How US nonprofit The Marshall Project uses Reddit to reach underserved audiences
This interview was first published by Italian journalist Francesco Zaffarano in his biweekly Substack newsletter, Mapping journalism on social platforms. The original is available at this link. Sign up for the newsletter here.
The Marshall Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organisation focused on covering the US criminal justice system. As well as establishing a presence on more mainstream social media platforms like Instagram, The Marshall Project has been attempting to develop a presence on Reddit, which news publishers rarely consider an option for both content distribution and audience engagement.
I spoke to Ashley Dye, the audience director at The Marshall Project, who first joined the outlet as the audience engagement manager with a social media focus on Instagram and Reddit presence.
Q. When and why did you start working on Reddit?
A. I started being interested in Reddit back in college when I realised it's not just a place where people joke around but discuss the news.
Before joining The Marshall Project, I worked at the Tampa Bay Times, a local newspaper in Florida. While using Reddit, I found people asking excellent questions about the news, like why some stories are not covered or are covered in a certain way. But I realised no one was answering those questions, and it seemed natural to me to just hop in there and answer their questions.
So I started joining local subreddits [forums dedicated to specific subjects] and directly answering folks and showing them that there are people behind a newsroom, and those people live in your same community. But in those subreddits, we also found ideas for new stories to cover at the Tampa Bay Times or just joke around.
Q. Is your approach to Reddit any different now that you are at The Marshall Project?
A. The Marshall Project is different because we don't just report on wrongly incarcerated people but also talk about what happens to those who committed crimes – their prison living conditions, rehabilitation...
A lot of times, there are not a lot of nuances on social media, especially when we talk about issues as emotionally charged as the criminal justice system.
So, what I try to do with The Marshall Project on Reddit is to look for those subreddits where I can start a conversation. I don’t limit myself to the prison subreddit – I look for local subreddits and smaller ones. Once, I went to r/crochet because we had published an essay from someone behind bars who had started crocheting as a therapeutic thing. When I read it, I thought many in that subreddit could relate to how that person wrote about crocheting. So I posted asking if anyone was interested in this essay, and it turned out they were.
That's a way to not only share our content with people who are already interested in the criminal justice system but to get in front of a broader audience and start a conversation from there.
Q. How does this approach fit into the more general goals of The Marshall Project?
A. One of our primary goals is reaching currently and formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones. And some people on Reddit have had experience with the criminal justice system. There are subreddits like r/prison or r/abolish where people talk about their experiences in the criminal justice system.
Through Reddit, we can reach niche audiences and appeal to broader ones, too. We don't just want to talk to people who already have a connection to these issues.
There is a lot of coverage of the criminal justice system in the mainstream media, but there are many misconceptions. That’s why I want to reach folks with a warped idea of the criminal justice system.
Q. What is your workflow to decide what to share on Reddit?
A. When we publish a story, I try to sit back and think: which question is this story answering? And are people asking that question in some subreddits? And I move from there to find the right subreddits to go into.
But I don't just want to share articles. I don't think that Reddit is the appropriate place for every single story. Some stories are too complex, and people might see the headline and interpret it based on preconceived notions about specific topics.
For example, some stories deal with rehabilitating someone who has committed a very violent crime, and it's harder to talk to people on social media about that. Or, maybe, it’s OK to share it in one specific subreddit with a very extended caption, but it’s not ok for other subreddits on the platform.
For example, there are subreddits heavily pro-cop or anti-cop, and I don't want to go where there's an agenda, and it might seem like we're trying to skew people one way or another. I want to tell people, “Here’s a story. Think what you want of it; I would like to hear what you have to say about it.”
I approach it by anticipating how people will respond to each story and asking myself if that will trigger a fruitful conversation.
Q. You mentioned that sometimes you try to write longer captions to give more context. Can you tell me more about how to present a story on Reddit?
A. On Reddit, you don’t see newsrooms talking at folks as they do on Twitter. I try to be very mindful of how people have built communities around their subreddits. I read their rules to see how they feel about self-promotion before I share a link.
Some subreddits require a comment to explain why I'm posting this link. When I write those comments, I try to accomplish a few things. One is giving extended context on the story beyond the headline.
I also give more context around The Marshall Project. Many news organisations have paywalls, so the regular Redditor [a Reddit user] might not click because they presume an article is behind a paywall or full of ads. So I add a little parenthesis saying, “Click here to read more. No paywall or ads”.
And also, writing those comments is a way to share some news for free on the platform, and people do appreciate it. It’s good to build some trust because you gave them a preview of something, and they can see that you are not on Reddit because it’s a click farm but because you are trying to start a conversation.
Q. Reddit used to be a hostile environment for publishers, but now things are changing. What is your experience with that?
A. I got some backlash when I was at the Tampa Bay Times and have a few theories for that. One is that the Tampa Bay Times is a paywalled publication and a legacy newsroom. And so people within the communities I was going into already knew what the Times was, so they had preconceived notions about us and sometimes, people were more antagonistic. With The Marshall Project, I have had little pushback, and even when it happened, maybe it was because I was not thinking clearly, and I posted to a subreddit where there is a rule against self-promotion or there's a rule about sharing certain links.
And sometimes you just get banned from a subreddit, and it’s not your fault – it’s just that some subreddits are really against any kind of self-promotion or news, and you just have to respect that and move on.
When I get some pushback, I try not to be defensive. Many journalists are extremely defensive; they think they should be there, you know, as arbiters of truth, and they should be able to spread information. But you should think of a community on Reddit as going into a community center where you have never stepped foot and saying, “All right, listen to me.” I think it's incredibly arrogant to assume that everyone wants to hear from you, so I try not to do that.
