For news organizations, it’s not always clear how exactly to handle a news event like what has unfolded this month in Ferguson, Missouri, the site of a police shooting of an unarmed black teenager and subsequent protests and clashes between police, demonstrators and journalists.
Not only are events like these reported in real-time, on social media, and, of course, within a 24-hour news cycle — they are also happening in an era of changing media business models.
It all raises so many questions.
Should reporters tweet as they are getting arrested? Is it ethical to crowdfund a reporter’s ongoing work in Ferguson? With the always-on connectivity of the Internet, how should reporters handle sleep? And how do news organizations best market newsworthy content to their audience?
American Journalism Review took these questions to the Huffington Post this week in an email Q & A.
RG – Ryan Grim, Washington D.C. Bureau Chief
KP – Kate Palmer, Managing Editor
EK – Ethan Klapper, Senior Social Media Editor
AJR: What has been your overall digital strategy re: Ferguson?
KP: HuffPost has gone all in on covering Ferguson from the start, posting stories soon after Michael Brown’s death, getting reporters on the ground in Missouri to cover the protests and monitoring developments around the clock. Our reporters and editors have attempted to be fair, thorough and dogged. Often this was achieved by including as many of our staffers as possible in the brainstorming and detail-collecting process. We searched for angles that went beyond the shooting and fury that bubbled up afterward, into why the protests resonated with people across the nation, regardless of race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.
AJR: Why did you decide to crowdfund part of your Ferguson coverage [$40,000 salary for a reporter's ongoing work there for a year]?
RG: We want to maintain a presence in Ferguson, but we don’t want to dial back on the rest of our politics coverage. If our readers agree it’s a priority, then we can pull this off.
AJR: Nieman Journalism Lab reports that only a little under $5,000 has been raised so far [as of Thursday]. Is that less than you expected? If so, why do you think that is? Do you expect donations to increase in the coming days?
RG: We had hoped to raise 20% in the first few days, and instead, in just 36 hours, we’ve reached 25% of our goal.
AJR: There has been some criticism about your tactics. MediaBistro asks why you can’t simply spare $40,000 to hire another reporter, as the Beacon fundraiser only goes through if it reaches its goal of $40,000, and even then there’s no guarantee that all this money will go to the reporter. “[The reporter] could probably use a salary with benefits and some paid sick vacation days, too,” MediaBistro goes on to write. What is your response to this?
RG: MediaBistro should read the post more closely. We said upfront that we’ll cover her benefits, which of course includes paid vacation and sick days.
AJR: Regarding overall Ferguson coverage strategies, how have reporters been covering it on Twitter? How often do they post about it? We are hearing accounts of reporters working long hours, 24-hour news cycles, etc. What guidance are you giving your staff regarding sleep?
RG: We have a team of people on this story, operating in Ferguson and from our offices around the country. We encourage our reporters to work in a sustainable way, and to get the sleep they need. Social media, in one sense, enables this. Our reporters on the ground — Ryan Reilly, Christine Conetta and Amanda Terkel — file continuously to Twitter, Vine and YouTube, as well as send string into editors. Editors, with the help of reporters who volunteered for write-through duty, then use everything they’ve reported, combined with other social media reports, to put together a narrative. This allows the reporters on the ground to focus on reporting and to rest when it’s over, rather than being required to file a 1,500-word article at 2 a.m.
AJR: What percentage of referrals to your stories from Ferguson are coming from Facebook? From Twitter? How does this compare to your average site traffic?
EK: Approximately 70 percent of our referrals to our Ferguson stories are coming from Facebook, with the other 25 percent coming from Twitter. This is a higher proportion of Twitter traffic than average, and a lower proportion of Facebook traffic. That said, the conversations taking place on Twitter are invaluable, even though Twitter is not driving as much traffic as Facebook.
AJR: Facebook’s algorithms have been accused of burying stories about Ferguson in favor of more clickable links. Has your Facebook referral percentage been lower than usual? Are you doing anything about it?
EK: For HuffPost, Twitter has been the primary social platform we’ve used to get news about Ferguson out. The real-time, sporadic and algorithm-free nature of Twitter makes it ideal for situations like this.
That said, Facebook is still the primary social traffic driver for us on this story, though Ferguson content is experiencing below-average performance across Facebook. Using the main Huffington Post Facebook page as a sample, Ferguson stories as a whole have gotten lower-than-average reach. We will continue to post Ferguson-related content on Facebook regardless, as this is a very important story that needs to be promoted on all platforms.
AJR: What has been your most popular Ferguson story? How many page views did it get?
EK: Our most popular Ferguson story is the story about Ryan J. Reilly’s arrest, which has upwards of 600,000 page views.
AJR: Overall, can you give me an idea about what types of stories out of Ferguson are getting the most reactions from readers? How has that influenced your digital strategy?
EK: HuffPost readers have long been interested in police militarization, so obviously the stories from our reporters in Ferguson and elsewhere have really got them talking in our comments section and on social media. We also know that there are good things to come out of this, and we’re determined to tell the stories of those unsung heroes in the community.
AJR: One of your reporters, Ryan J. Reilly, was arrested while covering Ferguson. He tweeted about his arrest during the event and after it happened. What’s your policy/what advice do you give to your reporters about tweeting under stressful situations, such as being arrested?
RG: A reporter’s safety is his or her number one priority. Only after that is assured do we want reporters tweeting or sending string to editors. And we’re proud that under the most stressful of circumstances our reporters have consistently displayed solid judgment.
AJR: Is there ever a time in Ferguson when reporters should stop tweeting about what’s happening to them? What guidance are you giving reporters?
KP: Not generally, but we obviously keep the safety of our reporters in the forefront. If continuing to tweet or publish means they’re staying in an unsafe position, we want them to move to a place where they can safely report. But in general, Twitter has been an invaluable way for reporters to contribute to the story in real time, and we encourage them to send and write what they’re seeing.
AJR: What role do you think social media has played in the Ferguson coverage?
EK: Social media has become a part of the story. With reports that protesters are using social media to organize, this story would not be what it is without social. It was especially important during the early days of the protest, before a lot of national media arrived and brought live trucks.
Vine, in particular, has played a starring role in this story. Lots of reporters, as well as some protesters and activists, are using Vine to share striking short videos of the conflict.
AJR: We would also like to embed a few of your most popular tweets from Ferguson. What has been your most retweeted couple tweets from the site? And why do you think those tweets resonated so well?
“This is a provocative tweet about an important racial issue.”
When the media treats white suspects and killers better than black victims http://t.co/M4fciDCuIt
— Huffington Post (@HuffingtonPost) August 14, 2014
“There was a lot of interest on Twitter about the curfew.”
— Huffington Post (@HuffingtonPost) August 17, 2014