work, more than 6 million have been jobless for half a year or longer. So Roth laid out his appeal, citing not only the latest unemployment stats but also surveys looking at the connection between the amount of time it takes to find a job and how long you’ve been without work. More importantly, Roth said, he asked readers for a full picture of their lives now, not just the salient bullet points on being jobless.
“I’ve been writing about the economy and specifically unemployment since I started at Yahoo last year and just felt the issues of long-term unemployment has emerged in recent months as the key issue of the jobs crisis,” Roth said.
Here’s where the benefits of size and working for a company that deals with significant online traffic come into play: The post got a huge boost from prominent placement on the Yahoo homepage for a day, which may have contributed to the nearly 5,000 comments on Roth’s piece, along with around 1,000 emails.
This is a reporter’s dream/nightmare scenario: that a call-out works well enough to provide responses, but perhaps so well that it’ll take extra time just to go through them. Phoebe Connelly, a Yahoo News editor who worked with Roth on the project, and intern Galen Bernard helped sift through the entries and planned out the Tumblr, Connelly told me. She said Tumblr made the most sense for the project because it offered the ideal layout for individual stories as well as an additional means of discovery for readers. On July 14, Roth’s piece was published, featuring around 20 people who submitted their stories to The Lookout. The same day the Tumblr was launched with 58 stories. “The appeal was doing it quickly and not with a ton of manpower or tech power, and just using the editors we had to get it up,” Connelly said.
The other benefit may also have been a more immersive experience, as the posts on Tumblr aren’t encumbered with ads, buttons or a lot of links, which makes for a quieter reading experience. (Of course, the lack of ads has a monetary downside, too.) And it appears to have clicked with readers: On the day they launched Down But Not Out, the average time-on-site was around 8 minutes, Connelly said.
While lots of media outlets have experimented with Tumblr, the typical use has been as a branded alternate channel for their work. The Lookout’s approach is more specialized, giving readers’ stories a chance for a little breathing room. Which is just as well, because the stories — some short, others running several paragraphs — are alternately wrenching and raw and surprisingly optimistic and funny. And it all takes up more space than they could have afforded on The Lookout, Roth admits. “From my perspective, it was great because we got so many thousands of responses we couldn’t begin to post any of them in absolute full,” he said. It’s also afforded them the ability to keep the story alive. Connelly told me they’ve just launched a Twitter account and plan to publish three reader-submitted stories to Tumblr each week, with a story cross-posting on The Lookout every Tuesday.