Sometimes you need to shake things up.
The earthquake on the eastern seaboard of the United States Tuesday was a useful reminder of that.
For the Daily Dot, which publicly launched the same day, it was an energizing experience for the newsroom I run. We scrambled to get the facts. We analyzed the reaction with an infographic. We debunked rumors. We indulged in gallows humor.
Some didn’t find the jokes funny, prompting them to wonder if Twitter’s flip 140-character messages served to dehumanize us and if Google+ might be a better home.
Mother Nature got the last laugh, serving up smug Californians who mocked East Coasters’ reactions to earthquake with some ground-shaking of their own.
Journalists love telling stories, and there’s nothing like a big story breaking. But our performance Tuesday was the result of months of practice.
And those just finding out about the Daily Dot may have missed the stories which helped us perfect our craft, endeared us to the communities we cover, and shaped our vision of how we can become the World Wide Web’s hometown newspaper.
Part of our ethos is embracing new tools.
We’ve become big fans of Storify, a tool which helps us quickly assemble tweets, photos, posts, and other snippets of online news into a coherent story. We first used it for serious news—the massacre in Norway. But it’s just as useful for photo-driven stories about highly visual sites like Etsy and Tumblr—like our recent profile of Scandybars, a sweetly decadent collection of candy bars from an unusual angle.
We also roll our own. Dissatisfied with existing word-cloud generators, Grant Robertson, our resident editor-hacker, built his own and used it to analyze the 2012 GOP presidential candidates.
We started out thinking we’d classify stories by the community in which they originated. But we rapidly learned that that conceit didn’t map to the realities of how we live in online communities. Lines are fluid, and ideas jump in an instant from one platform to another. What’s more important are the people behind them.
That’s how we ultimately covered a controversial music video by Whiskey Shivers, “Gimme All Your Lovin’.” We didn’t worry about whether it was a YouTube story (where it was uploaded) or a Reddit story (where it grew popular)—we just tracked down the artists and interviewed them to get a story you wouldn’t get from just watching the video or reading a string of comments.
But we definitely dug deep into our communities. Kevin Morris, our resident Reddit reporter, hasn’t just been breaking stories about the social news site. He started a subreddit, or section, of the site for discussion of Daily Dot stories. Fruzsina Eördögh, in the course of reporting on YouTube, realized she needed to videoblog herself to have credibility when interviewing YouTubers. And senior editor Janet Kornblum commissioned a Daily Dot video by online booty-shaking phenomenon DancingDror after writing a story about his act.
We also analyzed communities by the numbers. Online communities, unlike offline ones, are not-so-easily tracked, traced, sorted, and crunched. While that may sound like a coldly algorithmic approach, we’ve found it actually helps humanize the vastness of the online world.
Arts-and-crafts site Etsy may be all about what sells, for example. But it also houses artists like Tom Banwell whose popularity is deserved, whether or not you put a price tag on it. Likewise, a careful count of Tumblr reblogs helped us find the one-of-a-kind personality of Bergdorf Princess.
When YouTube’s No. 1 video star, Ryan Higa, lost his crown, we treated it as the news event it was for his millions of fans. And a visual analysis of Reddit’s top users found that there were actually two very different types of power redditor who helped the social news site thrive as a community.
Though we embraced all of these communities, we didn’t look at them with rose-colored glasses. We explored Twitter’s struggles with controversial hashtags like #blamethemuslims and Reddit’s soul-searching debate over its r/beatingwomen section. And the curious phenomenon of Casey Anthony crafts on Etsy, first uncovered by Kornblum, prompted outrage and disbelief everywhere from Jezebel to ABC News.
The biggest thing we learned was that our best stories are about people. Without people, a website is just hardware and software; without people, a social network is abstract lines on a graph. And without people, the Daily Dot wouldn’t have much to write about.
And then there are the countless personalities still with us. People like TroyPDX, the absurdly costumed wasp fighter. Viral-video victim Jessi Slaughter, who’s now finding peace thanks, bizarrely enough, to her former tormenters. The terpsichorean seniors of Clark Retirement Community. The troublemakers of a reborn Encyclopedia Dramatica. Gay soldier AreYouSuprised, who came out on YouTube.
The Daily Dot has changed a lot from visions scrawled on napkins in an Austin bar and grill five months ago. In the months since, we’ve formed a newsroom, and each hire we’ve made has subtly shifted our direction. So has every story we’ve done, every person we’ve interviewed, and everyone who’s left a comment or tweeted at us or posted on our Facebook page.
Everything may change tomorrow. We have to be prepared for seismic shifts. But while the ground moves under our feet, our humanity doesn’t change. That gives me heart that we’ll always have stories to tell.
Photo via jmckinley