Why journalists love Reddit for its brains, not just its beauty

It’s fair to say that Reddit is having a moment right now. In the wake of President Obama’s decision to make the site part of the campaign trail by doing an “Ask Me Anything” Q&A last month, more and more people are seeing the site for the first time. Traffic is up, and mainstream media outlets are even writing glowing tributes to the site that was once the preserve of the internet’s crankiest community.

But while Reddit’s influence in politics may be growing, and its role in shaping internet culture is already significant, there’s another area of life that also relies heavily on the site: journalism.

It’s not news that journalists love to get linked by Reddit, which can drive huge amounts of traffic to a site — so much that some even try to game the system. But what’s less widely acknowledged is how much it gets used as a source of stories.

Over the years I’ve spoken to dozens of journalists, and heard of many more, for whom Reddit is a wellspring of ideas and inspiration. Sometimes they use it to spark new commissions, and sometimes they just rip it off, but the fact is that nearly every news organization is watching the site closely and using it in some way.

“Journalists everywhere are using it to get ideas for features,” Benji Lanyado, a freelance writer based in London, told me recently. “Stories appear on Reddit, then half a day later they’re on Buzzfeed and Gawker, then they’re on the Washington Post, The Guardian and the New York Times (s NYT). It’s a pretty established pattern.”

Reddit as ‘inspiration’

In fact, calling it a pattern is an understatement: it’s more like a routine. These days Reddit is probably the meme factory that’s most heavily used by news professionals to generate material, even though they rarely like to admit it.

Much of the “inspiration” is simple: journalists trawling Reddit and simply lifting ideas, photos or quotes: sometimes with credit, oftentimes without.

Buzzfeed, for example, happily republishes pictures with even less context than the original posts, while Britain’s Daily Mail — the biggest online newspaper in the world — regularly churns out Reddit-inspired stories.

But it’s more than just a source of material for aggregators, copycats and rip-off artists. Look a little deeper and Reddit’s news filter is also influential in other, less visible ways.

The site’s huge traffic (now more than three billion page views a month) means that it pushes through a lot of attention. Stories that rise to the top of the site can suddenly get propelled into the stratosphere — meaning that other media outlets, including TV news, have a greater chance of spotting them. The voracious, skeptical approach of many redditors also acts as a sort of built-in fact checking service for journalists too lazy or time-poor to do the legwork themselves:

And then there’s the site’s original content — things like the AMA sub-section, which has turned into an interview slot and confessional all in one. These real-life stories have helped turn Reddit from a simple link machine into something that creates its own stories, with the result that it’s constantly driving headlines.

Reddit for the rest of us

The utility of Reddit for journalists is such that Lanyado has decided to build The Reddit Edit, a skinned version of the site. It’s aimed, at least in part, at that diminishing cadre of media workers who still shy away from the site. It looks more presentable than its parent, and puts forward only the hottest stories across a variety of topics: if Reddit calls itself “the front page of the internet”, then The Reddit Edit would be the 60 second news bulletin.

Launched in July as a teach-yourself-coding project, traffic on the site is modest, but it has fans — not least because Reddit co-founder Alex Ohanian gave it the seal of approval back in July.

Lanyado’s inspiration came when he realized that Reddit was, effectively, a news service in and of itself. Much like other small projects like Evening Edition, he decided a little bit of aggregation could go a long way.

“I was using the iReddit app and I suddenly had the idea that this was really a newspaper feature section,” says Lanyado. “I want to show off Reddit and how fascinating, fucked up and amazing it is.”

Washington’s seal of approval

And it’s no surprise that the Reddit Edit appears at a time when journalism’s relationship with the site is shifting.

One of the most peculiar things about Reddit has always been the love-hate relationship. While newsrooms are regularly using it to boost their own output and traffic, much of the direct attention the media has given the site over the years has been pretty negative.

Think of Anderson Cooper’s angry expose of the /jailbait sub-reddit, or claims that the site is sensationalist or misogynistic.

These criticisms are not untrue, but they represent only a small section of the site: like any large community, it has unsavory elements. It’s hard to imagine that the perceived threat that some newsrooms feel from services like this has not played a part in this negative coverage (indeed, it’s reminiscent of Craigslist’s negative press over the years).

Truth is, there’s nothing shameful in journalists using Reddit as a source of ideas — after all, the site is really just a machine that links to stories elsewhere anyway. But it’s only now, thanks to Obama, that the mainstream media is starting to realize it doesn’t have to be their dirty little secret any more.