The role of the journalist in the big, bad world of Reddit

Should you, a journalist, be on Reddit?


Let me clarify. If you are asking yourself this question, it probably means that you are currently unfamiliar with the platform. It might mean that you have heard that Reddit is full of hyper-engaged, active and interested people just waiting to devour your work. At the very least, you’ve heard that it can drive thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of pageviews to your website.

If this sounds like you, the answer is unequivocally “no.” You shouldn’t be on Reddit. Or at least not without careful consideration and a commitment to practicing journalism on Reddit without regard to pageviews or clicks to your website. From conversations with journalists, redditors and moderators, I’ve learned that you can’t force success on this unique social network.

Editors and executives are seeing the massive reach of Reddit and its potential as a traffic driver. Producers and reporters are seeing the massive community engagement on Reddit and its potential as a way to tap into potential readers and subscribers.

Here’s the problem: Reddit wants these people to stay away.

Does Reddit really hate journalists? 

Reddit, a social networking site launched in 2005, calls itself “the front page of the Internet.” Unlike Facebook’s impenetrable algorithm, Reddit shows you content based almost entirely on democratic factors. If you like a story or think that it has value, you upvote. If you think it shouldn’t be seen by others, you downvote. Thus, the platform inherently rewards true and valuable information, and functions under the premise that defamatory, misleading or otherwise false information will be downvoted into oblivion.

People on Reddit, or “Redditors,” take pride in the idea that quality content is driven to the top in an intentional, democratic way. Members of the community work together to reward value, and punish (by downvoting) self-promotional or superficial content. It’s journalism by the crowd.

Reddit as a home for amateur journalism
Reddit executives have recognized the persistence of amateur journalism in its domain, and in the wake of the Boston Marathon rolled out tools to make quality journalism easier to do on the platform. In February, “Reddit Live” was introduced, a new functionality that allowed users in subreddits to post real-time updates about breaking news. The feature was used effectively in the fall of 2013 when 5,500 subscribers to /r/syriancivilwar posted live coverage of the Israeli airstrike in Syria. The live Reddit thread posted, verified and contextualized user-generated information internally, an example of amateur journalism getting it right — and even beating the mainstream press to the scoop.

The idea of Reddit’s voting system trusts that “somehow, the stuff that gets to the top is going to be a genuine or authentic reflection,” says Chris Peterson, who co-teaches a class at MIT about Reddit. “It’s a cult of the amateur, cult of the authentic, cult of the genuine wisdom of crowds ideology.”

Of course, Reddit doesn’t always match that ideal. During the Boston Marathon bombings, Reddit turned into a home for speculation, false information and misplaced accusations that ruined the lives and reputations of more than one innocent person.

With a perceived vacuum for quality journalists in its midst, combined with its traffic and engagement potential, Reddit should be a haven for journalists. Despite an unfriendly user interface, the platform is rife with story ideas and millions of users waiting to devour new and interesting stories.

BostInno, a local innovation and technology site, saw the potential. “Reddit is very good for huge spikes of traffic,” says Kyle Gibson, who worked as an intern at BostInno last summer. “Reddit has broken BostInno’s website two or three times. If [a story] gets to the front page of a humongous subreddit, you can get hundreds of thousands of people coming to the site at once.”

A few years ago, BostInno reporters began posting their stories to the Boston subreddit, a community of 42,000. It saw some successful posts driving traffic to BostInno, the ultimate measure of success for a start-up tech blog. In fact, Reddit drove so much traffic to BostInno’s website that on two or three occasions, it crashed their servers.

Yet BostInno’s submissions weren’t well received by Boston redditors. Members chafed when they learned that the person submitting BostInno links worked for BostInno, and the account’s submissions began to rack up downvotes.

The journalism community is filled with stories like BostInno’s. The first high-profile backlash came in June of 2012, when subreddit moderators banned domains from Businessweek, The Atlantic and Science Daily for frequently posting their own content. A controversy in November 2013 ensued when moderators of the /r/politics subreddit banned posts from Salon, Mother Jones, The Huffington Post and Gawker.

