August 22, 2016

Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Instagram account has doubled its followers in the past year. And beginning today, those followers, old and new, will get a project created just for them.

“Bad Plea Deals” is the California-based nonprofit’s first project made specifically for Instagram. The investigative series will unfold in 21 chapters posted three times a day for seven days.

While this is Reveal’s first Instagram project, it’s not their first time experimenting with storytelling in less traditional places. They’ve told stories through graphics journalism and even onstage in communities impacted by their investigations.

With every chance they take, they’re gathering lessons on what worked and what didn’t, then using what they’ve learned for their next experiment.

“I say no a lot, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that,” said Amy Pyle, editor in chief of CIR and Reveal. “But I try to say maybe more often so at least we can go down that road and explore the idea.”

Stories of innocence

During his first week as a grad student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Antoine Goldet’s professors took his class to New York Criminal Court in Lower Manhattan to see how the justice system works.

“Sitting in an arraignment courtroom, I was stunned to see so many people readily giving up their right to a trial by pleading guilty,” Goldet, originally from France, said via email. “Fifteen people were called, their charges were read to them, and they all plead guilty. It seemed crazy to me, coming for Europe. I figured out it must be a system ridden with stories of innocence and decided to do my master’s project — the most substantial piece students work on during the year — on America’s over-reliance on plea bargaining.”

When Reveal put out a call for stories for a series, Goldet made his pitch. His story didn’t make that series, but another editor thought Pyle might be interested. She was.

“We started thinking about different ways to tell this story,” said Pyle in a phone interview. Goldet’s piece was narrative and had an episodic nature to it. “And the more we thought about it, the more we thought, ‘Wow it would be great to roll this out in episodes as a series.'”

Pyle imagined how the tiles of images on Reveal’s account would all look together, and how they’d offer a chance to draw people in. They could use each of the 2,200 characters Instagram allows in captions and roll it out day-by-day. She pitched the idea to Allison McCartney, the illustrator. McCartney, previously a data fellow with the organization, loved the idea.

“I think the Instagram format is constraining in a good way for storytelling and creative projects,” she said in an email. “People are looking at the pictures on relatively small screens, so it encourages boldness for the illustrations. Though no longer limited to square images, that square expectation makes decisions about format and composition easier.”

The lack of a short character limit means you can tell stories in well-portioned segments, she said.

“It’s a pretty pure form of social media that hasn’t been polluted with extraneous features, and continues to focus first and foremost on images.”

Social-first storytelling

When he first heard about the idea to unveil his investigation on Instagram, Goldet thought it was a good idea. Most important to him, though, was seeing the story in one place on Reveal’s site. Now that he’s seen the illustrations for Instagram, he’s much more excited about where it will run, not just that it will run.

“I think that it’s important to go find young readers where they are,” Goldet said. “Investigative journalists should try to learn to work with social media, not ignore them and leave them to ‘brand content’ and low-quality journalism. Also, I believe that the length limit on Instagram captions, which at first appeared to us as a challenge, helped us to divide a long investigative piece into chapters.”

Those chapters, 21 in all, represent the number of years since the investigation’s main subject was convicted, said Julia Chan, Reveal’s digital editor and multimedia producer, in a phone interview. Rolling it out three times a day, day-by-day, offers readers the chance to move through time with the story.

Byard Duncan, Reveal’s community manager, considers this project an experiment in social-first storytelling similar, in some ways, to Facebook’s Instant Articles.

“Instagram is a network where we’re seeing a fast rate of growth right now, so it made sense to try and push the limits of what can be done there,” he said. “There are obstacles, of course: The platform has a strict character limit, so we had to edit the story into short, punchy chapters. And Instagram’s analytics are notoriously limited (we won’t be able to see time on page, etc.), so we’re considering follower growth, which we can track, to be our main success metric.”

Instagram also has some cool opportunities, he said. They’ve made some short videos for the series with the voice of the story’s main character. The idea to include audio comes from a previous project where it worked well. The first step toward coming up with new ideas, Chan said, is being open to them.

“Our ultimate goal is actually not innovation,” Pyle said, “our ultimate goal is impact.”

And if innovative new ways of storytelling reach more people, they’re worth a try. They follow up once the project is over with a post-mortem to go over what worked and what didn’t.

“We throw around a lot of somewhat crazy ideas, some of which actually get somewhere,” McCartney said. “You might joke in the newsroom that you think an interactive sculpture would be the best way to illustrate a story, then someone might turn around and go, ‘but actually that could be great.'”

No idea really feels off-limits, even if nobody knows up-front whether they will work or not, McCartney said.

“That’s pretty exciting as a storyteller with an interdisciplinary background,” she said. “I think lots of journalists come from creative spaces, and CIR provides an important place for augmenting journalism with creativity.”

Who can?

Reveal measures impact in a number of ways, depending on the investigation. Sometimes, investigations lead directly to action and legislation. “Bad Plea Deals” has the potential to become part of a bigger conversation about plea deals in the U.S.

Publishing an investigation on Instagram gives Reveal the chance to reach a new audience in a new place. While the project will eventually live on, it’s not all about clicks, Pyle said.

“Partly what we’re trying to do at this point is think about audience in a broader way and grow all our audiences in the hopes that there’s some cross-pollination.”

Reveal’s done some cross-promotion already by mentioning its Instagram account on its podcast and radio show, “Reveal.” People are already on their phones listening, Chan said, so it’s an easy few clicks over. They’ll also use their other channels, including the podcast, Twitter, Facebook and the site, to promote “Bad Plea Deals.”

Following Reveal on Instagram means a first look at an investigation debuting in a new place. But they won’t stop experimenting when those seven days end. Reveal’s planning other social-only rollouts in the future, Duncan said.

“If we have the capacity, we just say go for it,” Pyle said. “I have this theory now: If we can’t experiment, who can?”

Illustration by Allison McCartney for the Center for Investigative Reporting

Illustration by Allison McCartney for the Center for Investigative Reporting

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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