August 16, 2017

Traditionally, we think of fandom as people writing fan fiction about “Star Wars” or “Twilight,” or people who sport Quidditch T-shirts or attend Comic-Con. In other words, people who converge around particular fictional TV shows or movies or books, and occasionally remix or transform the content to create entirely new works based on the originals.

But there are also fan-created projects emerging around journalism that share many characteristics with material created by fandom communities: they’re typically created by highly and deeply engaged audience members, who are creating or remixing content based on the original work, which is often deeply personal and engaging.

For example, the illustrator Christoph Niemann animated a 2011 Fresh Air with Terry Gross interview with Maurice Sendak after stumbling upon it on the radio. His remix overlaps parts of the interview, with his own reaction. The result builds on the original interview and creates something entirely new.

More recently, Emily Theis, a former editorial director at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and The Boston Globe who now works at the digital design shop Upstatement, created the Breakup Survival Guide for people going through terrible breakups. The website was inspired by an episode of the WNYC podcast Death, Sex & Money hosted by Anna Sale.

To me, Niemann and Theis’ fan-inspired remixes are the deepest possible form of audience engagement. They not only listened to an episode of a podcast but were inspired to then create something new based on the original work.

This kind of “journalism-inspired fandom” raises a number of questions: How could journalism organizations empower audiences to not only engage in a two-way relationship but to remix or appropriate content into something entirely new? What shows or episodes or stories would benefit from this approach? What do they have in common – is this something any show could try? And how might this expand or create new or deeper ways to interact with an audience?

I reached out to Theis to find out what exactly about Death, Sex & Money inspired her project — and how other organizations could think about this deeply participatory form of audience engagement. Our conversation is below.

Can you tell me a little about the origins of this project and the reactions you’ve gotten?

I loved the Death Sex and Money breakup episode and their listener-created Breakup Survival Kit Google Sheet. The suggestions it contained were so human, funny and sad. It helped me through some really tough times: The show came out a week before I ended a long-term relationship, and I poured over the sheet obsessively as I started dating again. Dating can be really fun, but it can also feel like a thousand breakups in a row — a situation seems promising, then disappointing, rinse and repeat.

Also, it fascinated me that there were always other people looking at that DSM Google sheet when I opened it, since spreadsheets are not the most fun thing to look at. So I started this project to distract myself from my own sadness, and to make a more visual and simple way to browse all that wisdom.

I think the thing you’re most desperate for in the midst of a breakup is relief, clarity and advice, but some of it is so wrong for your exact situation/moment because healing is not a linear or smooth process. Since the site cycles through a randomized suggestion one at a time, it allows you to click endlessly until something resonates and is soothing, even for a moment. I also thought that format might help scratch the breakup itch to browse endlessly through an ex’s Facebook photos or new Tinder profiles.

I’ve been surprised and delighted by the reaction — over 1,700 users visited the site in the first week it existed, and the Death Sex and Money team has graciously shared it all over their channels. Breakups are such a universal pain that I think anything that acknowledges that is satisfying for people, and I’m glad that this project did that in some way.

How did you find the people you worked on this with? And could you describe a little bit about how you used Tabletop.js and Google Sheets? I think many other shows and organizations could learn from your approach.

Four really awesome people played a pivotal role in getting this project out the door. Katie Broida and Regis Biron are colleagues of mine at Upstatement, and Eric Bailey and Elaina Natario are friends and former Boston Globe colleagues.

My rad employer, Upstatement, reserves a few hours every week for us to work on non-client and self-growth work (we call that time Open Hack). This site felt like a perfect Open Hack project, because it helped me practice my coding and was pretty small and accomplishable. So I went as far as I could each week and then called on people when I need help. Katie hooked up the Google sheet using Tabletop.js, Regis made those nice card transitions, and Elaina and Eric both answered a lot of my dumb CSS questions.

It made sense at the beginning of the project to tap into the Google Sheets API since the site was inspired by a Google Sheet in the first place, and it was easy to copy & clean up the information and use Sheets as a free and quick CMS. Also, we didn’t know this at the time, but Marine Boudeau tweeted me that Tabletop.js was built by WNYC’s Data News team (Death Sex and Money is a WNYC podcast), which is a cool connection. So WNYC basically made this website.

