Q&A: A social-focused journalist on reinventing newsgathering

The project had been in the works for months, but the team was waiting for the right story. They found it earlier in September, when a white former St. Louis police officer was acquitted in the 2011 killing of a black man, Anthony Lamar Smith. NowThis formally launched its new real-time reporting project, @newsroom, to cover the verdict and the protests that followed.

NowThis is no stranger to social news. The five-year-old company delivers news in bite-sized videos, often aggregated from other sources, to a mostly-millennial audience across various social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat. @Newsroom, on the other hand, lives entirely on Twitter and features original reporting—a mix of words, video, and audio—alongside social posts from eyewitnesses. Two pioneers of social newsgathering, P. Kim Bui and Andy Carvin, are spearheading the project. The duo previously launched the startup Reported.ly, which tackled social-justice news through real-time social media reporting. It launched in January 2015, hours before the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, but suspended operations in August 2016 after funding dried up.

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@Newsroom picks up where Reported.ly left off. Under the guidance of Bui and Carvin, a team of seven producers, videographers, and reporters deployed to St. Louis on September 14. Some fed live updates directly to Twitter via the @Newsroom account; others created video content and more in-depth pieces based on that reporting. The coverage was incisive, exhaustive, and unfolded in real time.

Bui talked to CJR about choosing St. Louis for its beta test, lessons learned from Reported.ly, and the value of social newsgathering in the age of “fake news.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Tell us a little about the origin of the NowThis @newsroom. What do you envision for it?

Andy Carvin and I really wanted to go to newsrooms after Reported.ly and take the lessons we learned from it and build upon those. NowThis was fantastic enough to give us this opportunity. The @newsroom account is an [out]growth of everything we have learned about real-time reporting. We’ve learned that we need to pace ourselves. We’ve learned that eyewitness accounts are paramount to good reporting. We’ve learned that building community really makes a difference if you spend time talking to people, asking questions, answering questions, and being incredibly transparent.

We’re both very big about tweeting as we learn things, being open about what we know and what we don’t know, and that’s something news organizations are starting to do more of. So @newsroom is meant to be our breaking, real-time reporting project. We want to ease ourselves back into this so we’ll be a “pop-up.” When there’s news we think people need to follow in real time, the account will come back alive and start tweeting about a subject for a while. We’ll give context, do some reporting, and work with the rest of the NowThis newsroom to enhance the reporting NowThis already does.

What are the biggest differences between this and Reported.ly?

Pacing ourselves is one. I think once Reported.ly ended, all of us slept for what felt like a month. Picking and choosing the stories we cover is a big thing because I can’t cover everything, even though there are so many worthy stories to cover. We were all workaholics and overly ambitious, and I don’t think we had enough space to take a step back and breathe. Everyone at NowThis has helped us refine our process of story selection and how we’re going to report on things. The other big difference is we’re not just tweeting or Facebooking, or even writing stories; we’re starting to produce bigger, longer things about it. I could have written you a book on Yemen, but that never got done. A lot of stories never got done because I didn’t have time or space or support.

How exactly does it work?

We had three teams on the ground, covering different aspects of the story. We had a big meeting beforehand to discuss the main points of the story we [thought] might be interesting. We put our reporter hats on and made lots of calls and contacts. We sent those three teams on the ground and mix-matched wherever necessary, and then we had Andy and at least one other person working most of the weekend [at the NowThis headquarters]. Their job was to do a couple of things: One, to make sure that somebody in the newsroom knew where we were at all times as a safety precaution; and two, to look at social media and say, “I’m seeing reports or watching another live-stream, and this is where the protest is moving,” or “It looks like there are arrests happening.”

When you’re on the ground covering the story, you can see what’s in front of you, but not what’s three blocks away. We had a WhatsApp group with everyone who was involved in the story: They would give us t information there like, “Hey, we see this tweet,” or if they saw an image showing there would be a march tomorrow or the next day, at this time. It helps me, so I don’t have to constantly be checking Twitter myself while I’m there. I can take a step back and report what’s around me, and just focus on that.

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What does the verification process look like for NowThis’s real-time reporting?

Let me start with an example. We heard while we were on the ground [in St. Louis] that three legal observers were arrested last Sunday night as part of the mass arrests. That was a rumor that was circulating, and there were no tweets about it yet. So, we said, “We’re hearing that three legal observers were arrested, looking to confirm.” Then we would use classic reporting techniques to make some calls, dig around Twitter accounts, use our extensive knowledge of social media searching to look for those facts, and then let people know who we’ve contacted, what we’ve heard back, if someone hasn’t called us back, if someone has but don’t know the answer, that sort of thing. [Eventually, they were able to verify and confirm.]

If there were some sort of photo, we’d caution people about the photo cause we’re not sure it’s real, and then use verification techniques to go through and look at whether the photo was true. And if it’s not true, we’d mark it, and let people know that’s not true.


Why start in St. Louis?

We got a tip that the ruling was coming down on Friday [September 15]. We decided this is the kind of story we think @newsroom is going to be about. It is a story that has gotten some attention, but not enough. It’s incredibly nuanced and complex; there’s a lot to explain about it. The shooting happened even before the Michael Brown incident. So it made sense for us to just try. We went in thinking, depending on which way the verdict goes, it could be a short amount of work or a long amount of work. We honestly learned a lot in the last week with how this would work. I’m here [with] a bunch of other NowThis people, and Andy [Carvin] was back home in the East Coast office working with producers there. We fed information back and forth, and we were talking about how this was the sort of reporting we had always wanted to do at Reported.ly, but didn’t necessarily have the support to do at that time, or the number of people behind us. I think it’s going to be a model for us in the future.


How is social newsgathering changing in this climate of “fake news” rhetoric?

Every time I talk about fake news, I like to point out that fake news is not new. The term might be newer to many people, but if you look at other places in the world and even at own history in the US, there’s always been fake news. It is just amplified now by a president who likes to refer to it, and social media being where it is at this moment. I would love it if there were more people doing reporting on transparency (including debunking false information in real time). Like “we don’t know where this photo is from, and you shouldn’t believe it, and here’s why.” I’ve never understood why we don’t say that out loud. Like saying, “You’re hearing a rumor about snipers being on the roof in St. Louis; that’s not true, according to our eyes. We saw only men with binoculars.”

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Meg Dalton is a freelance journalist and audio producer based in Connecticut. She's reported and edited for CJR, PBS NewsHour, Energy News Network, Architectural Digest, MediaShift, Hearst Connecticut newspapers, and more. Follow her on Twitter: @megdalts. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.

TOP IMAGE: Producer Mike Madden, P. Kim Bui, and Associate Producer Maddie Ptacin, part of the crew reporting from St. Louis.