Last year, a timeless story began making the rounds on social media.
"A toolkit for women seeking a raise," from The New York Times, imparted enduring advice: Be proactive. Be prepared. Anticipate your boss' reaction. The story saw a flurry of tweets and Facebook shares despite its somewhat antiquated publication date: May 14, 2010.
Patient zero for the story was, of course, The New York Times itself. The paper has been churning out service journalism for more than a century, and social media has an attention span measured in seconds, not days or weeks. So why not make sure readers see the best evergreen stories from The New York Times — regardless of when they were published?
That's one of the elements of a strategy from The New York Times, in place for about a year now, to knit together service journalism across the entire company. The latest step is its Smarter Living newsletter, a weekly digest by editor Tim Herrera, that includes the best evergreen and new journalism that helps New York Times readers live their best lives.
The project, which began last summer, evolved out of a desire to use what Herrera calls a "goldmine" of stories from the Times' 166-year history. They put a "Smarter Living" module on the homepage to give prime real estate to timeless stories. When those stories began taking off on social media organically, editors realized they had a hit on their hands.
"Smarter Living, in the very first conception of it, was really an archives project that was pulling the best service journalism that was still relevant, that was still up-to-date, that was still current and resurfacing it to try to give it another life," Herrera said. "...We found that readers really latched onto it in huge, huge ways."
It's since evolved into a newsroom-wide effort that encompasses five full-time staffers and a number of partners across The Times' various desks, Herrera said. The newsletter stitches that work together and will include content from The Times' various service-y verticals — Watching (for TV and film), Well (for fitness) and Cooking (self-explanatory).
It will also feature guides from The Wirecutter, The New York Times' recently acquired product recommendation site. The integration marks a notable step for The Times, which has been experimenting with mixing product reviews into its journalism since the acquisition. The company gets paid for referring readers to products featured on The Wirecutter, a business strategy called affiliate linking that has become increasingly popular among digital media companies in recent years.
The Times doesn't have any written policy for affiliate linking as of this writing, although decisions about what and how to integrate affiliate links with Times journalism have been considered by Standards Editor Phil Corbett, said Karron Skog, a senior editor at the news organization.
So far, the emphasis has been on transparency. This guide includes "affiliate links" for readers who want to buy. While all the products are independently chosen by journalists, The Times may earn a commission on purchases through the affiliate links.
"It really is on a case-by-case basis," Skog said. "I've worked with Phil for years, and he knows me as a journalist, and he trusts my sense in a lot of these things. If there's something I feel like I'm on the fence about, I will go to him and talk to him."
The newsletter is broken into three sections: One mini-story, which Herrera calls a "blog post riff on a rotating topic." Next is a best-of section that includes a selection of the best Smarter Living content across The New York Times. The third section is a curated list of stories from anywhere — "anything from Lifehacker stories to Nerdwallet stories to random blogs," Herrera said.
It's still an open question whether The Times will continue to build out Smarter Living into a standalone brand, with a full-fledged presence of social media and elsewhere. The watchword will be experimentation, Herrera said, which is where the company writ large is headed, too.
"I think the evolution of Smarter Living is illustrative of the way that The Times is looking at our future," he said. "We put a little thing on the homepage. Readers really responded, so we expanded it. We started doing original stories. Now we're launching a newsletter. We're pulling in The Wirecutter. The future is whatever feels best for readers and feels best for the brand."
When asked whether Smarter Living was just a vehicle for affiliate links — and revenue for The Times — both Herrera and Skog said the news organization would be developing service journalism regardless of whether it was a money-maker.
"We're really trying to attract different audiences, and we know that this kind of content is a great way to habituate readers, to bring them back to us," Skog said.