Digital Publishing: Reddit 101
Posted: 5/21/2013  |  By: Rob Tornoe
In March, Dan Adams, a correspondent for The Boston Globe, broke a story about a string of credit card thefts in the Boston neighborhood of Allston. What made this story unique was the source of the tip: It didn’t come from listening to the police scanner or from a concerned resident calling the newspaper. Adams gleaned this story from Reddit, the online aggregator and forum that promotes itself as the “front page of the Internet.”  

Once a second-tier destination compared to other sites such as Digg, Reddit has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, attracting more than 55 million unique visitors and 3.9 million pageviews a month, and hosting Q&As featuring everyone from Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl to President Barack Obama.  

Reddit, with its large readership and thousands of user-controlled subcategories, is quickly becoming an important tool for journalists to understand and master. Not only is it a potential treasure trove of human interest stories and local news leads, it should also be part of every newsroom’s social media strategy to drive Web traffic.

Successfully using the site, however, is a lot more complex than simply uploading a story and sitting back while visitors come stampeding to your website. Knowing how the community works, and not simply exploiting it like a greedy miner, is the key for reporters and news organizations to tap Reddit’s journalistic potential.  

For starters, Reddit is organized into a series of categories known as subreddits. Some subreddits are broad and popular, such as the r/politics and r/news pages (the “r/” prefix denotes the subcategory’s url and is also the page’s title). Others, such as r/ama (Ask Me Anything, Reddit’s take on the Q&A) and r/todayilearned (stories or articles containing surprising facts) can provide countless story ideas for creative reporters willing to think outside the box.

Each subreddit is populated with links to stories, photos, or videos that users have submitted to the community. The popularity of each post is determined by simple up and down votes from other users, with the most upvoted posts appearing at the top of the page. The most popular content ends up on Reddit’s homepage, but each post exists on whichever subreddit (or in some cases, multiple subreddits) it was submitted to originally.  

Before you start posting links to all your stories, keep in mind that Reddit doesn’t take kindly to spammers, or users who only push their own content. Each subreddit varies in terms of strictness, but in the more popular categories, moderators typically limit the amount of content you can post from any single website to 10 percent. This means that to keep in the community’s good graces, the ratio of your posts should be 10 links to other websites for every one link to your own site. Otherwise, you risk being banned. News sites such as The Atlantic, Talking Points Memo, and Reason have been temporarily banned in the past for spamming.

So, if your only goal is to drive Redditors to your story, you may want to rethink your strategy. There’s a reason it’s called “social” media, and Reddit is no different than Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr in that regard — your strategy should be more about engagement and less about pageviews.

The best way to gauge if Reddit can be a tool for your storytelling is to simply sign up for the service and start using it. Try to get involved with posting and commenting in a couple of subreddits that relate to your beat. That could be anything from your local coverage area, such as the r/philadelphia or r/newjersey subreddits, or maybe r/truereddit, which features insightful articles intended to spark a discussion. With more than 4,000 different subreddits, it won’t take long to find one or two that are useful to your coverage area.

As you browse through the different subreddits, make sure you click on the tab labeled “new” at top of the page. This shows the most recent links that have been posted to the subreddit, so you can see what’s on the mind of people in the community in real time. That’s how Adams said he uses Reddit, and though the site skews toward younger readers, it’s a potential goldmine for journalists.

“(Redditors) may not be demographically representative of Boston as a whole,” Adams told Poynter, “but it’s amazing how many trends and stories start there, then percolate to the mainstream media a few days or weeks later.”  

It’s also important to keep the /new page in mind when you start to upload your own stories. You will be relying on other users to upvote your link, and many will do so based on headline alone. The key, according to Adams, is to come up with a pithy one-sentence line that not only sums up the story, but will also encourage users to upvote it. 

Popular subreddits such as r/politics have hundreds of submissions every hour, which means if your post doesn’t garner enough love from the community initially, it will fade into obscurity faster than MySpace. So, it will require a little trial and error on your part before you master the right mix of snark and substance in the fewest words.

Last, prepare to lose time — a lot of time. It won’t take long for even the most strict, hard-nosed journalist to find a subreddit that relates to a hobby or personal interest, and once that happens, an almost insatiable appetite will form. Suddenly, you’ll find yourself upvoting everything from cute cat photos to Internet memes involving overly attached girlfriends.

You’ve been warned.


 Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher and can be reached at robtornoe@gmail.com.