When it comes to hearing from readers, The New York Times wants to go a lot further than just letting people chime in at the bottom of some articles.
Last week, the newspaper announced The New York Times Reader Center, a new initiative focused on finding new ways to connect with Times readers and deepening the connections it already has. The team, whose “exact size is still taking shape,” according to a Times spokesperson, will be staffed by a handful of journalists who will work with various Times departments — including interactive news, social, and even marketing and branding — on various reader-centered projects.
“Our agenda is not for our little team to make a splash. Our agenda is for The New York Times to have stronger connections with readers,” said Hanna Ingber, an editor on the international desk and the project’s lead. “In order for us to be successful, we need to work with everyone. The Reader Center will be a way to convene all those people to make the most of all the work that’s already happening.”
The Reader Center has already pushed out a handful of projects. Last month, it invited a small group of Times subscribers to receive text messages from White House correspondent Michael Shear as he travelled with President Trump on his first international trip. (The project is similar to a Times effort last summer that let readers receive texts about the Rio Olympics from Times deputy sports editor Sam Manchester.)
In another project, as part of a story by Times reporter Claire Cain Miller about how parents can raise feminist sons, the Reader Center asked readers to share their own experiences raising boys, and included many of their comments in a follow-up piece. That project was modeled in part after an initiative Ingber helped run in conjunction with “Ladies First,” a Times documentary about women in Saudi Arabia who were able to vote and run for office for the first time. After the Times ran the piece, Ingber made a call out to Saudi women, asking for stories about their lives. Over 6,000 of them replied, and the Times used some of their responses in a follow-up story. “That was good journalism,” Ingber said. “We used these voices to better understand what their lives were like and what their hopes were.”
With the Reader Center, the Times is the latest news organization to make deeper reader engagement more core to its editorial processes. Some organizations (The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, the Times itself when it comes to podcasts) have turned to Facebook groups, while other efforts (the Civics 101 podcast, The Texas Tribune’s community editor) are using reader input to influence their editorial decisions. While these efforts go beyond article comments in an effort to engage readers, comments, too, are a big part of the equation. As my colleague Shan Wang reported earlier this week, the Times aims to open 80 percent of its articles up for comments this year, up from 10 percent, using algorithmic tools to help evaluate them in bulk. The Times also plans to amplify reader voices by regularly producing comment roundups.
“We want to do everything we can to hear more of those voices and amplify them,” Ingber said.
It isn’t clear yet how much overlap the new Reader Center will have with the responsibilities formerly assigned to the Times’ public editor, a position the newspaper eliminated this month. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said in a memo to Times staffers last week that readers around the world “collectively serve as a modern watchdog,” and are “more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be.”
Ingber said that while the Reader Center isn’t designed to replace the public editor, the new initiative is similarly built around the mission to create greater transparency into how Times stories are produced, and to hear directly from readers on how it can improve its processes.
“Our goals are to make journalism more transparent and to change the relationship between readers and journalists, by empowering journalists to do more to connect with readers, to respond to readers, and to be more engaged with readers,” Ingber said. “Ultimately this will not just lead to better journalism, but also to more accountability and to the elevating of the position of our readers.”