How They Did It: Yahoo! crowdsources the American unemployment crisis

By on November 7, 2011

Down But Not Out

After the market crash of 2008, the Great Recession has been debated by pundits and policy wonks while journalists try to document the unfolding tales of the newly unemployed. Financial experts note that Americans are technically out of the recession, while most citizens are still reeling from the effects of a tanked economy, with no end in sight.

Yahoo! News decided to step into the fray with an experimental project, harnessing crowdsourcing, Tumblr and traditional storytelling techniques to illuminate the toll of long-term unemployment. The project, Down, But Not Out: Stories from the Long Term Unemployed (DBNO for short) is sobering reading, putting a face to the seemingly endless economic free fall. The stories shared are simultaneously painful and poignant, underscoring the stark economic headlines with tales of personal expectations, shattered dreams and a mountain of obstacles to overcome.

Created by Zachary Roth (Senior National Affairs Reporter, Yahoo! News), Phoebe Connelly (Senior News Editor, Yahoo! News Blogs), Chris Lehmann (Managing Editor, Yahoo! News Blogs) and Galen Bernard (Intrepid Intern), DBNO is a daily dose of unflinching American experience. In an email interview, the group pulled back the curtain on the process involved in creating a storytelling project in a relentless news cycle.

Yahoo!’s The Lookout put out a call for stories about unemployment and received nearly 6,000 responses. Was this your first foray into crowdsourcing a story online?

Zachary Roth: Yes, it was the first time The Lookout has done it. It’s a great way to take advantage of Yahoo!’s vast and broad audience, and we definitely plan to do it again.

How did you contact and verify the stories told on the site?

Phoebe Connelly: After Galen [Bernard] had done an initial cull, Zack and I emailed back everyone whose stories we were going to use in the initial launch, letting them know that we were going to publish their stories with their first name and last initial. In some cases people asked that we only use their initials, which we of course respected. We also asked if they had a photo that we could run alongside the stories.

Why did you choose Tumblr as your publishing platform?

Phoebe: It is easy! Well, that and I was familiar with it. I set up a Tumblr for The American Prospect when I was web editor there, and I’d used it for some other small-scale projects. We were putting up the entire project in a little under a week, and we didn’t have a dedicated tech staffer, so I wanted something that I could spend the minimum amount of time tricking out. For example, a woman named Heather Rivers had already built a customizable tag cloud widget for Tumblr, which was a a nice way to offer readers a way into the stories Yahoo! readers shared about long-term unemployment — you can hunt for stories involving child-care, or by those who have teaching experience.

I was also enticed by the baked-in community and sharing aspects of the platform. You can browse DBNO as a stand-alone site, without having a Tumblr account of your own, but if you do have an account it’s easy to reblog (akin to re-tweeting, in that attribution is clear, but you’ve got much more text) or to “like” posts as we put them up. You can also follow the blog on your dashboard, so that when we post new stories, they are delivered right to you.

What has the response been to the project? What themes emerged while sifting through the responses?

Galen Bernard: I was struck by how many people mentioned considering suicide. A couple times I had to stop reading and take a walk or call a friend because the despair I encountered was so distressing. I wanted to send a reply saying no, don’t, hang in there. But obviously that would only go so far, and as a behind-the-scenes person I couldn’t do that anyway. So I tried to channel the distress, mine and theirs, into motivation to do the best damn job possible selecting pieces so these stories might impact someone who is in a position to help.

I also hoped that the community a social media setting can foster might provide encouraging responses to those individuals, which has occurred in some cases.

Phoebe: The most common response I’ve gotten is, “Oh, wow, I could not stop reading these stories.” That was borne out by our traffic stats; readers spent an average of eight minutes on the site. Yahoo! readers who shared their stories uniformly wrote back thanking us for putting the project together. It’s gratifying to feel like we’re doing right by both the people whose stories we’re telling, and by our audience.

The experience of being unemployed is overwhelming; and that came across in the stories as we read them. You can browse some of the most common themes via the tag cloud, but the one that always got me was the child care dilemma. Some jobs that Yahoo! readers were offered wouldn’t adequately cover their child care expenses, but they struggled with the idea of turning down work.

Zachary: Also, a lot of older readers felt they were discriminated against in trying to get a job … the psychological and emotional toll of not working came through very strongly.

Chris Lehmann: The great luxury of doing this digitally was the space. The whole concept going into this project was to approach long-term unemployment from a fundamentally different angle than what you tend to see in the daily crush of reporting and commentary on the issue. And to tackle a subject this big from that kind of vantage, you need the space to do it — to have readers’ voices in the center of it, to organize the material thematically, to sustain an ongoing dialog with readers on the issue. Thanks to the great work Zack and Phoebe have done on this project, we’re able to let readers approach this crucial issue with their own experience at the center of the debate — and as someone who lives and works in Washington, I can say that’s a pretty rare thing in the normal run of policy-driven journalism.

How long will you keep the project going?

Phoebe: We’re still publishing two to three stories a week on the Tumblr, and we’re continuing to reach out to this community to hear how they feel about ongoing economy news like Barack Obama’s jobs speech.

What are your largest takeaways from this project?

Phoebe: Trust your readers’ voices and don’t be afraid to put together something very ambitious on a quick turn-around.

Zachary: Also that there are a huge number of smart, articulate, motivated people out there who still can’t find work, and are eager to tell their stories. And we should be doing more about it.

More like this:
NPR employees radio show tales of layoffs [NPR] 11 Reasons Why the Unemployment Crisis Is Even Worse Than You Think [Alternet] A Flight Plan for the American Economy [Time] The Help-Wanted Sign Comes With a Frustrating Asterisk [NY Times] What About the Long-Term Unemployed? [The Takeaway]

Voices from “Personal Scenes”:

Here I was a 60 year old woman, who made about $120,000 a year. I was a loyal, long term employee of a major corporation, and for the first time in my life I was unemployed. I had a fine liberal arts education (Harvard Extension School), but was unable to find a job. […]Since we were renting in Florida, my husband and I had no choice but to move from Florida to Park City Utah, where we owned a condo. My husband, who was 61, and I applied for job after job. After a year, my husband (who had been a corporate vice-president before his company reorganized in 1995 … a few months before his options became due) found a $10.00 an hour part-time job at a ski resort, as a ski valet. – Sib M.

I’m 38. Have a 3 year-old-son. I have a Masters and Bachelors in social science (my first mistake) and I wonder why I ever got an education. […] I have played by the rules, I did everything right. I went to school, I made great grades, I did it all. And now I’m wondering what was it all for?? – Hope W.

The most difficult thing about being out of work for months numbering more than six or seven was remaining positive in the face of frustration and disappointment. Having been employed as a writer for only 2 years after graduating college, my limited experience (barring any freelance I performed after being let go) had limited my ability to compete with the hundreds of unemployed senior copywriters applying for the same positions I was. […] Throughout my time at the Star-Gazette I watched our newsroom grow smaller and smaller due to layoffs and buyouts while those of us left behind were asked to “do more with less.” It was stressful, sad and disconcerting to watch talented professionals lose their jobs through no fault of their own.It would be difficult for me to take a minimum wage job that would not pay for basic bills (food, shelter, gas/public transportation), and the debts I’ve accrued since being unemployed. However, I have lowered my standards considerably. At the time I lost my job I was making $16.41/hr. Now, I’m looking for jobs $8-$10/hour jobs, so I am willing to sacrifice in order to get my foot in the door. – Catherine W.