Without a public editor, The New York Times' new Reader Center aims to connect with its audience

Don't expect The New York Times new Reader Center to pick up where the public editor left off.

That's the word from Hanna Ingber, the editor who was appointed to run the new, reader-focused initiative for The New York Times at the end of last month. Ingber, who was previously an editor on the international desk, now leads a handful of staffers whose mission is to forge stronger connections between the company's journalism and its consumers.

But it won't be watchdogging the paper's journalism or issuing formal responses to reader complaints, Ingber said. Although the launch of the Reader Center coincided with the elimination of Public Editor Liz Spayd, Ingber and her team will not take up Spayd's public-facing duties.

"I don't think you're going to see a Reader Center Twitter handle, for example, responding to complaints," Ingber said. "...We would, ideally, be helping the desks and helping the standards editor, working behind the scenes and being one of many voices that's helping sort this out."

Instead, Ingber's team will be "a convener," working with a variety of teams to infuse reader-centered thinking across the newsroom: the standards desk (which issues corrections and editor's notes), the marketing team (which promotes New York Times initiatives) and the audience development team (which engages with users).[caption id="attachment_462991" align="alignright" width="250"]Hanna Ingber, the New York Times editor leading its new Reader Center initiative. (Photo via The New York Times) Hanna Ingber, the New York Times editor leading its new Reader Center initiative. (Photo via The New York Times)[/caption]

Since the Reader Center is new, many of the specifics of the initiative are still being hammered out, Ingber said. But underlying all of its efforts will be a focus on bringing readers closer to New York Times journalism.

A recent project in this vein saw White House correspondent Mike Shear sending text messages to new subscribers in a reprisal of the paper's approach to the 2016 Olympics. Ingber and her team still haven't determined whether the experiment was a success — or even what "success" would look like — but she says readers who received texts from Shear said they felt as if "they were getting digital postcards" from President Trump's trip abroad.

"We're also looking at it from a quantitative perspective: How many people signed up who were invited?" Ingber asked. "Did this lead to people reading more New York Times stories? Did this lead them to keep their subscription or not? Did that have any impact or not on whether they stayed a Times subscriber? That's all to be determined."

Below is a question-and-answer session with Ingber about her new job, and how the Reader Center fits in with other initiatives at The New York Times. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How are you doing after last week? What are you working on now?

Since, as you know, we're brand-new still, we've been spending some time trying to figure out what our vision is. What are our goals? What do we hope to accomplish? At the same time, we're also trying to dive right in and get our hands dirty with some projects.

In general, the whole idea of the Reader Center is about connections between our journalism and our readers. So, when we're figuring out what projects to work on around the newsroom, we're always thinking about how we can build those connections, how we can experiment with different ways to get at connections, how we can change our relationship between readers and our journalism.

One early (project) was when Mike Shear, our White House correspondent, was traveling with President Trump during Trump's first trip abroad. We reached out to some of our new subscribers and invited them to sign up for text messages with him.

So, in addition to being able to read his stories and hear him on The Daily and follow him on Twitter, he was also writing personal text messages to these subscribers. It was a way of experimenting to see if we could build more of a personal connection between our journalist who's (on assignment) and this group.

Claire Cain Miller, who is one of our Upshot reporters, wrote a great piece that was in Sunday Review about how to raise so-called feminist sons — boys who believe in full equality for men and women.

We knew that piece that was going to be a big talker, and we wanted to hear from readers who are parents and teachers and educators who are thinking about these issues all the time, and we wanted to hear about their experiences dealing with this.

So we invited our readers to share their experiences and their parenting tips. We told them that we would have experts, including Claire Cain Miller, as well as Anne-Marie Slaughter and Dan Clawson and Tony Porter, (respond to their questions). So, we seeded about 300 responses from readers, and then we whittled those down to about 25 or 20 that well-represented the group. ...And now we're publishing an interactive that showcases these reader voices and also shows the expertise.

So, it's a way of connecting readers to our journalism but also using our readers' voices to make our journalism better. We hope that by really listening to our readers, we will be able to tell better stories and we will be able to learn more about the world we live in.

Can you talk a little bit about how much of the functions of the public editor you have taken up, if any?

At The Times in general, we have done many things to amplify readers' voices to improve transparency. Hopefully, that will lead to more accountability. The Reader Center is one of many ways that The Times is paying more attention to readers and doing more to put them at the center of what we do.

We also, as you know, are increasing the number of stories that have comments on them. And we have a very strong standards desk that is always looking for feedback and criticism and issues that need correcting. So there are many ways that The Times is making sure that readers' voices are heard.

So, do you take complaints from readers and bring them to Times journalists? Are you going to be doing any of the, "Here's what editors at The Times say" sort of stuff? Or is your role mostly making sure that the right people see the right criticism?

We're still sorting it out, in all honesty. We are most likely going to be focused on best practices, and how we can make sure that The Times overall is being more responsive. That doesn't mean that I am going to respond to readers' complaints. It means that my team, the Reader Center, is going to help figure out how to make all of us be more responsive to readers.