Since the site launched, Redditors have made their hatred for self-promotion clear. The sentiment is so universal among Reddit communities that it has a separate wiki for self-promotion, outlining the general rules of engagement for Reddit. (The quote at the top of the wiki reads, “’It’s perfectly fine to be a redditor with a website, it’s not okay to be a website with a reddit account.’ –Confucius.”)

MIT’s Chris Peterson argues that “Reddit hates journalists” is a false premise — there is no universal “Reddit” culture in the first place. The only universal principle of Redditors is what he describes as a “cult of the amateur.”

We’ve seen this recently, when the immensely popular podcast “Serial” from Sarah Koenig inspired an intense desire to find the truth behind the serialized story. A Serial subreddit quickly sprang up, dedicated to pouring over the details of the extremely complicated case from 1999, in which high school student Hae Min Lee was murdered in the community of Woodlawn, Maryland. The Serial subreddit currently boasts over 24,000 members and dissects every episode for missed clues and unanswered threads to chase. This subreddit, created and fueled by fans of the show, is seeking truth within a community of amateurs.

Peterson, who describes himself as an “intermediate” Reddit user, works as the Assistant Director for Talented Outreach in MIT’s Admissions Office. He began to use the platform in 2009 when he was looking for information or new content around a specific topic. The more he explored, the more interested he became convinced the Reddit could become a way to study social sciences. In 2013, Peterson created and co-taught a course called Credit for Reddit. The comparative media studies class examined user-generated censorship on Reddit and other social media platforms.

Gibson was a junior marketing major at Emerson College when he noticed a post made by BostInno violated these rules of self-promotion. The post was “spammy, and not really made in the right way,” and he quickly messaged the account to let them know that maybe their Reddit strategy wasn’t in line with the platform’s culture. Gibson, an active Redditor and one of nine moderators of the /r/books subreddit with 3.4 million readers, noticed the bad publicity BostInno was getting on the Boston subreddit. He understands the temptation for tech blogs to tap into the millions of eyeballs on Reddit, but is aware of the suspicion Redditors have towards self-promoters.

“It’s a hard line to walk,” he admits. “If you have an account where all you’re doing is posting BostInno articles, you get called out as a spammer.”

After Gibson was brought on as an intern in the spring, he went to work rehabbing BostInno’s reputation on Reddit. He encouraged the team’s writers to post and engage with their own content on Reddit, and taught them how the expectations and rules on Reddit are different from those of other social media sites. He encouraged BostInno to publicly agree with Redditors that they had approached the platform in the wrong way, and apologize. In May, Gibson launched BostInno’s own subreddit.

The idea behind creating /r/bostinno/ was to create a BostInno space of its own, separate from the /r/boston community rules that BostInno journalists were clearly breaking. Gibson wanted to create a place where BostInno reporters were free to post their own content in addition to other city news that would be helpful to a Boston news consumer.

TLDR: If you aren’t already hooked on Reddit, Reddit probably isn’t a place for you to do journalism.

In its current form, the BostInno subreddit is completely automated, pulling in link posts to new content from The Boston Globe, My Fox Boston, and WCVB. “It’s a way for people to subscribe for updates about Boston,” says Gibson. He believes that the BostInno subreddit and an apology campaign have alleviated the mess with r/boston. “You don’t want a bad reputation on Boston social media.”

So is BostInno’s new strategy on Reddit a better approach than it’s previous posting strategy? Matt Lee, a moderator of the /r/boston subreddit, welcomes their attempts at using the platform in an innovative way, but is doubtful that the subreddit will get much traction. “It can’t really hurt, but I wonder how many people are going to subscribe to a subreddit of a website,” he says.

While the “wrong” way to use Reddit has been clearly defined, the “right” way to commit acts of journalism on Reddit has proven elusive.

What kind of Reddit journalist are you?

I believe journalists who use the platform can be classified into three types of “Reddit journalists.”

The Content Grabbers

These journalists treat Reddit as a newswire, and see the millions of stories, thoughts, photos and videos uploaded every day as source for content. “Content grabbers” pull up Reddit first thing in the morning to see what their community is talking about.

I myself see the massive advantages of using Reddit this way. I have demonstrated the power of the /r/worldnews subreddit to journalists I work with, and encourage them to check in on the top headlines of the day before our morning editorial meetings.

