When Amanda Zamora left The Washington Post for ProPublica last year, she said wanted to get back to her true love — social media. She also saw it as an opportunity to step back from the real-time whirlwind of election coverage and think about involving the audience in broader, investigative stories.
She has since become something of an engagement czar, helping launch the site’s new Get Involved page, a centralized landing zone that offers a variety of ways for readers to share tips and stories. Zamora says the level of reader engagement at ProPublica surprised her, and she’s trying to make sure those readers feel appreciated. Over the long term, she says, she wants to bring user generated content into the spotlight.
When we spoke last week, we chatted about how reporters can look more analytically at social media, the reporting power of small interest groups, the shelf life of an investigation, and how Reddit will help ProPublica figure out what stories its readers want to explore.
O’Donovan: So you moved to ProPublica in July, right? What were some of the goals you had going in and why did you want to make that move?
: I think coming to ProPublica gave me a chance to kind of get back to some of my roots doing digital journalism around investigative news. I worked with the team at The Washington Post and also worked briefly at the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, which started out around about the time that ProPublica was getting going. This opportunity gave me a chance to kind of meld some of that experience with my love for social media, and figuring out how to use social media to really add to the story and do real journalism.
When I was at The Washington Post, my work there was centered on building up the social media team there, and then I segued into the national desk, working on the election. So it was a really big shift for me to go from thinking about social media to cover a story that is so real-time — news reported on social media in terms of who’s ahead, who said what — and going to ProPublica, thinking about using some of those same channels to take a step back and to take a breath and to think about what the story is beyond sort of that real time minute.
: I noticed you tweeted
the other day a quote from Pew’s State of the Media report: “Campaign reporters were acting primarily as megaphones rather than as investigators.”
: I think what was really interesting about this election was that a lot of newsrooms finally understood that social media is an integral part of the story. And they’re watching what is happening on Twitter, what readers are saying, what newsmakers are saying, what other journalists are saying — they’re looking at how people are engaging with their own journalism. They’re seeing things trend, and the question becomes — as a blogger, as a reporter, as an editor — when stories pop, what do we do with it? It’s all over Twitter — what next? Do we cover it? Do we not? Is it really a story?
I think that, on the one hand, it was a great step forward for journalists to even be asking those questions — and for it to be so natural that they are and were plugged in to social media in that way. But the problem becomes not knowing what to do with that information and when to step in. How you kind of handle things that wind up trending because a campaign puts them out with a hashtag but is not necessarily a story or adding something to the narrative or helping people understand the issues that at stake?
I think what I would really love to see in the next campaign cycle is bloggers and editors who have a better understanding of how to use those real-time insights to actually add to their mission. You always have to make choices against what you see trending — in terms of what you want to be reporting, the value that you’re providing for your readers and your audience. It’s a work in progress, and I’m hopeful that we’ll continue to make strides in the right direction.
O’Donovan: You started at ProPublica in the months just leading up to the election. Was there anything you saw at ProPublica in terms of the relationship between authors and the audience that was really productive — that you made you say, Wow, this is the kind of work we need to do more of?
: I was really fortunate. My first few months at ProPublica, I had a project readymade and waiting for me to kind of tackle, which was our Free the Files
One of the first things I really noticed when I started to plug into my work here was the quality of the relationship that we have with our readers — people email us, people tweet at us, people engage us as journalists unsolicited to thank us for the work that we’re doing or to offer us their time and their energy. I really thought that was quite remarkable in and of itself. And this Free the Files project was a real recognition for me that we as journalists have the opportunity to translate that good will of our readers into something really tangible and journalistic.
O’Donovan: Can you describe how that project worked?
: Quick backstory: It was actually started by Daniel Victor
in the spring of that year as a project aimed at getting people to help us obtain these political ad files that at that point were locked away in filing cabinets at television stations across the country, and which contain really pertinent information about political ads as they’re purchased by candidates and political groups. It was really experimental and, frankly, difficult to scale, because you’ve got hundreds upon hundreds of television stations, and files that are being logged week by week. So the idea of trying to capture all of that in any complete way was just not really possible.
