March 22, 2017

Starting this week, people who want to know more about the Texas legislature have a new way to get information: a Facebook Messenger bot named Paige.

The Texas Tribune’s experiment is named after the legislative pages who run information back and forth, said Amanda Zamora, chief audience officer.

“They’re your errand person,” she said. “…It was sort of a nice nod to the actual legislative process without being inaccessible.”

Zamora and the Tribune developed the bot with Andrew Haeg, founder of the community news messaging app GroundSource and a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

Unlike many bots, which simply connect Facebook messenger to content management systems maintained by news organizations, Paige is curated and has a different rhythm, Zamora said, delivering a look ahead on Mondays and a look back on Fridays.

One goal is to reach new audiences that aren’t as plugged in to the daily happenings of the legislature as political junkies.

Another goal: Not adding to the noise.

“We’re trying to also adapt to our users who we know are already juggling a lot of things and have a lot of input already competing for their attention,” Zamora said.

They’ll experiment with Paige over the remainder of the legislative session during the next nine weeks. The Tribune didn’t hire anyone to curate Paige’s updates — those will come from existing staff.

With Paige, the Tribune is also trying to give its audience a way to talk back. They can ask questions (which may turn into Texplainers), offer tips and get individual replies.

“It’s just as much about getting feedback and hopefully more and more stories and perspectives as it is about engaging Texans in a different way,” Haeg said.

How can other newsrooms learn from the Tribune’s experiment?

It takes intention, experimentation, buy-in and resources.

“If you’re gonna go and explore bots or explore new ways to deliver information, it’s important not just to have an experimental mindset and therefore the willingness to fail at some level,” Haeg said. “That failure and that trying and that experimenting has to be developed very thoughtfully and with the same level of thought and rigor you would apply to develop any new editorial product.”

In developing Paige, The Texas Tribune started by narrowing their audience to Texans who care about policy and issues but maybe don’t have knowledge about how the process works. They also researched Facebook Messenger and asked readers what kind of information they wanted.

“The more you can define the audience and narrow the scope, I think it really helps you ideate something that you can really dig in and experiment with,” Zamora said.

In the future, the Texas Tribune may use Paige to distribute explainers about the political process – a function that ties back to the nonprofit’s mission of informing and engaging Texans about public policy and government issues.

And like those pages in Austin, Paige does more than just share information.

“There’s been a lot of innovation in the distribution and delivery of news, even the different forms in which we publish it,” Haeg said. “I really feel like journalism is a proxy for the voice and the concerns of the people, and if we’re not out there being that proxy and actively listening to them, then I don’t think we’re doing our jobs.”

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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