A conversation with Matteo Moschella, senior social media journalist at First Draft
There is no one way into journalism. Many aspiring journalists are overwhelmed by the plethora of possibilities and don’t know where to even start. That is why we launched the monthly newsletter “100 Paths to Journalism”, featuring career tips and Q&As with industry professionals.
This month, we are talking with Matteo Moschella, the senior social media journalist at First Draft. For the past few years, he has worked in the fields of social media newsgathering, verification and fact-checking with such established newsrooms as The Economist, Deutsche Welle, The Times, Thomson Reuters News Agency and others.
My professional experience comes from a wide range of places, not all of which are related to journalism. After starting to study law in Milan, I changed direction slightly to politics and ‘worked’ (for free) in local media during my studies to gain experience. I then lived and worked briefly in Germany and Australia before relocating to the UK to do a Masters degree in Interactive Journalism. I strove to get as many unpaid internships and volunteering jobs as I could during this time. My determination paid off and thankfully I got a job before the end of my MA course.
This job was with First Draft, a global organisation that investigates misinformation and disinformation in the digital age and the sources and tactics behind it. My role was to monitor online communities for disinformation ahead of the 2017 General Election. It was a great job but it was only a short-term role for three months around the election. Luckily, the contacts I had built up helped me to find another short-term role in no time at all. This time it was as a social media producer at The Economist.
When that ended, I took up a three-month internship with the social media news agency Storyful which continued in a full-time capacity for over a year before I took the plunge into the freelance world. This life offered great variety and I worked for Reuters, taught verification at the Thomson Reuters Foundation and also worked as a data analyst for SAM, a start-up that uses AI to do social media newsgathering.
At the start of November 2019, I came full circle and returned to First Draft in my current role as a senior journalist.
I got quite lucky and owe it to Theresa May, the former British Prime Minister who called a snap election in April 2017. Two organisations working to counteract the spread of disinformation, First Draft and Full Fact, decided to join forces to monitor disinformation and misinformation online. In order to do so, they recruited some rookie reporters.
One of the co-founders, Claire Wardle, contacted universities in the UK about the opportunity and the moment I heard about it, I set about composing my cover letter! Verification was already something that I studied and enjoyed. I read most of the free training resources that were available at the time and developed a basic vocabulary and understanding of the skills involved.
When I relocated to the UK, I wanted to become a data journalist. To be very honest, I wasn’t specifically thinking about a career in newsgathering or verification.
One of my favourite radio shows growing up was Marina Petrillo’s Alaska on Radio Popolare, an Italian radio station. Petrillo spoke at length on news in the MENA region, and I recall how she would often cite Twitter and its importance during the Egyptian revolution of January 25, 2011, something which is still quoted on her Twitter today. She left Radio Popolare to join Andy Carvin, Kim Bui, and others at Reported.ly, a social news agency. I remember being struck by those journalists who found news and filed copy adapting the means of traditional reporting to the new opportunities of social media.
In my early days at First Draft, I was still not 100% sure that this was what I wanted to do forever. It was only by moving away from it that I quickly realised that I missed that type of work. It wasn’t long before I was back in the thick of it again at Storyful.
I wish that I had refused to work for free in Italy. Even if working for free gives you valuable experience when you don’t have it, it creates a lot of problems for the industry as a whole. I have only been working in the UK for three years, so I’m still very much in the early stages of my career.
Volunteering is a great way to attend industry events for free but they have also given me the opportunity to write, meet interesting and like-minded people and learn how to network. The IJF is close to my heart as it is the biggest journalism event in Italy and attracts an international line-up of guests. Mozfest is an all-tech conference run by an inclusive community. Newsrewired, the Journalism.co.uk conference, has definitely given me confidence in liveblogging.
I am still involved in Hacks/Hackers London, so I guess it speaks volumes how much I love it. I have learned something from all my volunteering experiences and I highly recommend it if you have the time or the opportunity to do it.
I set out to gain experience in the various different aspects of digital journalism and I think my experiences reflect that. Video, data and social are the areas that interested me the most and I looked for opportunities there. I think that my willingness to experiment and the fact that I was not set on one definite path helped me to diversify my portfolio.
Every time I learned something new or moved to a different role, I widened my skill set. The fact I have worked in so many organisations in such a short time is also reflective of the volatile job market and the current state of journalism as the media landscape evolves.
I am part of a team that works across multiple social media platforms to investigate and analyse news. We mix data analysis, advanced tools for social newsgathering and traditional reporting to see what posts are trending online. We keep an eye on a wide array of communities on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, 4chan etc and scan for newsworthy stories. Right now, the UK election and Brexit are certainly keeping me busy!
I started learning on my own really. At the time I was not thinking “Oh, this is going to be my job.’’ I just wanted to know more about it so I read all I could find and did some free training online to cover the basics.
During my first stint at First Draft, I learned the theoretical framework for verification and standards ethics in newsgathering. Storyful gave me plenty of experience to hone my skills and my knowledge. Investigating online can happen in so many ways and it offers a lot of opportunities for self-improvement so I think that I am fine-tuning all the time.
Social newsgathering is usually proactive. Using software-based tools the journalist looks for stories, data and research on social media.
Fact-checking and verification, on the other hand, cover different aspects and are more reactive. Verification means collecting multiple independent elements to declare the authenticity of a specific piece of information. For instance, being able to identify the area, the time and the date a video was filmed using satellite imagery, online photographs and corroborating local reports. Fact-checking often means doing a deep dive on a political claim, reading the legislation on a specific topic, finding a record of a political speech or wading through stats to find a figure.
Skills are useful, but I would recommend to start off by getting whatever experience you can. I would suggest going where the online communities you want to follow are and spending a lot of time observing them. The skills will follow. Look at the work other journalists are doing and try to replicate it on a smaller scale. If you are interested in a specific gaming community, it would be great to start a newsletter on it and to try to obtain as much publicly-available information as you can on them.
There are plenty of training resources at the moment out there and a lot of members of the OSINT (Open Source Intelligence Techniques) community are very happy to show how they do their work and to answer questions online. I would invite those interested to try to solve simple problems of verification and newsgathering and then to make progress in time.
I would suggest thinking ahead and researching what kind of journalism you are interested in and then specialising in one specific area. Being focused on one area gives you subject expertise and makes you more marketable. The more granular it is the better.
There are literally so many. This may sound biased but the training section of the First Draft website is pretty awesome! There is basic, advanced training, online courses and more. Do check it out. Another website with great training resources is Bellingcat.
Much of my work is linked to knowing everything that is happening in social media news. Few beat Casey Newton’s newsletter at that. It is called The Interface.
The Tow Center guide to OSINT by Michael Edison Hayden is pretty amazing and comprehensive as well.