Q. Apart from extended captions, what other formats have you tried on Reddit?
A. We have a fantastic data team, so I've tried to go into r/dataisbeautiful to share some of the charts they make, and I have tried to share images and videos. But right now, I am a team of one on social media.
We also did an AMA [Ask Me Anything] with my colleague Maurice Chammah and associate professor Mirya Holman, who had published this massive survey of US sheriffs. One day, we took a few hours to reply to people’s questions on Reddit, and it ended up in the top 2022 AMAs on Reddit. That felt gratifying because we're a relatively small newsroom.
I am hiring two audience engagement producers now, and when I have a bigger team, I want us to organise more AMAs with our reporters because I don't want people to think of us as just someone who is trying to make them go on our website. I want my colleagues to get more experience in interacting with people.
Q. How are you planning to do that? Do you want them to have a personal account to go and interact with people on Reddit?
A. Some already have accounts. Before I joined The Marshall Project, they had already done some AMAs. For the others, I will ask if they want to create one and then help them if they need me to walk them through it.
Some people might not be comfortable with Reddit because they had a bad experience in the past. Still, I always try to explain that Reddit is a place with millions and millions of people. You might have a terrible experience in one subreddit but an excellent experience in another one.
Q. What is your process to find the right subreddits?
A. When I joined, I went into Parse.ly, our analytics tool, to see where we had been getting traffic from Reddit in the previous year to find the subreddits in which people were already sharing our content.
I started to dive into those subreddits, and from there, I began to look for others, constantly checking if they were OK with publishers and trying to avoid hyper-partisan ones.
Sometimes it’s easy when we, for example, have a story based in Oklahoma, and I see if an Oklahoma subreddit is active. And then another thing is to check the related subreddits. When I find a subreddit where I want to share a story, I look at what kind of content they share, if they share news, if they want only links or a comment to introduce the story, etc.
And sometimes, it makes sense to reach out to the moderators and ask if they are ok with me publishing a specific story. Some of them appreciate it because they can see I respect their role.
They don’t own Reddit, but these people have built their communities, and I don't want to start on the wrong foot by assuming that they will be okay with me being in their space.
Q. How are you measuring success?
A. You can measure success in different ways based on the type of subreddit where you post, its size, the kind of content shared generally in it, and what conversations Redditors usually have there.
I look at the number of upvotes and comments to understand if people find our content helpful. But also, when there is a conversation around a story, it means you are getting people to think more deeply about that issue. But also through traffic. If I'm posting to a larger subreddit, like r/politics, and we get hundreds of clicks, that certainly is a success.
Q. How much traffic does Reddit bring to your site?
A. Overall, it's a tiny percentage compared to search or other social platforms, but still around number eight or nine for our annual referrers. But sometimes, when something hits the right subreddit, it can send thousands and thousands of pageviews.
I use UTMs for the posts I publish with The Marshall Project account, but sometimes traffic can arrive from links posted by other Redditors, and then it’s more challenging to find where traffic is coming from – though reddit.com/domain/[your site URL]/ helps to see shares.
Q. Are you only posting organically, or are you doing paid social too?
A. I have a budget for social ads, but I am only posting organically for now. I want to make a reputation for us, maybe we'll do ads later. I think ads are the way to go when you're a bigger publication. We must consider where we'll get the most return on investment.
Q. How would you explain the difference between traditional platforms and Reddit to a journalist moving their first steps on the latter?
A. Differently from Twitter and other social media, Reddit is where people seek out news in a word-of-mouth way and interact with people they might already trust.
If Twitter is where traditional journalists gather, I think of Reddit as something more similar to community journalism. It’s a place where you shouldn’t take yourself too seriously because Redditors will not take you super seriously.
Q. What was the most challenging thing when you started on Reddit?
A. Dealing with my impatience. When I joined The Marshall Project, there was already an old account, but no one knew how to access it anymore so I started from scratch last year. But many subreddits require your account to be at least three months old or have a certain amount of karma [a user's score, totalling their upvotes against their downvotes] before you can post. And for me, it was tough just to sit there and not be able to post for months in some subreddits.
And sometimes, I am impatient because of the rules I need to follow in some subreddits. For example, when they don’t allow self-promotion, but I have a story that would be perfect for them. I know some people use fake accounts in these cases, but I don’t want to find myself in a situation where they call me out for doing that.
Q. Is there any particular publisher you suggest following on Reddit?
A. The Washington Post does a phenomenal job. They have at least two people working on it, so their bandwidth is broader than many other smaller publications. But The Washington Post is savvy at using Reddit because they not only go in to share their news, but sometimes they'll start a conversation that has nothing to do with an article, and they let Redditors see the person behind the account.
Another good one is Bloomberg Law. They both understood that subreddits are not made for them but are existing communities you're welcome to join if you play by their rules.
Q. What would you suggest to someone who is approaching the platform?
A. Do your research before you do anything. Since you might need to wait before posting, you can use that time to read, lurk, and learn. Especially use that time to understand the rules of the subreddits. Just because you work for a big publication doesn’t mean that people there will respect you – you need to earn their respect and trust.
Italian journalist Francesco Zaffarano has recently launched a biweekly Substack newsletter, Mapping journalism on social platforms, featuring interviews with people leading news innovation on social media. We lightly edited this interview for brevity and clarity. The original is available at this link. Sign up for the newsletter here.