July 17, 2015
Dan Balz. Photo credit: Marvin Joseph of The Washington Post

Dan Balz. Photo credit: Marvin Joseph of The Washington Post

Readers who can’t hit the campaign trail with a national political reporter can still do the next best thing: follow Dan Balz on Snapchat.

Balz, an award-winning political reporter who’s been on the beat at The Washington Post for decades, is no stranger to tailing politicking presidential prospects. But he has just begun to experiment with documenting his travels on Snapchat, where viewers can watch him mingle with voters, question politicians and pal around with other reporters as the presidential campaign begins to ramp up.

The snaps have a distinct person-on-the-street flavor, allowing viewers to watch politicians glad-hand with voters who muse openly about their voting preferences. One notable snap from a Chris Christie town hall meeting shows the New Jersey governor approaching Balz and personally greeting his viewers.

Poynter caught up with Balz (Snapchat username: djbdca) via email to get a sense of how he got started using the app in his reporting and what possibilities it opens up for political journalism:

Can you tell us the story of how and why you started using Snapchat?

Some of our more cutting-edge social media folks, led by Cory Haik, encouraged all of us to sign up many months ago. I did that but frankly wasn’t sure what to make of it. Content that disappears in a matter of seconds or minutes seemed hardly worth the effort, even to someone who knows how perishable daily journalism can be.

What got me more interested was when Snapchat started to develop other products, particularly its Discover channels. That showed that there were other, somewhat less perishable formats available. Our folks here, particularly Masuma Ahuja, also helped demystify the process and educate me on the technique of aggregating a series of snaps into “My Story.” Steven Ginsberg, our senior political editor, and I talked about using it as alternative story telling.

I tried it out while in London covering the British election in May. My first efforts were pretty primitive but they suggested to me that Snapchat could be used to take people to places they ordinarily didn’t get to see. Since then I’ve been trying to experiment with it when opportunities arise.

I’ve also benefitted from the advice of my son John, who works in advertising and is far more sophisticated about social media and how it can be used. He’s challenged me to go well beyond what I’ve been doing, particularly in trying to frame stories.

Can you describe how you approach a story that you want to tell on Snapchat? What do you look for? What do you strive for?

I’ve used Snapchat at political events to bring them to life in ways my copy doesn’t, or to provide a supplemental look at what I’ve written. So far, it’s been kind of a “you are there” approach. I did one at Rick Perry’s presidential announcement, and my goal that day was simply to give people an idea of the various facets of such an event, start to finish, so that people would say, “oh, so that’s what it looks and feels like.”

How do you balance using Snapchat with your other reporting obligations, like writing, reporting, developing sources and traveling? Does one ever come at the expense of the other?

Well, reporting and writing come first. If I can do the snaps along with that, all the better, as I think it adds another dimension. I’m lucky because we sometimes have more than one reporter at an event, which gives me more ability to snap and write. I went to one event in Iowa with the expressed purpose of doing only a Snapchat story (Sen. Joni Ernst’s Roast & Ride in early June). Jenna Johnson was there that day to take the lead on writing the story. The Chris Christie Snap story was possible only because Phil Rucker and I were double-teaming the town halls.

Do you find your text stories are informed by your snaps? Are your snaps informed by your stories?

I think they are complementary, or at least hope so. The challenge is to keep making the Snap story as visually interesting as possible but also to make it tell a story. My son has suggested ways of thinking about the story you want to tell before starting to Snap, as opposed to just going out and snapping a bunch of stuff.

What makes a good snap? What makes a good snap story?

I think it’s like anything. Visually it requires a good eye for things. Not all snaps are created equal, and it takes time to understand what works and what doesn’t, what details are telling. Shorter is probably better than longer, which means a minute is better than three minutes.

Starting out, I shot some things horizontally until I learned that Snapchat was not designed for horizontal imagery. Lesson learned. Peter Hamby of Snapchat encouraged those of us who are experimenting to put ourselves into the story, to turn the camera around from time to time to help narrate what people are seeing. I’ve also found that bringing people into the story, by asking them questions and then getting them to respond (very briefly) adds a good element.

How do you think Snapchat will affect political reporting, if at all?

I don’t know, but the possibilities are intriguing. Snapchat now has developed the concept of a geofence that it can put around an event and can then cull from any snapping done by anyone within that fenced area. That offers the possibility of really interesting story telling from multiple perspectives, if the person curating has a good sense of the story they want to tell.

Do you think candidates or other sources behave differently toward you when you’re filming them? If so, how so?

I think this is all too new for anyone to know. Any politician today knows there is always some kind of camera aimed at them, so I doubt they distinguish one type from another.

How many Snapchat friends do you have?

I honestly don’t know but assume it is a pretty small number. People in the political world are just getting to know Snapchat and the younger people who have been using it from the beginning probably aren’t rushing to friend an old journalist like me.

Do you have any advice to writers who are looking to strike out into new mediums, on social media or otherwise?

I had lunch with Masuma and Terri Rupar of our staff earlier this year and came away thinking I ought to try to become more proficient in one of the newer social media platforms. I think it’s good for everyone to try these things.

Honestly, there have been any number of fads in this realm over the many years I’ve been at this. Some are hot and disappear. Others have genuine merit. I’m not smart enough to be able to pick in advance. So I thought I would try with Snapchat.

I’ve carried a camera of some kind of the campaign trail for more than two decades, mostly for my own and my wife’s enjoyment. So I’ve been “snapping” for years, which made Snapchat appealing.

I would recommend that people pick something and try it. What we know is that there are now various ways of telling stories beyond the traditional journalistic narrative or inverted pyramid. We have talented people here at the Post who are doing all kinds of non-traditional story telling.

Have there been any interesting moments you’ve witnessed while snapping? Any candid moments you missed that you wish you’d captured?

One big challenge with Snapchat is trying to capture something literally in the moment. With regular video you can shoot and edit it down. Snapchat is less forgiving, or at least it seems like it to me. There are times when I’d like to get a sound bite from a politician, but it either lasts too long or comes and goes before I can snap it. So I miss all kinds of things. It goes with the territory. But it’s not as though I don’t miss things in my reporting and writing. That’s why we keep at it. We tell as much as we know and then when we learn more we tell that.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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