Reporters at BostInno use Reddit to see what the Boston community is interested in, and use that as fuel for their reporting. Kyle Gibson points to the work of reporter Nate Boroyan, who uses the /r/uberdrivers subreddit to find new Uber stories. Gibson says that a lot of story ideas come from Boston-related subreddits — a huge source for an organization that tasks its writers with publishing four to six times daily.

Yet this use of the platform is loathed by Redditors. “There are so many sites where bloggers are under pressure to publish so many listicles of interesting things a day and just get as many pageviews as possible, that it’s pretty common for them to trawl through Reddit for content,” says Peterson. He says that many blogs and websites pull ideas or content they get from Reddit into their posts, publish on their websites, and then resubmit that aggregated link back onto a different subreddit.

It’s a perverse incentive system, to be sure. Writers like those at BostInno face a daily grind, and can argue that publishing a story seen on Reddit is serving its readers. Yet “these goals are distinct from how Reddit thinks about itself and views its goals,” says Peterson.

To get the inside scoop on the expectations inside Reddit’s most powerful communities, I found Matt Lee at his favorite place to work — JP Comics & Games in Jamaica Plain. A software engineer by day, Lee leads a team of eight /r/Boston/ moderators, keeping the subreddit a thriving community for people to talk about their city.

When news organizations publish a story that says “we found this thing on Reddit,” says Lee, they’re essentially making an article out of someone else’s content. “It seems quite cheap.” Redditors rightly chafe against what they perceive as drive-by professionals coming in and using it as a free-for-all source.

There is a right way to cite Reddit content, says Lee: “Explain what Reddit is, and then link people directly to the thing itself.” Today’s current standard of practice is to acknowledge that the content came from Reddit, without a link.

Lee also suggests that when a journalist sees something he or she wants to report on, to comment on the thread and directly address the person who posted it. “Introduce yourself as a journalist,” says Lee, adding that you should ask if it’s OK to report on the story or use the photo or video uploaded, and promise to link back to it. And: “Give that person the opportunity to say no.”

The Subreddit Sneak

This type of journalist will log on to Reddit after publishing a story and submit it to one of the larger relevant subreddits with the hope that the community will find it valuable.

The danger here, of course, is that Redditors will assume you are posting to get traffic to your website. And they might not be wrong, in most cases. I’ve encouraged reporters I work with to find subreddits relevant to their beat and post their content to it. If you’re doing good journalism and creating content that is useful to passionate people, isn’t it a public service to share it with the community?

Again, no. Redditors don’t care about your content unless you earn their respect as a member of the community. Chris Peterson says that you need to apply the same rules of community engagement as you would on your own website, and likens the amount of work it takes to earn respect on Reddit similar to the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose heavy-handed moderation of comments on his Atlantic blog has created a strong and engaged community.

“People use Reddit either as part of the community or as promotion,” explains Matt Lee. “I’m not against the use of it as promotion, but it’s terrible when I see links posted and then no engagement on the post.”

Dan Adams, a business correspondent for The Boston Globe, understands the backlash against Subreddit Sneaks. “If they get a sense that you’re carpet-bombing content from down high, they’re hyper vigilant about that,” he says.

“Reddit is very sensitive to the issue of authenticity,” he says. “If you’re open to who you are and why you’re there, they’re really accepting of that.”

The only rehab for a Subreddit Sneak, Adams says, is roll up your sleeves, put in the time, and become part of the community. It’s why, perhaps, journalists haven’t flocked to Reddit the way they have Twitter. “Twitter is easier,” he says. “It’s easy adoption. In Reddit, they expect you to follow up, engage, show some personality.”

The Subreddit Sneak can become accepted and thrive on the platform only if their intention is to use their submissions as a way to start a conversation or even continue the journalism started in the article. Redditors want to read your story, but they also want to dissect it and discuss it — with your participation.

Journalists need to participate in the comment threads of their stories, respond to questions, comments and even accusations. Adams says there are no short cuts for journalists: “They want to get to the Promised Land right away. And that’s not how it works.”

The Reddit Journalist

This third type of Reddit journalist might be a professional journalist in all other walks of life, but uses Reddit like a true Redditor — as an amateur.

