How Spotlight Uses Ask

In December, the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe ran an extremely powerful series on racism in Boston. It was named as one of two Finalists this year for the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting.

At the heart of the series’ engagement was seven of our Ask forms and galleries, which they used to invite and share pre-moderated stories from across the city. The series received a huge number of thoughtful responses, and the Boston Globe has continued to use Ask for other investigative projects, so far including such topics as sexual harassment and gun control.

We asked Heather Ciras, Senior Editor for Audience Engagement at the Boston Globe, to share the team’s experiences in using Ask for such complex and potentially difficult themes.
 
 

Why did you reach out to The Coral Project for the Racism series?
We’ve found that the comments sections on stories about race are often not productive, and even occasionally become abusive.

We wanted a guided interface so that we could focus the conversations on productive suggestions and feedback, and give people of color a welcoming space to share their experiences, rather than an open-ended free-for-all that we feared would delve into defensiveness and attacks. The Coral Project seemed to have the tools to do this.

Importantly, our comments on the site are for subscribers only, and we wanted this to be open to everyone.
 
 
What were your goals around engagement for the series?
We wanted to enhance the conversation about Boston and racism that people of color have been having since forever, but that has also been in the news a lot over the last year. The series specifically focused on black people’s experiences, and we wanted to make sure that we had a welcoming place for all minorities to discuss their experiences without having to defend their humanity.

We, of course, also wanted the series to reach as many people in the area as possible, and hopefully get it into the hands of people who aren’t already Boston Globe subscribers.

Lastly, we wanted this to be an ongoing conversation. We started a Facebook Group that now has almost 4,000 people. As an organization, we are committed to covering the issues that are affecting minority communities, and in this group — which is now monitored by me, some on the engagement team, and our race and social justice reporter — we have a space where people can talk about news, their experiences, or give recommendations on navigating the city.

 
 
How did you decide what questions to ask using Ask?
I asked the Spotlight Team to think of the thing they’d want to know from readers after the readers finished the story. The reporters and editor put together 2-3 options for each story and then we talked about which ones seemed like they would encourage the most conversation. I liked having the writers and editors involved, because they had been digging into racism in Boston for so many months that talking about it was so natural for them.

 
 
What were the results?
We received hundreds of responses that really reinforced how important an issue this is for the city. Most impressive was the first day, where we asked people the overarching question of the series, “Does Boston deserve its racist reputation?” We received over 700 replies.

It also showed us that there is a way to have a conversation about sensitive topics via reader comments, which wasn’t something we were really optimistic about beforehand.

 
 
Did you find any stories using Ask that you followed up on for subsequent reporting?
Yes. In the Day 1 story about Boston’s image, there was a statistic quoted that the median net worth for non-immigrant African-American households in the Greater Boston region is $8, whereas the household median net worth was $247,500 for white people. This really resonated with people. They wrote comments about it and talked about it on social media. So we broke that out into a separate story and had the Day 1 reporter expand on where that fact came from.

We also used Ask for a series we did on sexual harassment in Boston, and received a lot of tips and personal stories for further reporting.
 
 
How does the design of Ask help you engage effectively?
The interface is pretty simple, so it’s easy to share the responsibility of moderation. During the weeks of the racism series, the engagement and Spotlight teams shared the moderation duties. Having that many people involved can sometimes be more difficult than helpful, but we can easily see what has and hasn’t been approved in Ask’s interface.
 
 
Do you intend to use Ask again? If so, for what kinds of stories/engagement?
Yes, and already have, for the sexual harassment series, and for an op-ed on gun control.
 
 
Is there anything else you’d like to share about what makes this kind of audience engagement work well?
You need to get institutional buy-in for participation. These discussions work best when those closest to the subject matter — the reporters and editors behind the story – are active participants in moderating and driving the discussion. With the racism series, Spotlight editor Patty Wen and her entire team were invested in this aspect of the project, and that’s part of what made it such a success.

If you’d like to learn more about Ask and Talk, contact us.