So when the FCC decided that they were going to start requiring these stations to post some of these filings online, we took that opportunity to ask for our readers to help us crowdsource those files. We put them in a database in a way that people could actually get a hold of them and we asked for people to help us make them more accessible by annotating them with data points, including the amount of the ad buys, and the person buying it. Because while the FCC was putting them online, they were still PDF files, impossible to search or sort. So with the help of hundreds of people we turned it into a database that actually told a story.
O’Donovan: So you were surprised by the engagement of the ProPublica audience?
Zamora: Yeah, their real willingness to get their hands dirty and, frankly — “I spent many hours looking at PDF files” is not the sexiest work. So we’re really enthused by it, because, at the end of the day, they really felt like they were making a difference, that they were able to add something in terms of transparency to the political process. And we were all able to benefit from the result. I think that motivation was the key to the project’s success.
O’Donovan: So when the election was over, what were the takeaways from that project? What did you see that you wanted to capitalize on?
: I think one of the big things that I took away was, first of all, we 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.
To do that kind of work, you have to think in focused ways. The Free the Files community was a particular community focused on campaign finance and the political process. We have another community that is quite vibrant around patient safety. We’re working to build more in the area of student debt and the business of higher education.
So I think that the real difference for me is thinking about investing energy in engagement around smaller pockets of people who help us in more targeted ways as opposed to just thinking about social media to build audience at large for ProPublica.
: I read recently an interview with a foreign correspondent
who said if you cover military affairs, the best thing is to find message boards and pockets of veterans who are really engaged in these issues. How do you go about finding these little pockets of people who already exist?
: I mean, it’s a matter of using search, right? We do keyword searches on Twitter — Twitter has, obviously, a really powerful search platform. I think of it as the LexisNexis of real-time news. You can go in and plug in a lot of search operators and save streams to kind of monitor how people are talking about certain subjects. Things like foreclosures, for instance — people will complain when they’re having problems, and often they’ll complain on social media. So going in and testing some searches to figure out how people are talking about that issue and what companies they’re mentioning and saving streams.
We’re starting to do some of the same work on Facebook, and we now have the Search Graph that lets us find groups more easily. But we will find groups on Facebook that are already talking about certain subjects to try to figure out to try to find out if there is already an existing community or whether there is an opportunity for us to create our own, or if we want to invite people from different communities to participate in ours.
LinkedIn has another really powerful search platform, and a lot of industry and professional-type folks. It’s a recruiting platform, but it can also be useful for journalists who are looking not just for one-off sources but also groups where people are talking about issues. So you’re applying the same reporting and research skills that you would use for your story anyway, but you’re thinking about how you can kind of track those conversations over time by saving your searches somewhere, and/or tapping into preexisting groups, becoming a member — participating where it makes sense.
O’Donovan: Have you found that these stories live longer than something that’s going to published and then it’s over— that they live more continuously over time? And how do you build something that supports that kind of storytelling?
: The patient harm group that we have has some really great examples of how we started to engage a group and also publish for a group before we really published a single traditional investigative story. And the reporters, and Blair Hickman
who is the community manager there, are very present in the group. They contribute and are curating in links on the subject that they find are worthwhile and they think might be of interest to the people in the group. They’re also listening for trends and ideas and people discuss their issues or problems in the group, and those have turned into explainers or Q&As that we will post on our site.
We just published one with an expert who talks about ways to cope with patient safety errors — when the effects of those incidents go well beyond being discharged from a hospital and they affect your relationships — they affect a lot of things outside of niche interests.
That’s the kind of thing that we wouldn’t consider traditionally an investigative story, but we published and it’s been really well received because the community really values it. So just thinking outside the box about how you can cover a story and offer something back to the community as you’re sort of doing your traditional sort of investigative reporting of something that we have been working to do with that group in particular.
O’Donovan: You’ve said you want Get Involved to be a place that engagement can live at ProPublica with a more public presence. How is it working as that kind of space?
