Reddit isn’t just for arguments about duck-sized horses — it’s a resource more journalists should pay attention to

Many journalists seem to dismiss Reddit as an internet freak-show of sorts, the kind of place that hosts discussion forums about nerdy topics like League of Legends — and even when the site does something respectable like an “Ask Me Anything” crowdsourced Q&A with President Obama, people mostly just talk about how someone asked him the infamous duck-sized horse question that has become a fixture of such interviews. In other words, not a place for serious journalism.

Even after Reddit introduced its new “Reddit Live” reporting tool, which makes it easier for users in sub-Reddits like the excellent Syrian Civil War forum to post real-time updates about breaking news, there seemed to be little interest in acknowledging that the site could be useful for journalists, apart from a grudging admission that it can sometimes help drive pageviews.

As Reddit general manager Erik Martin noted in a recent interview, one of the biggest benefits of Reddit’s massive user-base and the levels of engagement there often goes unappreciated, and that is the ability for journalists to see what different groups or communities think about a particular issue. As he described it:

“If you cover healthcare in the United States, you can go on Reddit and see what new parents think about this, what people in Oklahoma think about this, what people with chronic pain or some sort of disability think about it, and so forth. Reddit has all these different communities, you can observe conversations without interaction. So I think for a journalist it is a fascinating and useful resource.”

Engaging with readers is a crucial skill

So why don’t more journalists see this as an opportunity to engage with different communities of interest around stories that they think are important? I think Martin puts his finger on the problem when he says that it’s a cultural — and possibly even generational — thing, in the sense that some journalists simply aren’t interested in what users on Reddit or anywhere else have to say about the topics they write about, because acknowledging or responding to reader feedback simply isn’t a part of what they consider to be their job.

For the most part, Martin says, many journalists don’t even care about the reader comments on their own sites — because they believe them to be troll and flame-war filled sewers — so why would they care about a discussion happening on some internet community platform somewhere?

“I think it’s just habits, and part of it is maybe generational. I mean it’s unfortunate that when you talk to a lot of journalists and say ‘well you have comments on your site,’ and they have a ‘don’t care’ attitude about it. Everyone thinks it’s awful and that it’s not gonna get any better magically. It’s not about the technology – it can help, but its more about how active you are, do you have/are you paying people to moderate it and get involved?”

The point I’ve tried to make in the past is that connecting with a community of passionate readers around a topic that is important to them, whatever that topic may be, is a crucial part in the age of digital journalism and short attention-span media — and journalists who fail to develop the skills necessary to engage with readers will face a difficult future. Whether it’s in their own comment sections or on Reddit, the more practice journalists get at doing so, the better off they’ll be.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / a6photo