Tumblr becoming a go-to tool for people-centered online storytelling

Joellen Easton
Business Development Manager
Public Insight Network

PIN journalists often support the work of other reporters and producers in their newsrooms.  It can be frustrating when a reporter needs just one or two insights or sources, but you’ve collected dozens of insightful perspectives from a diverse range of people: You’re sitting on a mountain of material without a way to publish it.  Any tool that makes it easy to share that material in a way that complements traditional reporting, looks good, and is easy to embed/link to/pair with regular content is going to get a nod.

Even with a wide range of free tools available, use of Tumblr is increasing for time-limited editorial projects that draw heavily on audience engagement.  It’s well-suited to this kind of use for a few reasons: First, the platform is easy enough to use that journalists can quickly produce content that draws on a combination of text, images, audio and video.  Second (and maybe most importantly), PIN journalists often support the work of other journalists in their newsroom, gathering volumes of insights and personal experiences that often don’t make it onto the air or into the reported story.

I asked PIN journalists to share with me what they’re working on that uses free online tools  for content drawing on community engagement.   Here’s a sampling:

For WLRN and the Miami Herald’s South Florida Flash Writing Contest in November, producer Anais Alexandre found that Tumblr “completely encapsulated the audience interactivity we were looking for.”  WLRN and the Miami Herald promoted the creative writing contest on-air, online and on the paper, used the PIN platform as the back end to collect more than 500 responses, and posted entries to the Tumblog accompanied by submitted photos of the authors.  When finalists were selected the producers recorded videos of the finalists reading their entries, and used Tumblr’s voting feature to collect user votes for best entry.  WLRN Social Media Coordinator Danny Rivero adds, “the Tumblr platform is user friendly, and it is grounded in the idea of easily sharing all mediums of content. Once we could see the functionality and how well it integrated with crowd-sourcing on social media it felt like a no brainer. Add that to the fact that it took all of fifteen minutes to set up and we had the contest up and gaining traction almost immediately.”

Amanda Peacher at OPB in Portland OR has been using Google Maps and Storify to pull insights from PIN sources into reporting.  “We’ve experimented with placing sources on an interactive Google Map with photos and quotes to get a sense for how issues are playing out across the state. Here’s a map from our latest query on unemployment.  We’ve also used Storify as a way to aggregate coverage, PIN responses, and social media for specific events. Here’s one example from Occupy Portland.”  These features live alongside or are incorporated within traditional reporting on the OPB website — making the online coverage distinct from what’s on-air and allowing readers to dig deeper for personal stories.

One of the Local Journalism Centers we’re working with, Changing Gears, is using Tumblr for a project exploring migration out of the midwest.  It’s calledMidwest Migration.  The first thing that struck me about the project is the lush closeup photos that accompany personal stories pull me straight into the content.  I’m a sucker for serendipity and being led by what entices on the page, so I love this layout.  Readers can also use the huge map at the top of the page to navigate through posts geographically.

Closer to home, the Public Insight Network’s own brand new editorial team is using Tumblr for their first reporting pilot, called Dispatches from the American Now.  The project’s mission is to go on a “virtual roadtrip,” using PIN as the means to gather stories, questions, and perspectives from people across the country about the unique American moment in which we find ourselves.  PIN’s Collaborations Editor Jacqui Banaszynski wrote up a short list of why they went with Tumblr for the project:

  • It is easy to drive from the backend.  Even I found it intuitive.
  • It allows easy posting of and control over the full range of multi-media content: a photo button highlights photos, audio button highlights audio, etc. Links and quotes can be posted without a lot of HTML fussing.  
  • It differentiates types content.  Most blog platforms make all posts look similar.  Our Tumblr theme lets posts be more distinct. 
  • It encourages informality, a sense of discovery and easy sharing.  For this first foray, we wanted the platform to match the tone of our experimental content, and wanted to use a non-linear format rather than a more traditional website hierarchy – again with minimal format wizardry.  
  • It would be easy for others to contribute to.  If we go forward with a version of this, partner newsrooms, PIN staff, reporters will be able to post relevant material to the site, have it quickly edited for style and published. 
  • It has a built-in community of followers (118 million users globally; 50 million in the U.S., according to most recent stats). That gave us instant access to an audience.  In our three-week beta, we gained 185 followers – with zero promotion.

(Later this week, Banaszynski will write a more thorough review about how Tumblr has worked for her team on the American Now project.)

Other notable newsroom Tumblr forays: Marketplace’s PIN analyst Angela Kim is using Tumblr to share queries and do outreach on Marketplace Insights.  Angela says she’s using Tumblr “as an outreach tool to contact Tumblr bloggers to see if they would fill out a query or post about the query on the site.  The really cool thing about Tumblr is the ability for something to go viral. It’s also the fastest growing platform for people in college and 20s. One of the key elements to Tumblr posts are tags, so I always advise folks who use Tumblr to use good tags so people find their posts.”  Maggie Calmes, PIN analyst at The Lens/Insight New Orleans reports that her newsroom “hopped on the Tumblr train a couple of months ago as another way to share content/stories, a place to post and more thoroughly introduce queries, and a means of informing readers about upcoming events or projects at The Lens — kind of a catchall for things that don’t find an organic place on our news website.”  And Sharon McNary of SCPR in Pasadena CA has “an informal Tumblr blog, kpccsharon.tumblr.com. I’ve been writing on it every week or so just to practice for the day when our newsroom asks a group of journalists to do a group blog.”

This list is only a start, I’m sure, and it’s definitely Tumblr-heavy.  If I missed you, please tell us in the comments how you’ve been using Tumblr, Storify, Google Maps, Google Fusion Tables or other tools for people-centered online storytelling.

Joellen Easton Business Development Manager
Public Insight Network
Joellen Easton gets to chart the next mission for PIN: New ways to use the network for meeting information needs, with new partners and new technologies. All shiny objects cross her desk.

Her background is in anthropology, and she has produced for WGBH, PRI’s The World, and as a freelancer. She first worked with PIN at Marketplace as a PIN analyst for four years, and after that as partners manager for three years, leading the training and support team. She is degreed from Tufts and MIT.