: Get Involved
is the first time we have had on our site a definitive home for all the people that are participating in our journalism. Whether it’s discussions, or groups like patient harm, or crowdsourcing projects like Free the Files — a lot of the work that we have done at ProPublica has been at the forefront of thinking how to engage people in our journalism — we’ve been doing a lot of these things for a while, but a lot of it was sort of sprinkled across the site and hard to find.
And frankly, Get Involved gives us a way to wrap our arms about it and see the collective impact that our readers are having. So the primary goal is really to have a place that we can point new readers to, to say, Hey, here are some concrete ways you can also participate depending upon your interests. So that’s really what Get Involved is all about.
It also starts to kind of get us thinking about success metrics beyond followers and clicks. We’re trying to think about participation metrics, so it might be participating in discussion, it might be stories shared for a particular call out that we have going. We’re trying to kind of think about different ways to signal activity and success to our readers.
O’Donovan: In terms of that participation metric — it’s obviously still a developing idea, but has there been any particular format or tool that surprised you?
: I think the one thing that has encouraged me was that as soon as we launched the site, we saw an uptick in subscriptions to our Reporting Network
, which had been dormant for quite a while, and we saw an uptick for both of the groups that we’re most active in right now on Facebook, our student debt group and our patient harm group — which kind of reinforced to me the idea that if we can define something that’s really focused on action and connecting people with opportunities, that we will see a higher participation rate. So far, it’s working.
I think one thing that has definitely presented itself as a challenge for us is you cast this wide net, you issue this big invitation, you want people to get involved — they’re now sending us emails, they’ve got all these ideas — and we’re realizing that we still need a way to manage the community in an efficient and effective way, so that people feel like they’re being responded to and so we feel like we can still focus on the areas we need to focus on. So it’s led me to consider some of the other ways that we can focus some of that incoming energy and those ideas in a way that people feel recognized and heard and that is sitll manageable for us.
So we’re actually in the process of starting a new Reddit channel to kind of steer a lot of those ideas and to create a space for people to tell us what they think is not being reported that should be — to give us ideas for great stories in a way that those things aren’t necessarily locked in our inbox but is out there for everyone to discuss, and vote on and explore. And we will mine that subreddit for story ideas and we hope that it will become a place that other journalists can turn to as well.
So one issue with that call or that invitation for people to participate is you have to be kind of ready to adjust when they’re looking for something that you’re not necessarily able to handle. How to redirect that in a productive way — that’s something we’re working on right now.
O’Donovan: So the idea is to harness the power of that Reddit voting mechanism?
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.
O’Donovan: When the response of the audience is so important, how do you curate your comments so they are as productive as they possibly can be?
:I think it’s all about directing things or channeling things. Our site is small enough that we don’t have a lot of the nightmares that other sites might in dealing with spam or hateful comments — some are certainly smarter than others, but for the most part we have a fairly thoughtful community. A lot of the stories that we have that spur a lot of discussion, we try to capitalize on that by then going back and leading another discussion.
For instance, Lois Beckett did a post a couple weeks ago on the consumer data industry and how companies are using and selling our personal information, which picks up so much conversation, not just on our site, but across the web. So we’re having a broader conversation with her and some other journalists to try and tackle some of the questions that have come up since we posted that story. So it gets back to being proactive about framing a conversation as opposed to just letting it happen.
O’Donovan:Do you worry about, when you open that conversation up to a larger community like Reddit, diluting the quality of that commenter base?
: I don’t think so. If anything, we already have folks that are sort of on Reddit and who find our stories and who find them compelling and discussion-worthy and they’re posting. We’re not necessarily connecting with that in a productive way. So creating this forum — which will be moderated in the same way that a lot of subreddits are moderated; there will be rules, there will be guidelines; we will tell users what we think about when we think about the criteria for a good story: Has it been told before? What’s the accountability angle? Who’s suffering? — we’re going to ask people to think about these factors when they’re posting their ideas.
So it’s not just going to be a random free for all. It’s going to hopefully be framed and guided to build toward this sort of ultimate goal which is having a place where substantive good ideas are aired in a central place that we can access and that other journalists can access so that they’re not stuck in our email with nobody really having a chance to get their ideas aired.
