Unemployment coverage is often so dominated by sterile numbers and political pontification that it can seem like a lonely, cold world out there for the actual humans who are affected by this economy.
Where many media outlets have given their stories away to talking heads and percentage crunching, Yahoo News asked its readers for their personal stories, specifically from people who have been unemployed six months or more. It became apparent rather quickly that they had hit on a sore spot with the American public. Over the course of two weeks, about 7,000 responses poured in from around the country. Yahoo’s news blog, The Lookout, released its crowdsourced story Thursday, which is comprised almost entirely of direct quotes.
Zachary Roth, the reporter behind this story and the senior national affairs reporter for The Lookout, has been writing about economy and the unemployed, frequently from the numbers side. (Full disclosure: Roth is a former CJR staffer and contributor.) This time, he decided to change his approach. “By hearing an individual person’s struggle, that’s more compelling to readers than another list of numbers,” says Roth. “We assumed we would get a lot of responses, but we didn’t expect this many.” So many that Yahoo had to hire someone to help go through the posts.
Roth’s colleague, Phoebe Connelly, also set up a Tumblr page, called Down But Not Out, to showcase some of the responses that didn’t make it into the main article. Connelly went through and tagged the stories with keywords such as “child care” and “older workers” so readers could search for people with similar experiences to their own.
Dan H., one of the participants who is quoted in the article, said that the personal stories were effective in expressing the shame that people feel about their unemployment. “The media needs to get the perspective from people being impacted,” he says. “People who are employed get complacent; they don’t realize they could be a paycheck away from this happening to them.” In the Yahoo story, he told the tale of his tumultuous jobless year:
Dan H., who rallied to the challenge of unemployment by working with his wife to start a new business, told us: “If you cannot get a job, make one I guess. In the last year, in order, we’ve moved for a ‘better life’ across country, had a child (when we conceived all was good), lost job, had car repo’d, borrowed money from family to get wheels, went on public assistance, cried a river over my manly short comings, was inspired by my wife and am now an entrepreneur. Scary how quick life changes.”
The response to the article has been huge, with over 5,000 comments in the span of 24 hours. The bleakness of the job situation is made blaringly clear through the volume of reader interest—indeed, readers are still sending in e-mails describing their experiences. Connelly says the Tumblr site will continue to evolve. “We’d like to keep adding stories, and also add some audio interviews,” she says. “It’s not just about throwing up blog posts day after day. This is a longer-range project.”
It’s the first time that Yahoo News has crowdsourced a story, and Chris Lehmann, the editor of The Lookout blog, says part of their success comes from the high level of reader engagement that exists on the site already (record number of comments on a Yahoo news story: 50,000). For them, this type of approach made sense. “We’re fortunate at Yahoo to have a very large readership that is a good basis to experiment with this kind of storytelling,” says Lehmann.
What the article does most effectively is provide a sense of community, a place where unemployed people don’t have to feel alienated by the fact of their joblessness. For Roth, it was important to include some of the commonalities in the unemployed experience. “There’s so many aspects you don’t consider,” he says, “The shock of losing the job in the first place, the emotional toll of constantly being rejected, what it feels like to be stereotyped as lazy or not deserving of the job.”
With stereotyping comes dismissal—perhaps one reason why many who are struggling through this recession can feel like they are invisible to the public eye. “When there builds up that kind of perception, it’s the job of the journalist to look critically at that,” says Lehmann.
The overwhelming reaction to this article will probably lead to more of the same technique, says Lehmann. Here’s hoping.