This person is just a member of the community, commenting and questioning and kneading and prodding just like everyone else. The Reddit Journalist uses Reddit to find stories, but the similarities end once he or she finds an interesting story or piece of content. The Reddit Journalist will then start talking to people, asking commenters for more information and clarification. It’s almost like doing journalism on Reddit.

When asked for an example of the Reddit Journalist in action, Lee immediately pointed to someone he knows as /bostonjourno. In one instance, the Redditor followed up with someone complaining that his credit card information was leaked after purchasing alcohol at Blanchard’s Liquors in Allston. “He was quite useful in helping people putting together the pieces,” says Lee. Once /bostonjourno started asking questions, other people came forward.

Lee says he respects /bostonjourno for having “journo” in his account name, and saying up front that he was a Globe reporter. He is also impressed that /bostonjourno engages not only with stories for work but with anything that interests him. He’s a true member of the community.

/bostonjourno is Daniel Adams, of course, and he’s adamant about his amateur-approach to Reddit. He uses it for background information and for asking questions. “You’ll ask a question and think, ‘there’s no way that someone in this random internet forum will know about this.’ But lo and behold, someone will email you right away.”

In November, the Globe was running a story about the potential of a soccer stadium in South Boston. Adams found the MLS soccer subreddit and identified himself as a Globe reporter. “Within half an hour, I had 10 emails of people who couldn’t wait to talk about it,” he says.

So what makes his experience so positive when other journalists have gotten skewered for posting the same thing? He attributes his success on the platform to the time he’s spent learning the cultures of different communities, and taking the time to listen and respond to his peers. “I don’t want to just shout about myself, but to provide value on top of the story that I’ve already written,” he says.

Gallery: On the morning of December 4, Reddit user /kpkristy posted a WCVB article to the Boston subreddit with news of a possible protest on Boston Common that evening. The post became the home of discussion about the protest as news of the event spread throughout the day.

In the case of the soccer stadium, the members of the MLS community “felt like this was an issue that was undercovered by the mainstream press, and were excited that the mainstream media was taking an interest in it. They were also excited that a reporter thought to reach out to this community.”

He loves that no matter the topic, Reddit will have a community passionate about it. “It lets you plug into a group that already cares about an issue,” he says. He believes that Reddit is leaps and bounds better than Twitter at finding a community around a topic, where you have to know about a hashtag to find the right conversation.

A self-professed “flag nerd,” he has found a community on Reddit that speak to his shared interests. “It’s such a weird little world,” Adams says. “On Reddit you can accumulate a critical mass of people that care about something obscure.”

It took time to establish his credibility, but Adams is unyielding in his belief that the time invested on the platform has paid off. “The level of discussion on Reddit is much higher than it is on your comments section on your average news site.” Furthermore, Adams believes that his work on Reddit has exposed a new class of readers to Globe content.

From Adams and from other Reddit Journalists, we can learn that an authentic and earnest approach to the platform can be a rewarding and enriching journalistic experience. “Don’t be afraid to be yourself, to flash a bit of personality,” says Adams. “If someone takes a swipe at you, you can push back a little bit. You have to show you’re a person. And that provides value back to the Globe. It humanizes us, shows personality. It shows that we’re humans who care about our community.”

How can journalists do what they do best (verifying and contextualizing) on Reddit, while playing by the rules? Leave your comment below.

From his perch at JP Comics & Games, Lee hacks away at his keyboard. He prefers the small comic book store to his home office, and spends hours here, deleting phishing posts and promotional links that have sneaked by spam filters.

Lee wants to encourage other journalists to do what Adams has done with his Reddit account. “It would be great if there was more active journalism taking place on Reddit,” he says. And it looks like more people are taking the cue from Adams’ success: Lee received a message this week in the /r/boston queue from a Redditor who had just started working at the Globe.

“He said, ‘I just want to give you a heads up, I work for the Globe. I want to provide the community with some disclosure.’”

Lee responded right away: “Excellent. Congratulations.”


13 Comments Add yours

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    For more resources, read this article from Reddit’s Director of Communications, Victoria Taylor, on best practices for journalists on Reddit:

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