O’Donovan:We’ve been talking a lot about the stuff that leads up to writing a story — aggregating information and questions — but how are you thinking about the step that comes after that conversation? Helping readers activate their interest, taking it beyond the reporting and writing?
: We’re thinking about ways to do that across the site in a more systematic way, but we’re not there yet. I think we’re still kind of experimenting with specific projects. We’re going to be doing a bit more with the gun vote coming up, to kind of crowdsource a bit around the legislation so that people can call their congressman, find out how they plan to vote and report back to us so we can keep track of the issue.
We have no problem building opportunities like that, where we can, you know, add to our understanding of the story, build on our database. Part of that involves encouraging our readers to contact their congressmen. We wouldn’t ever get into a situation where we were asking our readers to tell a congressman a specific thing. But we’re trying to figure out what are the ways where we can provide opportunities for people to take that next step, acknowledging that our stories do elicit a reaction and a response and spark ideas for solutions to problems.
So how can we facilitate people communicating those ideas and those solutions without telling people what they should be thinking or doing? So the gun vote crowdsourcing is one very specific way where we can challenge people’s desire to do something around a story. And we’re also thinking about how to do that a little more systematically around our stories in a way that still works for us.
O’Donovan: So going forward, how do you want to see people using the site?
: I would really like to see Get Involved be a reflection of all of the great work by our community. I think you’re going to particularly see that bear out in the patient safety investigation. There are gonna be some things that we do with that investigation that finally give voice in a more visually compelling way to some of the people that we’ve been talking to over many, many months.
We all know as journalists what user generated content is, and I think, for the most part, we think that user generated content winds up being a snapshot of a news event or a Twitpic or an Instagram or an opinion. What I hope that we can do is take a step forward and capture readers’ stories in a compelling way using social media tools to illustrate the complexity, the scale, of a problem, of an issue that we’re investigating.
I think that you’re gonna start to see more of that in Get Involved. So in addition to having databases that were crowdsourced or these groups, you’re going to also start to see the people sort of powering our investigations and the stories they have to tell. That will be a way of seeing user generated content in a much more substantive way than in the fleeting breaking news situations or in other cases. So I’m really excited about that, and I think we’re going to see more of that across some of our other investigations as well.
O’Donovan: So, sort of deepening that relationship at the same time that you are spreading the net wide across Facebook and Twitter?
Zamora: Yeah, and introducing our audience at large with these pockets of smaller communities of people that have stories to tell. I think really giving faces and names and substance to those stories, I think, it will be sort of a big step forward for us. Taking them out of out a Facebook group, taking them out of a spreadsheet, and gathering them into one place in a compelling way.
O’Donovan: Do you think there is a place for that kind of engagement outside of investigative journalism, for outlets that are focusing on shorter periods of time?
: I hope so. I think as reporters get a bit savvier, as they continue to do about social media — another one of our goals, frankly, as we experiment, we want to give that back to the journalism community. Because we do want to see social media used to kind of add to our journalism in a more substantive way. There are tools available out there to help with that — Google Docs, for instance, we’ve been using a long time to collect sources around particular stories. It’s a very simple basic tool, and some people just don’t realize they can use Google Docs for this purpose. Little things like that.
A lot more is possible than people realize, for reporters to just take the initiative and try this themselves. The more individual reporters start having these “aha!” moments and realizing that they can find new voices and sources for their stories in this way, I think hopefully it will start to catch on a bit more.
O’Donovan: Can you see a place here for ProPublica to become a stepping stone or connector between these pockets of interest groups and outside reporters?
:It’s definitely something we’re thinking about. MuckReads
is a great instance where we know that we don’t see all the great investigative news that’s out there. People are sending us their stories and flagging things to our attention through the MuckReads hashtag. If we could start to really connect people around story ideas before they’re reported, in a way that makes sense and is using technology in a savvy way and make it efficient to do, we would be really interested in doing that.
Obviously our primary mission is around the journalism we’re trying to support in our own newsroom. But to the extent that we’re trying to build on that and connect the people that are coming to us with other journalists, that would be fantastic. Actually, I think this Reddit is sort of a step in that direction and we’ll see it where it goes.