A devastating story, the hope of new readers: Why ProPublica did 2 versions of ‘A Betrayal’

In a Long Island high school, Henry was trapped. He had been an MS-13 gang member since age 12, back in El Salvador, when he killed his first man. He wanted out. He decided to work with U.S. authorities, who promised to put him under the witness protection plan. So he put his life in their hands.

They betrayed him. ICE picked him up and put him in a New Jersey detention center that held other MS-13 gang members. He spoke with Hannah Dreier, a ProPublica immigration reporter, and let her copy his cell phone. It was a big risk, but he said it was his only shot. He wanted his story out before today — his final date with an immigration judge, who will determine if he stays here or goes back to his threatened death in El Salvador.

The story was released — nearly 7,000 words of it — on Monday by ProPublica and New York Magazine. The next day, engagement reporter Adriana Gallardo and interactive journalist Lucas Waldron and Dreier posted a wondrous “Twitter film” — as Gallardo described the series of tweets — that included Facebook video of text exchanges. Here it is, unthreaded. And here are some excerpts:

Why did they think about doing two different versions? How do they do it? Dreier and Gallardo spoke and emailed with me over the past two days. Here are excerpts:

You've got a big story. You want to reach a new audience. How do you conceive of a Twitter thread?

Gallardo: For Hannah’s story we weren’t as focused on reaching a new audience (of course that’s great) but rather to capitalize on a few interesting elements from her reporting process. In this case, we had access to a teenager’s cell phone and FB Messenger. As we all know now, Henry’s life was unraveling over that time period — a lot of it captured in these exchanges.

Hannah’s story is laced with key moments that unfold over exchanges between Henry and his friends, fellow gang members, and between him and the Suffolk County homicide detective who later turned his back on him. It seemed like an opportunity to bring the reader even closer to the story. We had primary evidence that could tell visually parts of the story.  It is also something everyone can relate to; the daily venting via text with people you care about.

Thinking about animating these exchanges came first. Lucas actually made them happen. The thread was a way to tie it all together.

We decided to recreate three exchanges that were important to the story (Henry and a friend over FB, Henry texting with homicide detective, and a homicide detective texting with Henry’s immigration lawyer). The process included translating chunks of the exchanges, which were originally in Spanish. Everything we pulled was already in Hannah’s story in some way, if not as literal quotes in her narrative.  

More precisely, how to you decide what to put in and what to leave out on a Twitter thread? And how long do you go? What visual elements work, and how many? Do you tag different people on each part of it, or retweet the "replies"?

Gallardo: I wrote a set of standalone tweets we could use throughout the rollout of the piece. The thread, like any other thread, was used to condense the story. I sat with the final copy and made a map of the things we needed to tell in order for it to make sense in a few shots. Writing the standalone tweets prepared my brain to distill parts of the story that could stand alone or bring the reader in enough to want to read one more tweet about this.

When the writing is as good as this is, it’s not very hard to find the moments that must be told. The challenge then is chronology and telling enough from each part of the story. Always with an eye for the outrage factors in the piece and the larger connections to issues already in the news. In this case the plight of child migrants, Trump speeches, and the widely covered murders on Long Island.

I also pulled a set of quotes from the story. Those are always handy to include voices outside of the writer’s. It’s like a puzzle: Hannah’s writing, quotes in the piece, video animations/graphics, items in the news.

Lucas put the texts on Instagram, too. They look pretty great. (Eds. Note: The right arrow on the Instagram page, halfway down, may not look obvious, but it is the key to the full effect).

What was the thinking on the thread for Hannah's story? And why, Hannah, did you like it so much?

Dreier: I liked it because as a reporter you’re always balancing brevity against rich storytelling. I felt like this helped me have it both ways — the story is sprawling and 7,000 words long, and the Tweetstorm hits the same story notes while being much quicker to take in.

I feel like so often, these long reads circulate on Twitter but not everyone has time to actually get through them. Henry was really clear with us that he was taking the risks associated with doing this piece because he wanted people to understand how he came to be trapped between the gang and the law.

So for me, this second-day Tweetstorm was a way to get the story out there in a different form, and also help us do right by Henry and his desire for his story to reach a wide audience. I’m not sure how Adriana did this without sacrificing the twists and turns of the story … she clearly has a  genius for condensing narrative.

Adriana, what advice would you give engagement folks at other places, or students still learning, on your key takeaways from Twitter threads?

Gallardo: Have visuals to guide the thread as much as the copy. Think creatively about what those can be included beyond screenshots and quotes. What were some elements left on the cutting floor that could be neat to share here? Think: Each tweet is still its own short story but together they tell a much better story. Edit the thread copy the same way you would a short story. If possible work in teams. This was total teamwork between Hannah [of course], Lucas, Terry (Parris Jr., the deputy editor for engagement) and I.

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For examples of the process, look no further than Gallardo’s work on ProPublica’s Polk- and Goldsmith-winning collaboration with NPR, Lost Mothers. In this thread, Gallardo explains how reporters found and engaged black mothers who survived maternal harm. Gallardo also saw a way to bring back the series by tying it to a spot story, the news of Serena Williams’ near death.

For further background, I’d recommend Melody Kramer’s Poynter piece from December, featuring Parris and ProPublica deputy managing editor Eric Umansky.

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