Spotlight on Local News: The Boston Globe Uses Groups to Build Meaningful Dialogue About Race in Boston

In December 2017, the Boston Globe decided to take on one difficult question: Is Boston a racist city?

The paper’s Spotlight team attempted to answer this through a seven-part series covering such topics as racism in Boston sports and the disparity in access to quality health care between black and white Bostonians. The team didn’t want the conversation to stop at publication, and sought to engage Bostonians in an ongoing conversation about race that lasted well beyond the series. That’s how the Discussing Race in Boston Facebook Group was born.

In only two months, more than 3,600 members have joined the group, and it’s helped achieve the paper’s overall objective: to facilitate conversation around important topics to the Boston community.
To learn more about the Boston Globe’s strategy and learnings on starting this group, we spoke to Devin Smith, Senior Manager of Audience Engagement.


Spotlight article on Boston Racism
Why did you start a Facebook Group for this series?

What we asked ourselves before the launch was “how do we make this a two-way dialogue; a conversation, so we’re not just dropping this giant report, and we can’t, on the other end, hear what people are thinking.”
Everything that we did for this project was in service of that goal — how do we start a conversation, how do we align with our company mission of being a convener for the community and provide a place for our community to have this really important but often uncomfortable dialogue.

What’s the dialogue like in the group? Do members come in with different points of view and differing goals for what they want to get out of it?

Some people join the group and they say “I actually didn’t know this problem existed, or at least not on this scale” and want to learn more about it. Recognizing that it is a problem and having the group members work together is really great to see. The end goal in mind for group members is wanting to do better and help solve the problem, and when people join and don’t really know it’s a problem, that becomes a discussion too. As long as they’re open to learning more, then we think that is valuable.

How do you start a conversation and keep it going?

During the series, each reporter who was responsible for that day’s report would jump into the Facebook group and pose a question that had to do with that day’s reporting. It also spun beyond that. A lot of the members in the group started their own conversations. They’ve gotten pretty close, actually. A few of them got together on Christmas Eve to talk about racism in Boston.

They started these non-Globe sponsored events of their own to get together and talk about these things. So not only did we facilitate this conversation online, but people took it a step further to meet in person, which is really, really cool to see and it’s awesome to have known that you played a part in that. We try to make sure that we send at least one reporter to those to kind of chat and engage on a personal level.

Now that the Spotlight series is over, how do you go about managing the group and planning content for it?

We wanted to make sure that this group had legs beyond our series. We didn’t want to start a group and have to stop it in a week. That’s not a successful group to me, and that’s not how groups should be used. We wanted to make sure that we were able to continue to populate the group with content and have this dialogue long after this series ended. We have a reporter who is dedicated to covering social justice in Boston, so she has been steering a lot of the conversation. She posts her stories and also stories that she finds around the web that she finds relevant.

Do you approve everyone who requests to join the group?

We use Membership Questions to ask people why they’re joining the group. We ask them why they’re joining and where they’re from — not because we’re limiting it to people who live in Boston, but because we’re curious and we actually found that more people than expected were joining from other cities. If they answer the questions, we let them in. It’s helpful to know why they’re joining. We do find that there are people who don’t answer the question, and we leave them in the queue for a bit because we want to know more about them. But most people do answer.

Why have this dialogue in a Facebook Group and not in the article’s comment section?

You can hide behind a wall on articles, or you can pose as someone that you’re not. There is not a ton of accountability, whereas on Facebook, you can click on a person’s profile, you can friend them, if you get to that point. We wanted to start a conversation within our community, and I don’t think comments are particularly the place for that. In this group, we’ve been able to have a productive dialogue.

How do you keep the conversation on track?

If people are getting too charged or passionate, and it starts to feel like it’s veering to a personal attack of some sort, we pop into the comments and reiterate our rules.

Can you talk about your group that’s only for Boston Globe’s subscribers? How do you think about about content so that this group is a value-add for them?

The content starts out a lot of the times with me telling reporters “hey, this article is really taking off, can you hop into the subscriber group and offer them something new that they’re not finding, that they wouldn’t see by looking at our page on Facebook?” So not just a pull quote or a wrap up, but an interesting aspect that they came across when reporting this, or something that isn’t in the article, but that members might find it interesting, or telling them about any challenge in reporting the story.

Offering the subscriber something that they’re not getting anywhere else I think is really important, rather than dropping a URL to your article and saying “read this,” because they could find that article URL anywhere else. There’s also a certain level of retention strategy when you think about our subscriber group. Are we offering our subscriber something extra in this group? Do they find it valuable? Do they feel like they have instant access to reporters that they don’t have anywhere else? That’s what we want. That’s a big goal for us in the subscriber group.

What other groups have you started?

We started a group for, which is our free site. They write a weekly column called “BosTen,” where a reporter picks 10 upcoming weekend events in the city and shares those — and there’s a newsletter too. It’s been going great. Our reporter chimes in when he publishes his column, and says “here’s what I’ve picked for the 10 events in Boston this weekend,” and then he takes it a step further and creates a thread of posts with other Facebook events underneath that didn’t make the cut, but are also interesting things to check out. Growth has been a bit slower in that one, but engagement is on the rise which is positive. It’s also a little bit more targeted. It’s Boston, and specific to things to do.

How do you think about groups overall and how do you decide when it’s worth starting one?

We think about groups all the time, especially when we start to plan out our future enterprise reporting. We had tossed out the idea about starting a group about sharks because our audience is just so obsessed with sharks. We post about sharks in the Cape and spottings and that kind of stuff, and they go nuts. So it’s about identifying these areas of interest and forming a community, but we also want to make sure that it’s sustainable. For instance, we’ll ask ourselves, is sharks the kind of topic our audience is going to be talking about for a sustained amount of time?

How do you allocate resources to manage groups?

The best groups are populated by the group members and not necessarily by the institution that starts them, so there’s a case to be made to try one even if you have limited resources. For Discussing Race in Boston, right off the bat we gave all of our Spotlight reporters admin access to do whatever they wanted, and also our audience engagement team. Now, it’s led by our audience engagement team and Meghan Irons, who covers social justice. The Spotlight reporters are still in it and are very active, but it has grown beyond the initial Spotlight report.

Tips for Creating and Growing Groups from Devin Smith, Boston Globe’s Senior Manager of Audience Engagement
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