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April 12, 2017, 10:52 a.m.
Audience & Social

With its new, “no-bullshit” tone on social, ProPublica is meeting @realDonaldTrump where he lives

“We need to think of our social media posts as tiny little stories that can be self-contained.”

By the time White House press secretary Sean Spicer called ProPublica a “left-wing blog” in an attempt to delegitimize its reporting on changes to Trump’s trust, ProPublica was ready.

“Since we’re in the actually in the biz of facts, we figured we’d respond w/ a few…” ProPublica began on Twitter on April 3, launching into a 16-tweet tweetstorm filled with facts on how it’s held people in power accountable. It ended with:

Most of ProPublica’s tweets sound like this these days: They’re chatty and knowing, authoritative but not formal. Sometimes they link back to stories on ProPublica’s site, but just as often they can stand alone, sharing reporting from its reporters or other news outlets. They sound the way people talk on the Internet. (It feels a little like a more advanced, institution-wide version of the type of crowdsourced reporting that Andy Carvin did during the Arab Spring, but it’s more explanatory.)

This isn’t an accident: It’s part of a concerted effort, beginning last fall with Trump’s election, to revamp ProPublica’s entire engagement strategy by rejiggering the team that used to be called “social.”

“The conversational vernacular, the no-bullshit-and-speaking-bluntly vernacular of social, is a very good way to tell stories nowadays,” deputy managing editor Eric Umansky said. “We’re in an age where there’s lots of misinformation, there’s lots of absurdity. To speak bluntly and accurately and fairly, but not mutedly — it’s perfectly appropriate for the time and the reality that we live in.”

Umansky oversees an engagement team that also includes engagement editor Terry Parris Jr. and engagement reporters Adriana Gallardo and Ariana Tobin. Previously, social was the job of one person. Now Umansky, Parris, Gallardo, and Tobin rotate, each taking the accounts for a week at a time. (During the weeks that they aren’t on social, the team members work on reporting projects, helping other reporters to collect audience data and get readers involved. Parris, for example, led an investigation into the usage of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Tobin led an effort to compile White House staffers’ financial disclosures on a public Google Drive after the White House refused to release them publicly. Gallardo, for an investigation into U.S. women who die in childbirth, has gotten more than 2,500 responses.) “It’s their sandbox for the week,” Umansky said. “It gives a sense of ownership, but also tries to avoid the monotony of the Twitter hamster wheel.”

ProPublica used to require reporters or editors to include, with each story filed, five tweets that could be sent out and also used on Facebook. (This is an example of what ProPublica’s Twitter feed looked like at around this time a year ago; it’s much drier, and the likes and retweets on most tweets are notably lower than they are today.) Last month, though, Umansky put a end to that practice. “I don’t think it led to the best social posts,” he said. “If we’re thinking about Twitter or Facebook as a destination for journalism, that means we need to think of our social media posts as tiny little stories that can be self-contained. That often means more than 140 characters. It means a blurb plus a screenshot, or a blurb plus a chart, or whatever.”

Instead, reporters and editors are now asked to highlight the “juiciest nuggets” from their stories when they file them, whether it’s the upshot, a telling quote, a couple of paragraphs, or whatever. The engagement reporter on duty then turns those highlights into compelling social stories.

In addition, Umansky stresses the notion that some stories never actually need to make it to the website at all. In January, when the Trump administration announced its refugee ban, Umansky was on the social rotation and wondered how refugees were already being vetted. “I could have done that as a post, but the truth is, I had neither the time nor inclination to do that,” he said. “Rather than taking four or five hours, I thought the more efficient thing would be to take 45 minutes and put together a tweetstorm.” There, he explained how the U.S. currently vets refugees, linking to reporting from The New York Times and This American Life and to research by Pew.

“Back in the day, we would either not have done it at all, or we would have had it move much more slowly through our editorial process and it would have existed in a quite different form,” he said. Swapping a tweetstorm for a full post “is not right all the time. But it gives you another option.”

The engagement team is also looking for new ways to promote ProPublica reporters themselves. For Inauguration Day, Gallardo and Tobin did a tweetstorm explaining ProPublica’s renewed mission of accountability journalism in the Trump era, including tweets with reporters’ head shots, contact information, and their individual “asks” for the audience. When ProPublica tweeted out the cards on Friday afternoon, the individual reporters got “a huge influx” of new followers, and ProPublica’s account also picked up about 10,000 new followers. “We’re being very forward about what we need,” Gallardo said.

As for that “Spicey Sauce” tweetstorm, as Umansky referred to it: That first “Since we’re actually…” tweet has been tweeted a little over 24,000 times, as of this writing, and liked nearly 40,000 times. ProPublica gained more than 100,000 new Twitter followers and 50,000 new Facebook followers in the few days after it.

“We are never going to sit and tweet out the latest news of X, Y, Z happening in Washington,” said Umansky. “A lot of journalism is synthesizing and contextualizing information. Flagging the most remarkable bits of a story. It adds a lot of value.” And there’s something about the tweetstorm, he feels, that fits particularly well in this moment.

“You know,” he said. “It’s become the modern smackdown.” And on Monday, when it won its fourth Pulitzer Prize, ProPublica was tweetstorming again.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     April 12, 2017, 10:52 a.m.
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