Zach Seward is Outreach Editor at The Wall Street Journal, former assistant editor of the Nieman Journalism Lab and 2010 Mirror Award finalist. He spoke with me on April 7 about the Journal’s “Into Port-au–Prince: Finding Marc’s Family,” a series of blog posts linked to a Facebook page of the same name. The project chronicled the journey of Marc Henry Bigot of Miami, Florida, to Port–au–Prince, Haiti, to rescue his wife and daughter after the January 12 earthquake.
“The project was originally cooked up by the Foreign Desk as a Page One story soon after the earthquake in Haiti. I wouldn’t want to put words in other editors’ mouths, but I think they were looking for a compelling human angle to the story and got onto Marc Bijoux’s story.
Rebecca Blumenstein [Deputy Managing Editor for International News] saw in this story the potential for not just telling the story once it was over, but to narrate [the journey] as it was happening. Then the question was: What’s the best way [to do that]?
With a blog, of course, there’s the option of RSS—a reader could subscribe to the feed … but we know that RSS adoption is not very high on the web … so that led to the Facebook page idea. And from there we expanded what the page could contain beyond links to the blog posts that Gina [Chon] was filing; the page itself would essentially narrate the story.
This story was literally a journey from Miami to Port-au-Prince, so it was a natural narrative. It also had a ton of uncertainty. That made it risky. We invested a lot in this story and it could have gone anywhere, just by—you know—life. Maybe Marc got stuck in the Dominican Republic, and never got to Haiti. That was a liability but it was also really what made it compelling.”
“[Producing both a blog and Facebook] page involved a lot of coordination, primarily with Gina; she was filing blog posts but also filing to me, essentially—literally—status updates.
Sometimes Gina would file a blog post and it would be edited by the Foreign Desk and that’s not a real-time process. So if there was news that we wanted to update about right away, I would extract a sentence or two and post that while we waited to get the blog post edited, ‘cause I thought the real-time element was important to the telling of [the story]. And you could later come back and read the full blog post if that was of interest to you.”
Pros and Cons of Using Facebook
“In my previous job, my boss was Josh Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab. He [had an interesting theory], which he jokingly called the Benton Curve of Journalistic Interestingness: It’s really interesting when something happens then and there, and you can make it interesting after working on it, but it’s not interesting in the middle. [One pro of Facebook is that] it’s not just happening [in your mind] as you read it, it’s actually happening right now.
[Another] pro was the act of becoming a fan of the page. As long as you’re an active Facebook user, you’re going there frequently, and you don’t have to do anything more to receive updates.
The negatives? Facebook was not made for telling a serious journalistic narrative. I think it can be used for that, but it wasn’t made for that. It allows for status updates, photo albums, and a few other post options. But it’s limited and maybe restricts what you’re able to do in telling the story.
Another thing is the “Like” function. The idea that you write something like, “Marc’s daughter is sick and they’re worried about her,” and someone “likes” that … In the end, that’s just how Facebook works; people “like” things because they want to pass them onto their friends. But you do have to get used to the idea that you write an update on Marc’s daughter’s health, and it gets a nice thumbs-up next to it.
Another negative: We were intent on not heavily branding this, like “The Wall Street Journal Presents Marc’s Attempt to Find his Family in Port-au-Prince.” But we wanted it to be clear to readers what was going on—that a reporter from The Wall Street Journal was following Marc. It was clear from some readers’ reactions that they viewed [the Facebook page] as essentially Marc’s page. We attempted to make it clear exactly what the set-up was, but there’s only so much you can do. Next time I would think about how to make that clearer; we want to be totally transparent about what’s going on and not mislead anyone. I don’t know that we really did, but it’s sort of a worry.”
600 Fans and Other Outcomes
“There were plenty of other pages related to the earthquake in Haiti. Some had many more fans. I think a major part was that they were discussing the entirety of the earthquake, [while] we were focusing on an extremely narrow aspect—one man’s story.
We’re limited in the metrics we had to assess how many people were reading it. But you could follow it without being a fan of the page; plenty of people clicked our link to the Facebook page on WSJ.com and the homepage, saw the page, probably read some of it and left without becoming a fan. I’d love to have some better metrics because—what the meaning of the number of fans is, and whether 600 is good or bad—I don’t know.
[The Facebook page] certainly increased readership of the content that was on WSJ.com, both the blog posts and the article, but that was never really the main goal. Lots and lots of people could not find their families, so it was clear that we should have a module on the Facebook page linking to those. I would not imagine that people were following those links in abundance, but I don’t know.
Other takeaways: Because of the scale, which was small, it was very easy to follow all of the comments, and, when possible, respond to them.”
Facebook as a platform
“I was pleasantly surprised; there was never any time we wanted to present information and weren’t able to by some quirk of Facebook. There was always a way to get something up in the form of a photo album or a new image, or status update, or a link to a blog post—it actually served our purposes better than I was expecting.”
Stories best suited to this form of journalistic storytelling
“Linear narratives that you can tell as they’re happening without compromising the story.
There are all sorts of issues — we had to quickly consider them in this case—that might be truly [problematic] in other cases. [For instance], if you’re telling the story as it’s happening, does that compromise the safety of the reporter and the subject? There are certainly cases where it would. I think you would be balsam to do live reporting of a war zone.”
Worth considering doing again?
“It would depend on the story, and thinking about the right strategy for it, having now gone through this, but absolutely — definitely something we would consider doing again.”