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March 16, 2016, 11:45 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Have an interactive, data-driven story that doesn’t fit at your news outlet? The Thrust wants to know

“In a lot of ways this serves dual purposes: one of them being a publication platform for us to do fun, interesting, or experimental things. The other is to be that platform for other people.”

In 15 states across the U.S. and 9 countries around the world, you can find gay bars with names that are some variation of the word “Eagle.” They have no formal relationship to one another, but they’re the closest thing, Ken Schwencke writes, “gay men have to a global franchise.” Schwencke’s piece “In Search of the Eagle,” published on a new site called The Thrust, is an exploration of the history of these bars and how they got their collective name — but also how Schwencke compiled this list of Eagle bars.

thrust-eagle-atlas

“It’s a weird thing that I’m super interested in. I did a lot of research into how this gay bar that existed in 1970 New York spread its name and theme thematically — sometimes they’re named differently, but essentially they’re all called Eagle. I tracked down as many as I could. I called scholars, bar owners. There’s a leather archives in Chicago — I called them too,” Schwencke told me. “Where else are you going to do a deep data dive on gay bars?”

The Thrust, currently in beta, is a project by Schwencke, formerly of the Los Angeles Times (remember QuakeBot?) and The New York Times, and Troy Griggs, currently a special projects editor for The Guardian’s visuals team and also formerly of The New York Times. The cofounders have known each other for a long time; Schwencke works full-time on the site from New York, while Griggs puts in time off-hours from London (the time difference, they both said, actually lets them work continuously if they need to: “When I wake up on the East Coast, he’s already close to getting off work in London.”)

The site was founded as a place for data-driven, interactive stories that might not fit at any existing news outlet, but about which a reporter is still “super passionate about.” Schwencke’s Eagle bar story, the first story published to the site (in the middle of this year’s NICAR conference), in some ways sets the tone for the types of work he and Griggs would like to see pitched to them. The story is mostly text, but includes many elements of discovery and interactivity: it recognizes readers’ locations and points them to the nearest Eagle bar (there’s one in Boston) and readers can tick off from a list which Eagle bars they’ve been to and then share their percentage of total Eagle bars visited on social media.

“On some level, the easiest way to describe it is: If a writer has this story, writes this story, and they pitch it to their place, and that place says no, they can find another home for a story that matters to them,” Griggs said. “What we do is provide that space for ourselves, and also see how useful that space might be to everyone in this field. What do you do if you have this really interesting data story that doesn’t fit in with where you currently work? You have nowhere to take it; it just dies with you, or you post it on your own website. Which we’ve all done. Which is frustrating.”

“In a lot of ways, our site serves dual purposes, one of them being a publication platform for us to do fun, interesting, or experimental things. The other is to be that platform for other people,” Schwencke added. “It seems to us that interactive news journalists don’t have a lot of the same opportunities that other reporters do. Part of that is structural. A lot of news websites don’t have good ways of publishing these things. There are very few news organizations that have a great workflow for publishing this stuff, or have the editing resources, or even the desire to publish things outside what they normally publish. For a metro paper, for instance, if what you’ve pitched is not focused on the city, maybe it’s just not interesting for them to publish.”

The Thrust also pays 💵💵💵. for pieces, though they’re still ironing out those details, including how licensing and publishing rights will work, possibly on a case-by-case basis (“We have no interest in owning copyright to your work,” Schwencke emphasized). The site is self-funded for now, and will run ads.

“I have money, I live in New York — which is probably the worst place to self-fund. But I realized I would never buy a house here, so instead I’m investing in this cool website,” Schwencke said. “We have an initial pool of money and a freelance budget, and we figured out how much it would cost to run the site for a year. If that runs out and we haven’t figured out how to make any money off it, then you know, I’m homeless.”

Schwencke and Griggs said they hope to offer to their freelancers extensive editing as well as general guidance and advice (and “gorgeous templates and a simple, git-based deployment system”).

“If you self-publish your interactive, you don’t get the thing you really want, which is editing and a clear distribution plan. You don’t get the chance to have the thing you’re really interested in get a wider viewing somewhere,” Griggs said. “The stories we publish can be a little less serious, but we still want to maintain the rigor of the space. Without the editing, that one-more-thing that we’re trying to add, this would just be a blog.”

At the moment, Schwencke’s piece is the only story published to The Thrust, but the site is also home to an Interactive News Depot, which grew from a personal project Griggs started in 2012 to document and categorize all the interactives across as many news sites as he was aware of (over 4,600 projects). The depot offers a bird’s-eye view of what seems to be the latest fashion in designing interactives, or what was once fashionable and now derided (tool tips, anyone?).

“Some of the things we plan on posting don’t even need to be interactive,” Griggs said. “We can keep a foothold in the space just by reporting on what’s going on in that interactive sphere. It may not necessarily be us producing a piece of interactive content.”

The duo is confident there are many reporters/designers/developers have a backlog of personal projects they’ve always wanted to work on but haven’t yet found the right outlet (outside of their personal websites or Medium, that is).

Students are very welcome to submit, and will get the same rigorous treatment from Schwencke and Griggs if their pitches are selected: “I remember when I was in journalism school, you could get huge extra credit if you got stuff published in the newspaper. But how would you even get an interactive published? You would have to be a really good writer and developer, and do all the things.”

“We’ve already talked to a lot of people who are firmly entrenched in the space and probably a lot at NICAR, too. These are friends and colleagues, and because these are people we’ve known for a while, I know they have projects that have been sitting on a backburner. I personally for instance did a piece on swimming pools in Los Angeles — it was just something I assumed the L.A. Times wouldn’t want,” Schwencke said. “And Troy, I know you have a phone brimming with ideas.”

“When you have a blank slate of an Internet page, you can do limitless things with it,” Schwencke added. “The constraints are the form you feel forced into, or what you’re used to doing: that before-and-after slide, that map, or whatever the most common tropes are. But we present you with a blank slate and say, you can pretty much do whatever you want, as long as it’s good and interesting. What does that look like?”

POSTED     March 16, 2016, 11:45 a.m.
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