I asked Katie to answer this question too since she’s the real expert:

“Using Google Sheets to store suggestions meant we could avoid setting up a database for this project, so we only needed to write code for the front-end.

The Tabletop.js library has been a great tool for connecting to our Google Sheet since it simplifies the JavaScript we need. I also found that we can use jQuery to get the JSON version of the Google Sheet, since at one point we were having trouble with debugging why our Google Sheet data wasn’t loading. Here is the commit if you’re interested in seeing what we changed to use JSON.

A downside to using Google Sheet is that it is a fragile CMS/database since its structure is so easy to edit. For example, if an editor changes the first row (which acts as the column names) or add an extra sheet, it can break your site. However the debug mode in Tabletop.js is super helpful for troubleshooting.”

I’m wondering about your relationship with this specific podcast. I can’t imagine someone making what you made based on say, one of the Sunday morning political roundtables. Is there something about this particular podcast or podcasts in general that inspired you to make this?

I definitely feel I have a more personal connection with Death, Sex, and Money because its entire premise is to talk about very personal and difficult things that affect us deeply but are less discussed in our public lives. DSM explores those topics gently but honestly, without sensationalizing them, and helps listeners find common ground on very common situations: breakups, student loan debt, adult sibling relationships. Anna’s interview style is incredibly kind and validating. I think listeners who contribute to this show (including me, with this project) feel they can share in that space without the risk of being misunderstood.

DSM is also special because Anna’s interviews with Jason Isbell have been a connecting point for my dad and me, both of whom love Jason and his music. They’ve helped me understand my dad’s sobriety in a deeper way (since Jason and his wife Amanda talks about alcoholism and sobriety a lot during the show). I’d imagine that type of experience with DSM is really common; some part of it has opened up space in listeners’ lives to vocalize things they would otherwise keep silent.

Plus, to quote one of my colleagues at Upstatement, Anna Sale’s voice is like a warm hug. I just want to make her laugh that big, hearty, wonderful laugh!

You transitioned from the news industry to a digital shop that works with a lot of news organizations, and I absolutely love the way you describe your job. I’m wondering what you’ve learned since your transition, and whether a role like the one you have now would also be something that would be helpful for news organizations.

News feels like home to me — I started my career as a designer at The Boston Globe and the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, two wonderful newsrooms. Journalists are smart, cynical, witty and they have the best bullshit detectors in the world. I think once you get bit by that kind of bug, it’s hard to shake it. I didn’t imagine myself leaving the news industry as quickly as I did, but Upstatement feels like an exception — all three of the founding partners are former newspaper designers, and we work a lot on editorial projects. So while I don’t come home with ink on my fingers, there’s a newsy spirit to this place, and I still get to use words like “slug,” “kicker,” and the occasional “TK.”

It’s hard to summarize everything I’ve learned in my time in this role, but I can identify a few themes: First, feelings matter. Companies are full of human beings, and to ignore their emotions, stresses, personalities, and home environments and try to pretend that everything is a purely professional matter is very misguided. Stay off email after hours as much as possible. Don’t be afraid to inject personality and humor into your colleague and client conversations. Kind words are free and accomplish much. (I think a famous person said that.)

Second, considering workflow and process can seem like an annoying waste of time — but a quick look at the WAY you do something can improve your results tenfold. Newspapers are built on some legacy processes (think of even the names Rim and Slot for copy editors) that aren’t all bad, but can hinder their ability to pivot. It’s not always about trying a new fancy software — sometimes you just need to check in with everyone in the department (from top to bottom, never forget the people actually doing the work) to figure out what their biggest pains are, and identify the smallest step you can take to fix them. Big overhauls are scary and hard, little steps are easy and more effective (check out the Japanese principle of Kaizen).

Third, when trying to come up with ideas, make real space for them and be thoughtful about who is in the room. This is hard in newsrooms because you’re on deadline, but I don’t think it’s impossible. Long, sit-down meetings and unstructured brainstorms suck and never work. But quick standups? Strategically planned workshops with activities that produce one million post-it notes of ideas? That’s where the magic happens. Get all your ideas out on paper, organize them, prioritize them, don’t let creativity slip away because human brains are bad at remembering and organizing stuff.

