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Oct. 13, 2015, 10 a.m.
Reporting & Production

In a year of horrific gun violence, The Trace tries to balance fast sharing and slower reporting

The Bloomberg-backed gun news site, has found the need to balance lean-back takes with terribly frequent breaking news of mass shootings.

The Trace wasn’t supposed to be a breaking news site.

Unfortunately, though, a site that is focused on guns in America has a whole lot of breaking news events to work with these days. There have been 298 mass shootings in the United States so far in 2015, according to Mass Shooting Tracker (which defines a mass shooting as an event in which four or more people are shot). And that figure is dwarfed by the number of gun violence incidents in the U.S. — 40,308 so far in 2015, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

“We were not built to be a breaking news site, but we launched into a summer full of breaking news on our beat,” James Burnett, editorial director of The Trace, told me. The site was supposed to launch around July 4, but when the Charleston church shooting broke out on June 17, Burnett pushed to have The Trace up the following day.

The Trace, whose backers include Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety and Huffington Post cofounder Ken Lerer, is one of a growing number of single-subject journalism nonprofits, joining sites like The Marshall Project, Chalkbeat, Ebola Deeply, and Inside Climate News. (The involvement of people like Bloomberg might raise questions of bias, which the site addresses on its about page: “We bring an admitted bias to our beat: We believe that this country’s rates of firearm-related deaths and injuries — an average of 88 lives lost per day, with another 196 people suffering nonfatal bullet wounds — are far too high.”)

But it has a slightly different challenge (and opportunity) than some of its peer sites do: There are horrifyingly few days in America in which a mass shooting does not take place. That means that The Trace and its eight-person team are figuring out how to mix quick coverage with enterprise stories, analysis, and commentary.

“We want to balance the daily stories and advanced coverage of the issue, add coexisting coverage elsewhere, and have the site in the mix on a daily basis,” Burnett said.

At launch, Burnett had hoped that The Trace could publish 15 to 20 original posts a week; in reality, it’s been more like 10 to 15. So the site’s editors are looking for other ways to fill out their coverage, increase audience engagement, and build a brand even with a relatively small number of original stories.

Aggregation — as in rehashing another outlet’s reporting in a separate post — isn’t really an option. “We could goose [the number of stories we publish] with posts that rely on aggregating or curating reporting or analysis from elsewhere, but that doesn’t really fit with our mission of expanding coverage of the problem of gun violence.”

One strategy is to feature other organizations’ gun coverage on The Trace’s own social media channels. “We want to be seen as a repository,” engagement editor Akoto Ofori-Atta said. “We’re very intentional about shouting out the people whose content we’re sharing. Our audience responds to that particular strategy very well.” The Trace’s Facebook post linking to a WJLA story, for instance, got 231 likes and 105 shares.

The Trace also launched Spotter, a ticker of “gun news and views from elsewhere,” similar to The Texas Tribune’s TribWire and our own What We’re Reading. All these tickers show which reporter recommended a story and add a bit of coverage. (The Trace has seen particular engagement with its Spotter items on Facebook.) And it has a daily email newsletter that has a 41 percent open rate, according to Burnett (compared to an average media-and-publishing open rate of 22.6 percent, according to MailChimp).

“A minority of what we share, at this point, is actually our own stuff,” Burnett said. He acknowledged that that fact is “a little scary,” but it also “feels nice and collaborative.”

While mass shootings tend to be highly publicized, The Trace wants to bring more attention to the lower-profile but constant gun violence in this country: urban violence, domestic violence, and suicides. Like other single-subject sites, The Trace is looking to partner with larger news organizations, but Ofori-Atta sees its strategy there as two-fold.

“The first half of our partnership strategy is: What do you wish you had when news breaks? What do you need delivered to you in those moments?” she said. “But the other part of it is: If you’re committing to covering this, here are all of the other ways you should be thinking about gun violence outside of the mass shootings.”

While she thinks that mainstream news organizations are starting to take gun violence more seriously, she doesn’t think we’re at a tipping point yet.

“If that were the case, then it wouldn’t take a mass shooting for everyone to come out with their charts and graphs about who’s dying from guns in this country,” she said. “That’s definitely the hole we’re trying to fill.”

Photo of bullets by Frédéric Poirot used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 13, 2015, 10 a.m.
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