Nieman Foundation at Harvard
HOME
          
LATEST STORY
Newsonomics: These are the 3 fault lines redrawing the U.S. media business
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Dec. 4, 2017, 10:30 a.m.
Audience & Social

AL.com’s new Facebook brand, Reckon, aims to build an identity that breaks out of newspaper voice

“Can we, as an established news company, create something that feels like a news startup focused around investigative and enterprise news, done for a social audience?”

“One of Alabama’s U.S. Senate candidates is a MONSTER,” a recent Facebook video declares.

This wasn’t from a political group or a page pushing misinformation — it was produced and published by Reckon by AL.com, a Facebook page from Alabama Media Group (publisher of AL.com and the state’s three largest newspapers) that focuses on fostering “tough conversations” among local followers. These take the form of explainers, Hearken-solicited reader questions, a little breaking news, and satire, like this clip. (Think Vox on the Chattahoochee.)

You see, the thing that makes a candidate a “MONSTER” in Alabama is…being a Democrat. “The other guy would have to be some kind of a Class A creep to be worse than a Democrat in Alabama, right?” Ian Hoppe, the video’s host and AMG’s managing producer of news video, deadpans.

In the swirl of the Roy Moore saga, in which The Washington Post reported that the Republican senatorial candidate had numerous inappropriate interactions with underage girls, Reckon’s team of a dozen reporters, columnists, and social media specialists have spent the past few months trying to connect with the voters who will actually decide that Senate seat on December 12: Their existing audience of Alabamians, regardless of political affiliation.

“This happened at an incredibly important time in Alabama, when the rest of the country is looking at us as a deeply backwater place,” said Michelle Holmes, AL.com’s vice president of content. “For us to have a community of smart, engaged people who live in Alabama, care about Alabama, and want a place to discuss things and be part of a community that cares about these issues, feels really good…When we cover news just as a news organization, we focus on the things that are broken in Alabama. Our goal with Reckon is to look beyond that.”

In addition to Alabama Media Group’s identity brands “This is Alabama” and “It’s a Southern Thing,” Holmes and the team developed Reckon earlier this year as a “social/video-driven brand that offers a mix of audience-centric, accountability journalism…We’re not building a catalog of complaints or a place to pile on about our problems, but providing a platform for the information you need to make the state a better place,” she wrote in a June post announcing the initiative. The questions she said Reckon was trying to answer:

What happens when you build a brand from the ground up with the aim to put audience at the heart of the journalism?

What happens when we give journalists used to going it alone a collaborative space and shared goals?

What happens when you make sharing and conversation not just PART of the metric mix, but the MAIN metric?

What happens when you turn local, hard-news producers to the work of making journalism for a social audience FIRST?

What happens when you try to be the hub, and not the OWNER, of the most important news?

The brand largely consists of the Facebook page, with 29,000 followers, and a fledging Twitter account with 2,600 followers, sharing AL.com content and its original videos. (AL.com’s main Facebook page has over 600,000 followers, but Holmes says they’re trying to move more deliberately and at a slower pace with Reckon as it grows.) The new page uses a lighter tone, is more experimental in posts, and allows its editors to be more active in the comments and bring in reporters to back up their reporting. But it’s not immune to trolls or cyberbullying.

The “MONSTER” video received more than 32,000 views, 180 shares, and 69 comments in four days, with a handful of those comment threads devolving into political meme fights and abortion debates, amid some apparent confusion over the fact that the video was satire. “For your satire to work, you have to stick to facts. Fact is, those allegations against Roy Moore have been DEBUNKED and proven to be FALSE! Your prejudice is showing when you accuse an innocent man!” one woman commented, with Reckon the page responding “Debunked? You mean this?” with a link to the Washington Post story about the Project Veritas counter-sting. (It’s unclear from further comments if anyone was swayed either way.)

On a separate post, about an article exploring the voting mindsets of some Alabamian women, one commenter protested, “So this is just a [Doug] Jones campaign page now. Used to think it actually did real reporting.” Reckon commented to clarify the the article’s purpose. Anna Claire Vollers, the reporter of the article, also responded in part: “Most people’s politics are complex and that’s what makes them fascinating to me. I don’t see how a story about conservative women is an ad for Jones. If there’s something you’d like to see us cover, I’d like to hear about it.”

Reckon is a deliberate attempt by AL.com to interact with and listen more to “people who are specifically looking to talk about issues of import in Alabama, looking for solutions to problems together in Alabama, looking to have their voices heard in Alabama,” Holmes says. But these issues go beyond Roy Moore. While the national story could persist until the special election on Dec. 12, AL.com is trying to use other tools to more deeply parse the issues, such as the Ask Alabama feature in coordination with Hearken. One such tool: The Facebook group introducing Alabama and California women of various political persuasions, coordinated by Spaceship Media after last year’s presidential election and carried on by some of the group’s participants. That’s what Vollers’ aforementioned article had followed up on:

[Sue Ann Balch’s] time spent talking online this year with Clinton voters in California hasn’t changed her political views but has strengthened her desire to see change in Washington and the ouster of longtime politicians.

“I feel even more strongly that way after the dialogue we’ve had with women out in California,” she said. “[That project] was a fabulous idea. We need more of that. There needs to be more dialogue instead of everyone being led along like sheep.”

Reckon also features content beyond political current events: why Alabama has a short bit of panhandle coastline along the Gulf of Mexico (with 1.2 million views), the defining characteristics of the South (over 500,000 views), and a “Reckonomics” infographic about Alabama’s proportion of foreign-born residents compared to the U.S. as a whole. “Can we, as an established news company, create something that feels like a news startup focused around investigative and enterprise news, done for a social audience?” Holmes said.

In 2018, Reckon will expand beyond its Facebook existence to in-person events through a partnership with the David Mathews Center for Civic Life. Through the partnership, Reckon staff will participate in forums held by the Alabama-based nonprofit. The team will also continue participating in civic events, such as one focusing on the criminal justice system, with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the libertarian law firm Institute for Justice.

“We believe that Reckon can become a brand beyond Facebook if we do this smartly,” Holmes said. “This effort isn’t just about building a new news product. It’s about changing the way we think, starting with a new structure based on collaboration and accountability.”

The main image is a screenshot from Reckon’s video Alabamification of America.

POSTED     Dec. 4, 2017, 10:30 a.m.
SEE MORE ON Audience & Social
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 45,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Newsonomics: These are the 3 fault lines redrawing the U.S. media business
The duopoly, the FCC, and the hunger for scale — these three forces are roiling the news industry, from corporate conglomerates to your hometown daily.
Facebook’s fact-checking network signs up its first conservative partner, the #NeverTrump-ing Weekly Standard
Plus: How political information gets distorted as it spreads from person to perso, and new research on trust in social media vs. branded apps.
In Seattle, GeekWire is building an international audience on top of its coverage of the local tech scene
Like fellow Seattle mainstay KEXP, GeekWire has leveraged its local coverage into international relevance — all the while making itself indispensable to its bedrock Seattle readership.