I’m not sure if my exact role makes sense in all newsrooms, although many do employ digital project managers successfully, but the principals behind smart production can be applied anywhere.

Back to the Breakup Guide for a minute. Are there more iterations that you’re thinking about re: Breakup Guide? Where would you like to take the project next? Are there any other listener-powered projects you have planned?

I’m a big believer in calling something done — pretty much any project can grow way beyond its original intent and leave you feeling anxious that you didn’t accomplish every single dream you had about it. In fact, If I pursued even half the ideas I had for this site, it would never have been made in the first place (which unfortunately is what happens with a lot of good ideas — they grow so big and stand in their own way that they die before they hit the press).

However, I think there is some other low-hanging fruit on this site that could make the experience better:

Since a new page doesn’t load with each new breakup tip, you can’t use your browser back button to return to a tip you liked, or even an in-page back function, because the randomized tips aren’t indexed. I know that ability to return to a tip would make this experience better, because I personally have clicked too quickly through and thought, darn, I want to get that last tip back.

I’m also interested in expanding the ability to group curate, share, and assign value to the tips — maybe an upvote function, or a way to save, collect, or share a tip you like, an archive view of all of the categories of tips, or a list of most-upvoted tips.

I’ll likely let this simmer for a little bit before I jump too quickly into adding features, but it does feel like a special project, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I pick it back up again soon. But for now, it does a simple thing well, and that is satisfying.

You’re incredibly creative and inspirational — and I find myself energized by looking at what you work on and how you think out loud. I’m wondering how you get your news, and if that’s changed since you’ve left news. What do you listen to? Where do you find inspiration for new ideas?

Ha! Thank you, I call myself a serial hobbyist because I am not very good at focusing on one thing at a time. “Incredibly creative” is a much nicer description.

I definitely let my news attention slump after I left the newspapers — it was nice to not have to know everything going on at all times. I follow journalism friends and colleagues on Twitter, read articles people pass around Upstatement, and click-through to stories on my social channels that spark my eye. I find myself often at The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Quartz — and The Globe will always have a special place in my heart.

I very rarely watch TV or movies, so the rest of my media consumption comes through music and podcasts. Some favorite shows are Death Sex and Money (of course), Radiolab, ReplyAll, Modern Love, 99% Invisible, This American Life, Invisibilia, Planet Money, Hidden Brain, StartUp, On the Media, Homecoming, the list goes on…

Is this kind of relationship with listeners specific to this podcast, or something other podcasts can also carve out? If so, how?

Like I said above, I think Death Sex and Money creates a really special connection with its listeners because of its subject matter and tone. You can’t exactly mimic that without the necessary ingredients of very sensitive human topics and Anna Sale’s interview approach and well-crafted shows and contribution ideas. I think a lot of media organizations try to create audience engagement but it feels really weird and insincere because you don’t know who’s on the other side, and whether they actually respect what you are going to say. In fact, I’m not sure it’s a role every show should take. Some shows should be authoritative, some personal, some funny. That makes a good media landscape.

Many shows or organizations seem to seek engagement for engagement’s sake — I’ve sat in so many editorial meetings where people ask “How about a quiz for this story?” and my only response is “WHY?” People engage respond, ask questions, and share when the content is truly good, not because you prompted them with a weird Facebook poll.

However, I think if podcasts definitively want to create a stronger connection to their audiences they could take some lessons from DSM (and other examples of shows with good engagement). Focus on reporting things that you’re curious about, things that feel human and true, be respectful, let the journalists’ personality leak through a bit, open up the opportunity for engagement but don’t bother people with it.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Thanks so much for sharing and profiling the project. Breakups are so brutal. You are wondering if you are ever going to be okay, wondering what happened, if you’re worth someone’s time, care, commitment, if this pain will ever end. Your brain starts firing on all cylinders trying to put all your emotions into all the right buckets, and time absolutely crawls. It sucks. I hope this project can help someone through that difficult time, because I think we often like to pretend it isn’t as hard as it is.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.…
Melody Kramer

More News

Back to News