Democracy dies in dankness.
That’s not a typo in the Washington Post’s Reddit profile: The Washington Post account is an avid poster of some pretty good memes and gifs. It’s got jokes. It’s also a sharer of everything from polling stories to breaking national security stories to lifestyle columns to geeky features to fact-checks and a facilitator of, and participant in, AMAs ("Ask me anything"). The official publisher account has been live since April of this year, shortly after the platform began allowing public profiles, and appears to have broken through Reddit’s tough anti-brand, anti-paywall shell.
“This is a community that likes to talk and talk back,” sai Gene Park, the Washington Post’s social media editor. Park, himself a long-time Reddit user with a comment history fellow Redditors could look to for proof of authenticity, is the sole voice and moderator for /u/washingtonpost and has spent significant effort bringing WaPo journalists onto Reddit to demystify the reporting process, participate in conversations without motive and craft jokes. “Reddit profiles were started because they wanted to encourage the creative community. There was no real place for artists and creators to push stuff on their own, because of previous self-promotion rules. That connected with me — I thought, what if the Washington Post was just another creator? We’re just there to talk about our work.” (Other Reddit publisher partners include AL.com and Time magazine, which is doing formalized weekly roundups of Reddit content.)
One does not simply walk into Reddit and start pushing his or her own stories; the community has always had a serious allergy to self-promotion. Journalists have for years plumbed it for news stories (and other entertaining content), a practice Redditors haven’t looked upon fondly. Reddit is also home to 1 million-plus (and growing) subreddits; matching Post stories with the niche communities that would be receptive to them is yet another hurdle. And while some of the darkest subreddits such as r/Nazis or r/DylannRoofInnocent have been banned, trolling and viciousness remain.
“This isn’t a traffic play; it’s an engagement play,” Park said. “So the strategy includes inserting ourselves into comments under stories that are posted. The Washington Post is linked to quite often on Reddit. We want to find those conversations around our stories to see if we can provide more context or more answers. Sometimes we might’ve written a bunch of stories that relate to questions people are asking. I might use my knowledge and ties to get that information to people.”
The not-so-revolutionary secret to the Post brand’s gradual acceptance by Reddit is its consistent transparency, including responding to unflattering accusations about the “Amazon Washington Post” and its ownership, or questions about how John Podesta has influenced the Post’s reporting since “he was brought on board” (he’s a contributing columnist, not an employee).
“Even people who’ve been critical of us, when I answer them honestly about how we do our journalism, they’ll respond and say, ‘I might not agree with everything you do, but I appreciate having you here in the comments section with us, and as a result you’ve gained a reader,” Park said. “It’s the only brand account we have where talking back to people on the platform is part of the regular activity.”
The Washington Post has a paywall but offers free-access deals through Amazon Prime (free for 6 months, then $3.99 a month for Prime members). Park, however, refrains from mentioning any of that himself, relying instead on other Redditors to offer subscription suggestions.
“I’ve been in subreddits where I don’t want to be dinged for self-promotion, so I’ll let other people say what our deals are. These are not shills. I have no idea who these people are,” he said. “I don’t even have to go in to tell people, 'here, we have a six-months-free Amazon Prime deal going on' — other people will tell other people.” Park popped up on a thread to warn people that when the six months are up, the Prime deal auto-renews at $3.99 a month. “People were like, what are you doing, companies are not supposed to be telling us that. Just because you told us that, we’ll subscribe.”
Rollicking AMAs are Reddit’s bread and butter, and Park tries to get at least one going every week. David Fahrenthold has done one (user ‘PutinsMissingShirt‘: “Do you also feel that ‘nothing matters’ anymore?” Fahrenthold: “Great question. No”). Tokyo bureau chief Anna Fifield, who extensively covers North Korea, did one — it ended up being the Post’s most popular AMA, at 574 total comments. The Post’s Moscow Bureau did one, also topping 500 comments. But Park points out he’s also helped the Reddit community get access to AMAs with favorite figures totally unrelated to the Post.
“During the Hurricane season, an Alabama news weatherman was upvoted on the Reddit front page three times on a Friday. When I noticed he was going viral and that a lot of Redditors were asking for an AMA with him, I told everyone — as the Washington Post — that I didn’t think that TV station was familiar with Reddit AMAs, and I would try to get in touch with someone at the station to give them a nudge,” Park said. The knowledgeable local meteorologist’s AMA a few weeks later became the sixth most popular Reddit AMA ever. “I knew that people on Reddit would eat it up. I just wanted to do good by the community, who loved this guy. The feedback for us was just that people were confused: Here was this brand account, yet here they were elevating community interests.” (The Post got nothing more out of it other than a quick shoutout from the station.)
While they’re not primarily used as a driver of traffic, some of the Post’s Reddit efforts have resulted in new visitors. Working with the Tropical Weather subreddit during the Harvey-Irma week, the Post’s Capital Weather Gang offered updates in the live feed monitoring hurricane progress.
“I worked through the weekend with our Capital Weather Gang to make sure we were adding important context to some of the readings that were coming out. We were posting updates from our live blog. That paid off in traffic as well. There were upwards of 70,000 people watching that feed throughout that day,” Park said. “We were the only news organization deeply involved with that effort. It was a privilege that the moderators of r/tropicalweather allowed us in there.”
There’s no money involved in the Reddit-Post relationship, both sides confirm. Reddit keeps the Post in the loop about new features it’s launching, such as the ability to post native video, and helps identify active subreddits that might be interested in Post stories, according to Park, especially since breaking out of politics can be a challenge.
“Of our work on Reddit, one of the things I’m most proud of is that people tag us when they see an interesting news tip or story or something we need to know about. These are communities outside the politics subreddit. People are always tipping,” Park said. “They saw that we were part of the community and we were contributing, and that, for me, has been the most important thing.”
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Victoria Pickering.