Notes on reporting a challenging community journalism profile

I bylined a challenging profile of a Philly tech community member that published on Technical.ly last week. It was a 30-interview, 7,000-word kind of longread, something different than work I’ve done before.

I felt the story was important for a local community I serve, but I also felt there were broader lessons and concepts that I believe have relevance to other small communities everywhere. Between that and my own personal interest in continuing to develop my credentials in that kind of work, I invested quite a bit of my free time to the project over the last month.

We have published other pieces of longform — see other examples here. But this was the first person-specific long read profile I’ve written — others came close but were far less exhaustive. I have some thoughts to share below. If you haven’t already, please read the piece here.

This is how the article looked as it appeared on the Technical.ly Philly homepage.
This is how the article looked as it appeared on the Technical.ly Philly homepage.

I’ve known the subject for at least seven years. I like the subject. He’s been kind and funny and challenging and endearing. I’ve seen good that he’s done, so I pursued that, but centrally at my job is the idea that I need to challenge my own views of people I’ve known for a long time. I had received a considerable amount of negative reports on working with the subject, enough that I felt irresponsible not pursuing the story.

Most often, I would have shared that with our editorial team. In this case, I thought I had enough to offer the story personally, and I felt I could take it on as one of my longer projects. (In the past, these have focused more on tax policy.) I’m glad I did.

I received dozens of notes after this story published, likely more direct feedback than I’ve ever received for anything I’ve published. Mostly they were people sharing new stories that confirmed this narrative.

But as I shared on Twitter, when you write a challenging story about a well-networked individual, you’re bound to get criticism from both sides. I believe the character in my story accurately reflects the man, someone who has done some real good and who has done some very lasting harm to lots of people. But I largely got complaints and criticisms that essentially boiled down to readers finding that nuance unlikely — either I was a character assassin or contributing support to a predator.

Fortunately most feedback was positive, and I heard from several close to the man who felt I came very close to his spirit. Here are some notes and thoughts:

  • Be direct: When I’m reporting something challenging within a small community, when source relationships are far from plentiful, I think often of the basic tips for interviewing a subject. Among my favorites is to never be a ‘snake behind a keyboard.’ That is, I was very upfront from the beginning of this story that though I was going to publish this story with or without his permission, I was upfront about what the content of the article would be and encouraged him to point me to ways his actions could be be better understood.
  • Good imagery helps: We at Technically Media have not typically invested in photo or images in any consistent way. We’ve reserved that for events or special projects. In this circumstance, feeling I needed something to convey the time invested here, I enlisted my talented cofounder and we talked through something simple. It took less than 15 minutes of his time, using an archived photo of ours, but it enhanced the piece.
  • Cut, cut, cut: This was a 7,000-word story, that’s more than double the longest story I had ever previously published on Technical.ly. I thought I was going to write an 800-word piece on a lawsuit and things spiraled with an eccentric and complicated man. All told, I likely wrote more than 14,000 words and went through several drafts. I got critical editing feedback from my wife, my closest friend and a pair of coworkers before even submitting for our more formal editing process. It likely could have been shorter still for some, though in truth, for others, it could have been longer. A good rule is shorter is always better, but time eventually presses on, and there is something compelling about being able to dive in.
The average time on site for this story ranged between eight and 10 minutes during the first week.
The average time on site for this story ranged between eight and 10 minutes during the first week.
  • Readers took their time with the longform: We pride ourselves on primarily being a quick-read business publication but weh
  • This story was widely read, extending somewhat beyond our niche audience because of two changes: there was more direct-sharing (sending the link over email or in direct messages) rather than social sharing, and many of our readers were not from our typical audience (one in five came from Facebook, which is unusual for our strategy). Compare that with two other story outliers from this past week: 90 percent of readers of the best trafficked story of the week came from search, and nearly half from search on a statewide angle from a popular report.
  • I spent an estimated 40-hours on the project, though I heavily relied on long-established relationships.
  • Edit quotes for cogency: I was sent a drunk email. It had some confusing punctuation but, after consulting with a lawyer, I felt comfortable trimming that to make the initial opening quotes more legible. The meaning did not change, and it allowed me to focus on the most entertaining line of his: “you all can eat pretzels forever.:” I felt vindicated when I got several messages focusing on just that, including someone mailing our office a box of pretzels and cookies.

Given I was working with a subject who had a colorful past, I used several legal databases to scour for legal circumstances I didn’t know about. (I found several, which I included in the article.) Since he lived in Pennsylvania, I focused on these: