Daniel Victor (@bydanielvictor) recently became the Social Media Producer at New York Times, and to celebrate this tremendous occasion, he decided to talk to Much Rack about the role of social media in his career as a journalist.
Moving from being the Social Media Editor from ProPublica to your new job as the Social Media Producer at the New York Times, was the coolest thing you’ve ever done with social media and journalism?
Free the Files was a fun initiative at ProPublica because it was a thoroughly social investigation that had almost nothing to do with Twitter and Facebook. We tend to think of “social” as that which happens on Twitter, Facebook and a small number of other sites, but that’s a mistake that can limit our imagination. “Social” is a reporting process that just so happens to play out on Twitter sometimes. This was my best demonstration of that concept.
Can you tell me a little more about the background of this project?
Every local TV station in the country keeps public data on the political ads that run on their stations: who bought them, how much they cost and when they ran. If you cobbled the data from each station together, you’d have a comprehensive picture of how campaigns, super PACS and nonprofits are spending big money to influence elections. We could even surface some buyers that aren’t required to disclose their spending any other way. Unfortunately, while stations are required by law to show you this data, it’s available only by physically visting the stations during business hours and examining paper files, as the broadcasters had refused to put the files online.
So we decided we’d put the files online for them. To do so, we recruited a network of volunteers who’d be willing to visit their stations, make copies of the files, then scan and email them to us so we could post them with DocumentCloud. We worked with students, professors, retirees, professionals and news organizations that sent reporters. When I left ProPublica, hundreds of readers were willing to contribute.
This is a meaty investigation, and it’s impossible by non-social means. You can’t send a reporter to every TV station in the nation every week. But when you open that reporting process to the public — paired with stringent authentication measures — you can get the story. That’s what social is really all about: Allowing the public access to your reporting process, and accepting more and different contributors than you’d find through traditional means.
This obviously is a great example of crowd sourcing investigations but what about crowd sourcing breaking news?
In breaking news, I default to the assumption that everything I see is full of crap; only once it’s fully proven to be accurate will I tweet or retweet it out. To get there, I’ll put that info through the verification gantlet. I evaluate the account where I’m finding it (how many tweets and followers, is it verified, does it use proper punctuation and spelling, if I’m seeing an MT did the original tweet really say that, etc.), I check the link (does it lead to a reliable website, does the story say what the tweet says), and I search for context (does the quote/video suspiciously cut out right before or after a controversial statement, has there been any prior fact-checking, is this a first-hand account). If I can poke any holes in it, I’m not tweeting it, and I do my best to needle it like hell. More often than not, when someone passes along bad information it’s because they defaulted to the assumption that it was accurate, or checked a few signs but fell short of confirming. It’s really dangerous, and I don’t care if it costs me a few seconds or minutes that truly aren’t that valuable anyway. I’d much prefer my followers know I won’t give them bad info.
So, is Twitter the social media platform of choice for you?
Though its quirks often make me want to throw myself into the presses, Twitter is still my homeboy. I get access to a stunningly diverse amount of information, all delivered to me as timely as can be. It’s a crowdsourcer’s dream; once I put my ideas out there, they always come back to me stronger. I have my six-column Tweetdeck monitor up all day and it’s hard to take my eyes off of it.
For you, are all social media platforms created equal?
I consider what each platform is good at, what its very-separate communities want on each platform, and what I’m intending to gain from sharing any particular bit. I tend to use Facebook for the kind of discussions I’d have with friends. Since more journalists follow me on Twitter, I tweet more about my interests in the media. I like Tumblr for the quick hits. When new to any community, I take some time to get a sense of the formal or informal house rules. Then, should I please, I can judiciously decide which rules to break in a productive way.
You’ve been doing journalism for a very long time. Can you speak about the first ‘ah ha’ moment when you realized that social media can be very useful to journalism?
I was in the middle of a self-imposed, one-month “Twitter Twial” in March 2008. At the time I was a reporter at The (Harrisburg, Pa.) Patriot-News. Like most journalists, I started with a strong skepticism of Twitter, but I decided I had to try it since journalists I respect had so forcefully recommended it.
It hit me when truckers conducted a protest outside the Capitol, blaring their horns on the main drag to protest gas prices. Even though there were only one or two dozen local Twitter users I could find, you immediately saw several of them sharing their personal accounts of what was happening. One called it a “hangover simulator.” One asked me for information and I was able to immediately give it to him.
What struck me was comparing that info-packed, entertaining conversation to what we had on our website even after the protest was over: “Traffic around the Capital Complex (sic) could be complex this morning when 75 truckers bring their rigs without trailers into downtown Harrisburg for a 10 a.m. rally.” Here was the region’s primary news source talking in future tense about something that had already happened, and in a less interesting way to boot. We didn’t get a current story up until a few hours later.
I realized then that social media wasn’t about telling everyone what you had for lunch; it was about sharing information and expanding your pool of information sources. That had obvious application to my work as a reporter.