— alexandr (@alexanderrusso) July 19, 2016
Earlier this week, a brave pair of USNews reporters did a Reddit “AMA” about their story on federal education funding, in which they agreed to try and answer as many questions as possible about their work:
“We are U.S. News reporters who spent 6 months investigating how rich school districts get billions of federal money meant for poor kids,” stated the introductory text. “Ask Us Anything.”
The notion that federal funding wasn’t as targeted as it should be isn’t new, but the numbers were pretty startling, and the package made it easy for readers to find out what their local funding allocation was.
The package was the work of Lauren Camera, education reporter, and Lindsey Cook, data editor. When originally it came out, the USNews series had noted that at least $2.6 billion in federal education funding is being sent to districts that are wealthier on average.
It had generated some buzz among reporters at local outlets who have taken the USNews data and written their own stories. (These included Liz Bowie from Balt Sun.) But Cook and Camera wanted more.
A longtime fan of using Reddit for reporting on previous stories, Cook came up with the idea of the pair of journalists doing an “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) on Reddit as a way of reaching a different set of folks than those who follow US News.
They weren’t the first journalists to do an AMA as a way to promote their work, though they may have been the first to do so on an education topic. Click here for a list of “best” journalist AMA outings.
AMA is basically an online Q and A, with a couple of key twists. First and foremost, questions and responses can be upvoted or downvoted by other users. Second of all, participants can ask “anything” but aren’t guaranteed an answer. Harkening from an earlier era of Internet use, Reddit users are essentially anonymous, unlike on Facebook or Twitter. Inappropriate questions can be flagged for moderators and removed.
Cook and Camera thought about doing their AMA as part of “Data Is Beautiful” group, and could have done it as part of Reddit’s sprawling education section, but ended up doing their interview in IAMA – the subreddit that specializes in online interviews.
There was some concern about lack of interest in the topic, which is pretty wonky. “We were nervous about that at first,” said Camera in a recent phone interview. “It was kind of like a big experiment.” Little did Cook and Camera know that they were going to be going up against Matt Damon.
But the decision worked out – much better than anyone expected. They were hoping for 40 questions and 300 votes. In roughly five hours of question-answering (over three different stints), the pair’s AMA generated 2,400 upvotes and nearly 300 questions as of Wednesday afternoon. The Reddit interview generated traffic increase on the website, as readers clicked through to see the story that was being discussed.
One of the biggest reasons to do something like this is to reach a different audience. “I thought it was really fun, actually – a great way to reach audience we didn’t initially reach with the launch of our story,” said Camera. USNews’ readership skews older than Reddit. The pair also hoped to reach community leaders who weren’t on Twitter or Facebook.
Reddit users are known to be particularly intense and knowledgeable. “The Reddit audience is really informed on the whole,” said Cook. “A lot of them have data and math skills. There were definitely people asking in-depth questions about technical issues. It was interesting “to engage with people who have deep knowledge about your topic.”
Reddit can also be a loose, informal way for journalists to interact with readers. “We could inject some of our personality and show that we’re really people,” said Camera. And readers responded in kind, asking the pair among other things about who they’d want to play them if there was a movie version of their story. (Spoiler alert: One of the actresses was in “Spotlight” and the other is/was married to a guy named Dax.)
It helped that they weren’t both newbies at the site. Cook had lurked in different subreddits as part of her reporting on other projects. She described them as “so niche, so ground floor.” Reddit AMA’s allow reporters to talk to readers one on one – and good story ideas that way.
As you might expect, there were lots of questions about how the formula works and whether spending makes a difference to education outcomes. Some Redditors pushed back on the use of dollar figures vs. per student spending. Others wanted a cost index adjustment used (which would create a vivid contrast with the current unadjusted method). Some readers took issue with the premise of the story, noting that 80 percent of the funding is going where it’s supposed to.
“What the fuck, how is this a thing?” wrote one Redditor.
Indeed, doing an AMA is not for the faint of heart. Redditers are a salty, prickly lot. One disgruntled participant wrote: “I would imagine professional reporters would be able to give a straight answer to a reasonable question. In the future, if you are just going to defer to the article, then post the article on its own and don’t do an AMA.”
And of course there are other more civilized ways to engage with readers or find new audiences for pieces. NPR’s education team experimented with Facebook Live as part of its School Money series. But Facebook Live is most likely to reach users who have already signed up for a page. Reddit is a way to reach people never would have come looking for the story otherwise,” noted Camera.
At least two possible story/presentation ideas came out during the Q and A: districts going on end-of-fiscal-year spending sprees to use up their Title I funding, and an interactive display of the impact of proposed changes in the formula on wealthier communities who are currently getting what some might see as more than their fair share. (US News has a chart, but nothing more visual than that.)