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Nov. 10, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
Audience & Social

How The Washington Post works with its foreign correspondents to report via social media

“We want our correspondents to use the social media platform they’re most comfortable with and that comes the most naturally to them.”

Last February, the Iraqi government lifted Baghdad’s nighttime curfew, which was established by American forces when they invaded the country in 2003. After more than a decade, Baghdad’s night life was coming back.

Liz Sly, The Washington Post’s Beirut bureau chief, traveled to the Iraqi capital and reported on how the city was coming to life after dark. Liquor stores and nightclubs popped up, a new mall attracted families, and Sly wrote that “a pink neon palace called the Barbie Clinic pampers women with beauty treatments late into the evening.”

Back in Washington, Post staffers read about the Barbie Clinic and “said they’d love a photo of that on Instagram,” Sly told me, via Skype from Beirut.

Sly already had an Instagram account, but she wanted to keep it as a private personal account for her friends and family. So she created a new account and uploaded a series of photos from her reporting trip.

Botox in Baghdad at the Barbie Clinic, one of the city's many newly opened venues

A photo posted by Liz Sly (@lizslywp) on

“I’d taken a number of snaps around Baghdad, and I put them up,” she said. “To my surprise, my editors liked it, and they asked me to write a blog around it. That’s the first time I used Instagram for news, but it followed on from the story; it wasn’t a part of the original planning.”

Sly now has more than 40,000 followers on Instagram, and uses the platform to highlight and complement her reporting.

On the road. Outside Tal Abyad. #Syria

A photo posted by Liz Sly (@lizslywp) on

The Post has 21 correspondents in 16 countries across the world (including Jason Rezaian, who has been jailed in Iran for more than a year), and the paper’s foreign desk has been encouraging them to try apps like Instagram or Snapchat to reach audiences in a new way.

“Years ago, the whole point of social media, for a lot of correspondents and journalists, was to try to get sources, story ideas, and things like that,” said Swati G. Sharma, the Post’s foreign digital editor.

“What’s completely changed is that our correspondents use these as storytelling tools,” she said. “It drives home to our readers that we are there in these places in a real, authentic way.”

London bureau chief Griff Witte posted videos of refugees on the border between Austria and Slovenia on Facebook. Kevin Sieff, the Nairobi bureau chief, covered Nigeria’s elections last spring on Snapchat, and also regularly posts to Instagram. In Tokyo, bureau chief Anna Fifield (a former Nieman fellow) used Vine to show Halloween revelers and other slices of life in Japan.

“We don’t have a one-size-fits-all strategy,” Sharma said. “We want our correspondents to use the social media platform they’re most comfortable with and that comes the most naturally to them.”

This can be a challenge for the foreign desk because its reporters are so far-flung. Sharma said the staff tries to work with correspondents whenever they’re stateside in the Post’s newsroom. There’s also a lot of mass-emailing. The desk has had the most success when it works with individual correspondents to use social media to cover particular events or stories. The Post’s main accounts are also used to promote the correspondents’ posts.

Sieff first tried Snapchat while he was covering the Nigerian election in March from the rural northwestern Kaduna State, a place “where you feel a million miles away from your American readership.”

He got responses to his snaps. Many of them were totally unrelated to the Nigerian elections, but “that supplied some levity on an otherwise tough reporting day.”

“In a lot of the polling sites, because this is rural Nigeria, the ballot boxes never arrived and the polling materials never arrived,” Sieff told me on Skype from Nairobi. “So I snapchatted some photos of people waiting outside — it was like 100 degrees — for the polling places to open. There was a little bit of news there. This is one of the most important elections in Africa. To be able to convey that news to people on the spot, and get reactions from people who might or might not read the real story the following morning, was very cool. It felt like I was reaching a totally different audience than I do with my stories.”

Sly and Sieff have taken their Instagram posts and added more details and explanations to turn them into stories on the Post’s website. The Post has also uploaded saved Snapchat videos to its site and to YouTube.

That extends even to the actual print newspaper, where the Post published a series of Instagram photos Sly took of Syrian refugee children.

“I’d been out and about interviewing lots of refugees, and basically I just took snapshots for myself of children who I met,” Sly said. “After the story appeared, I just posted some of the pictures randomly myself, then to my surprise, I saw on social media that Washington Post had created a tumblr out of it. Then, several weeks later, they asked me if I’d make a blog out of it. It was all rather organic, not planned out or anything. After making the blog, someone decided that they liked the pictures and they should go in print.”

For the reporters, it can be a juggling act to fit various social experiments in with their reporting while also considering their safety. Sly was recently reporting from Syria, but she waited until she left the country to begin uploading photos to Instagram. And when he’s reporting throughout Africa, Sieff said he’s often in places that don’t have cell phone service where he can post photos or videos.

“This stuff all takes time,” Sieff said. “When you’re snapchatting, it means for that moment, you’re not taking notes, or doing an interview, or making an observation that you otherwise would. The struggle for us now is to try and find a balance between experimenting productively and making sure that we’re doing the most important part of our job, which, at least for me, is reporting and talking to people.”

Separating the personal and the professional can also make things tricky. Correspondents are often traveling thousands of miles from home and want to share photos with their friends or family. They also may only want to share a certain amount of information online when they are covering particularly charged stories.

Ultimately, Sharma said, she and others at the Post’s foreign desk want to gently nudge the correspondents to become ever more comfortable with new digital and social tools.

“We plant seed ideas for them to get comfortable with a social media tool,” she said. “From there, they just go on and take it.”

POSTED     Nov. 10, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
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