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How The Seattle Times Is Using Facebook Groups as a Crowdsourcing Tool

In the last few of weeks, two pretty big names in the news industry have used Facebook groups to crowdsource reporting.

ProPublica started a Patient Harm Community Facebook group to create a “community of people … who are interested in discussing patient harm, its causes and solutions.” Adrienne LaFrance over at Nieman Lab did a nice write up on the group and why ProPublica went that route.

The Seattle Times use of Facebook groups in its recent “Recession Generation” package also stood out.

The paper wanted to profile young people in the Seattle area who graduated college in 2009, during the height of the recession. When it came to finding high school graduates from the class of 2005, Sona Patel, producer for social media for the news org, decided to turn to Facebook.

Patel had noticed a lot of high school reunion pages and knew people went on the site to talk to their old classmates.

“[Facebook] is a fun place to keep up with people from your high school class,” Patel said in a phone interview. “My thought process behind creating the Facebook page was there’s got to be so many of these class of 2005 grads on Facebook in the first place and they’re probably pretty active.”

Patel and her team created three individual Facebook groups for people who graduated from three different high schools in and around Seattle  in 2005 (if they went straight from high school to college, they would have graduated in 2009).

They cultivated the three groups by posting links to articles, engaging with members and ultimately asking the members to take a survey on what life during the recession has been like. The paper was very clear and transparent that the stories might be used in a package for the paper.

The feature marks one of the first times the paper has used social media from the inception of a package, Patel said.

“This project was probably the first project that we’ve done that social media was the major component as opposed to something that was on the side,” she said. “It was the driving force of the project because it was how we found a lot of people that we ended up featuring.”

Giving each class its own online space was important, Patel said. The groups were private, which helped the group develop its own sense of community and open up more about life post-high school.

“We wanted each high school class to feel like it was their community,” she said. “We didn’t want alums to feel like they needed to share details about what they did after high school with people who they didn’t go to high school with.”

How to find people for a Facebook group

The paper spent about two weeks finding and adding people to the groups, Patel said. The team primarily found alums from the other high schools using Facebook search. She looked for people who included their high school and graduation year in their Facebook profile and added them.

Another big help for the ST team was that a news producer at the paper was a 2005 alum of one of high schools. The news producer began adding her high school friends to the group and encouraged them to add others from their year.

“Once you have a core group in the page, by asking them to invite their friends you’ve got a good critical mass,” Patel said.

Patel also had it covered for those who graduated high school in 2005 but weren’t on Facebook. The paper advertised on its website that readers could fill out a Google doc questionnaire asking many of the same questions as the survey sent to the Facebook groups.

Although the social media-heavy project was very staff-intensive — Patel said at least 10 people from a variety of departments were involved — the work paid off. Two of the groups had more than 100 members and approximately 170 people filled out the Google doc.

The paper is also holding a sold out networking event for young professionals on June 6. Many of the people going are those from the Facebook groups, according to Patel.

Going forward, Patel predicts the paper will use social media even more in its news stories.

“Now we’re going to do more of that because we see how it works and how social media plays a big part in the workflow of a major project,” she said.

See the whole “Youth Recession” package.

Images courtesy of Facebook and The Seattle Times.

Disclaimer: Fellow 10,000 Words blogger Lauren Rabaino works at The Seattle Times and was involved in the project.

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