by Maia Laperle
Reckon Women is a partnership between Alabama Media Group and Spaceship Media, and uses Spaceship Media’s dialogue journalism method. Alabama Media Group has previously partnered with Spaceship Media on other dialogue journalism projects, such as ‘Guns, An American Conversation’ and ‘Talking Politics.’
The Reckon Women project began in May 2018, immediately after Alabama enacted the Human Life Protection Act, one of the strictest abortion bans in the country. Reckon Women has a private Facebook group, moderated by Alabama Media Group reporters and Spaceship Media moderators. Reporters help to promote dialogue around women’s issues in the South by sharing news articles and asking open-ended questions to invite discussion, as well as sharing posts submitted by group members themselves. By being attentive to conversation trends, reporters in the group are able to identify important topics that aren’t already being covered in the media, source prospective stories from within the group, and report informative content back into the group to address the group’s needs.
After the abortion ban was signed into law, Rebecca Walker Benjamin, senior managing producer at AL.com, says their newsroom knew everyone was talking about women in Alabama, but no one was listening to women in Alabama. Reckon Women was created as a place for women to discuss issues that they don’t always feel they can talk about, and to amplify those women’s voices through Alabama Media Group’s publications. They continue to work towards normalizing the types of conversations that happen in their Facebook group as part of the public policy conversations that happen in Alabama so that the state can make better decisions for its people.
Another goal of Reckon Women is to prove that social media can be used for good, and for people to have hard conversations about typically divisive topics and walk away feeling enriched, that they’ve learned something, and that they’ve grown.
Tools and Technology
The main tool for this project is Facebook and most of everything they do happens within the Facebook platform. Aside from the Facebook group itself, the moderation team has an ongoing Facebook messenger chat where they check in daily, plan together, and discuss any immediate group needs. They also plan their prospective posts and track the topics that come up in conversation each week using Google docs.
Anna Claire Vollers’ reporting on maternal mortality in Alabama was part of the initial inspiration for forming the Facebook group. Vollers continued reporting, which was partly informed by her moderation and participation in the group, highlighted maternal mortality in the state and the lack of records on how many mothers had died while pregnant, in childbirth, or within the first year after pregnancy. Following her coverage, the state funded its first maternal mortality review committee this year (2020).
The community built within the group has also had a clear impact on people’s lives. Two women who met through the Reckon Women Facebook group formed The Mama Collaborative, a group advocating for mothers at the legislative level. Another woman from the group whose twins died during childbirth was supported by a community-led effort to fund funeral and cremation services when it was reported that she was unable to pay for it herself.
Reckon is a Facebook engagement platform that deals with topics related to the U.S. South. It’s one of several news and information brands run by Alabama Media Group. Reckon was started in 2017 with the intention of creating a space for deeper conversations about issues in Alabama, beyond the day-to-day news coverage already being produced by Alabama Media Group for their website, AL.com.
Alabama Media Group is a digitally-focused news company creating content specifically for people living in Alabama as well as the U.S. southeast in general. They are also a digital marketing agency and source revenue from ad sales and subscriptions.
Alabama Media Group received a Google News initiative grant to do deep research on the audience in the South and what needs weren’t currently being met by other media organizations. They used these insights to create the Reckon projects.
Alabama Media Group has also received a $25,000 Community Network grant from The Facebook Journalism Project and The Lenfest Institute for Journalism to support Reckon Women, as well as financial support and training from Solutions Journalism Network.
The Reckon Women moderation team is made up of five Alabama Media Group employees who are each assigned one day a week to be responsible for posting within the group, moderating in the group, and approving posts from group members.
Through their partnership with Spaceship Media, they receive help with moderation, post workshopping and editing, and general group engagement guidance. They also partnered with The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham for an educational event series they began hosting in 2020
Here’s What Worked
1. Diligently filtering out trolls
The group consists of over 4000 people. On average, about 20 new people join every week. Each person who requests to join is vetted carefully to make sure that trolls aren’t allowed to infiltrate the group. Rebecca Walker Benjamin explained how this step is extra important in such a large group, with participants who open up about vulnerable topics: “We built that trust with them that we’re going to make it a protected space for that kind of conversation.”
2. Newsroom Buy-In
Because Alabama Media Group is able to offer a lot of resources and support, Reckon Women is well staffed and has access to deep reporting that complements the experience of group members who have information needs or are interested in sharing their story.
3. Multimedia Approach
Alabama Media Group produces videos that are shared to the group and sometimes feature group members. Some of these videos, including a video about infant loss created by Kavolshaia Howze have been especially successful at generating engagement and conversation.
4. Embracing & Encouraging Nuance
Kelly Scott said that one thing they’ve learned in their extensive audience research is that people are aching for a space where nuance is allowed. Through carefully crafting and selecting posts, the moderation team has largely been able to help group members have this type of nuanced conversation, without getting walled in by political divides.
5. Investing in Moderation and Facilitation Support from the Start
Alabama Media Group dedicated staff time to the important tasks of creating a safe space in the group and connecting the work done in that group to reporting. Making sure the reporters moderating this group had the time and support to do this work wasn’t an afterthought.
Here’s What Could Have Worked Better
1. Having Less Structure Around Topics
Towards the beginning of the project, moderators had tested out having Theme Weeks every week and keeping conversation limited to the theme of that week. The intent was to encourage more people to share stories and information independently. What they learned was that people don’t really want to do social engagement on a schedule, they want to talk about what is relevant, and you can’t predict what topics will be relevant week-to-week.
2. Being an echo chamber
Because the group was formed in response to the abortion ban, it naturally attracted and was joined by more liberal women upfront who would post rude or inflammatory content about things like conservative politicans. They also experienced less engagement from the women of color in the group, finding that they were not as likely to speak up or share about themselves. To counteract these issues, they implemented post approval (where a moderator needs to approve a post rather than letting every post automatically go through) to promote more diversity of thought and less bashing of politicians. They also began to more strictly enforce rules by eventually removing people from the group who didn’t accept the group’s intentions.
3. Being More Transparent About Who’s Leading the Discussion
They found group members skeptical of them bringing up issues related to race in the beginning, because it was assumed that all of the moderators were “White women trying to talk about things White women want to talk about.” Rebecca Benjamin Walker says it made sense to her that people made that assumption, because that’s the experience many people have so often had with media organizations. They found that people want to know who the moderators are and understand whether they are personally affected by an issue they are speaking on, so they started being more transparent about who was talking and about their intentions to elevate conversations around race and women of color’s voices in a safe way.
Here’s What Else You Should Know
Newsletter – There is a public Reckon Women newsletter produced by Abbey Crain. Each week, she highlights one woman whose story you should know, uses the group for suggestions and shares back to the group cool women you should be following. Kelly Scott said that in a state like Alabama where there’s not a lot of female representation, it’s easy to feel like it’s a man’s world, and so seeing all of these women who are doing cool things and leading on real issues is really powerful.
In-Person Element – Before the pandemic, Reckon Women started a series of Lunch & Learns, where they taught people more about what they’re doing as a news organization. After that, they invited a guest speaker (like a lawyer or a lobbyist) to talk about strategic ways to easily get issues in front of state legislators and representatives.
To learn more get in touch with Kavolshaia Howze at email@example.com. If you’re interested in discussing political and social issues of relevance to Alabamians and Southern women, you can request to join the Facebook group here. You can also sign up for their newsletter!