How should we be responding? How is that different than we used to respond? When should we be responding? What are our different options for responding? Do we want to do a Facebook Live (broadcast)? Do we want to do a Q-and-A with a desk editor? Do we want to send a message on Twitter? Do we want to change our story? Do we want to add an editor's note? Is that necessary? Do we want to publish a letter to the editor?

There are so many different tools that we have for responding. And hopefully the Reader Center will be helping us all figure out what the best options are.

If there's an issue with our journalism, or if there's something to be held accountable for, that's mostly a standards desk issue. They decide: Is this a correction? An editor's note? Is it something larger?

So, it sounds like the Reader Center will be responsible for some communication between the Times' audience and its journalists — but the standards desk will continue, as it always has, to make decisions about whether or not coverage was up to snuff or whether there's a correction that needs to be appended or an editor's note, or those sorts of things.

I don't think that the Reader Center is actually going to be doing the communication. I don't think you're going to see a Reader Center Twitter handle, for example, responding to complaints. We don't even have a Reader Center Twitter handle, and I don't think that's necessary or would make sense.

We would, ideally, be helping the desks and helping the standards editor working behind the scenes and being one of many voices that's helping us sort this out.

For example, we have a whole team that's looking at what are readers are saying on social. We have a whole team that's looking at what are readers are saying when they place phone calls to our call centers. We have a team looking at what readers are saying in comments. We have a team looking at what readers are saying by email.

As the note about the public editor made clear, in this era, we have so many ways of hearing from readers. So, the Reader Center is a place where we are going to be prioritizing these voices and trying to figure out what's the best way that we can make sense of all of this.

So, what I'm hearing is that the Reader Center is not so much a public-facing effort as it is something that the Times is putting into place to observe and pay attention to what readers are saying. And if there's criticism, whom it should be relayed to?

Yes, I think that's one aspect of it. The Reader Center is a convener. So, it's focused on the connections between our journalism and our readers. There are a lot of different aspects of it.

Right now, we're collaborating with our marketing team to figure out how we can bring our subscribers closer to our journalism. So, one member of the team is focused on inviting a select number of subscribers to win a seat at our morning news meeting. And we're helping them figure that out and helping come up with a social plan.

...Right now, our Facebook Live team is part of this, and we're thinking about how we can do live, interactive video to connect with our readers. How can we use that platform to be responding to readers, to be inviting them to participate in our journalism?

...We certainly care tremendously about reader criticism. But that's not new. We've always cared tremendously about reader criticism. And hopefully, we'll now have better processes in place to respond.

You brought up the notion of Facebook Live and doing events where you promote Times journalism or engage with readers in some way. What occurred to me when you mentioned that is there are a few units within The Times that already do this work. There's an audience development team that handles a lot of the social. Then there's the team that shepherds and goes through all the comments that appear on Times journalism. And then, occasionally, some of the heavy hitters like (Executive Editor) Dean Baquet or (publisher) Arthur Sulzberger Jr. will decide to appear in some way or make a comment.

To me, it seems like there's a lot of overlap between what the Reader Center does and what folks at other parts of The Times do. And I was wondering, how do you negotiate that?

Ideally, the Reader Center is a hub that can not only be this convener between journalism and our readers, but also a convener within The Times. There's so many teams here that are thinking about and reimagining our relationship with readers. We really hope that the Reader Center is a place where like-minded people who are thinking about readers can come together and put their heads together and figure this all out.

Because it's all new. It's all exciting. And there's a lot of work to be done. We have some resources on the Reader Center itself. We have people on the Reader Center who can be resources for others. But ideally, we'll be collaborating across The Times.

I wanted to ask about this project that originated in the Olympics, where you have somebody at The Times text readers — in this case, (White House correspondent) Mike Shear. Do you think that's something you'll do again?

We're still sorting that out. It was an experiment. We're now looking at the results of the experiment and trying to figure out how we should measure success.

If you measure it based on feedback from readers, the readers who signed up and were then invited to give feedback at the end, they were overwhelmingly positive and talked about how they felt like they were getting digital postcards from Mike Shear as he was traveling.

They loved having this inside scoop, having these extra details that they could talk to their friends at cocktail parties about that other people didn't have. They felt like they were right there with him. They felt closer to him, they felt closer to the journalism. There was a lot of positive feedback, which was really nice to see.

But that doesn't necessarily mean it was a success. We're also looking at it from a quantitative perspective: How many people signed up who were invited? Did this lead to people reading more New York Times stories? Did this lead them to keep their subscription or not?

That's all to be determined. But, I think what's great about that project in terms of why I wanted to mention it is that it's a great example of an experiment that's working across the building that's working with the interactive news team and multiple journalists on the Washington desk and the international desk.

How many people are on your team?

That's also TBD. Everything's brand new. There are now a handful of us. And, as I mentioned, we're also working with the Facebook Live team. So, some members of that team are exclusively focused on Facebook Live, and some members are doing Facebook Live plus other aspects of the Reader Center.

Do you guys have an office?

We don't have an office. Offices are so five years ago.

Do you have a Slack channel?

We have a Slack channel. And we have a lot of enthusiasm.

Do you have a system for how you apply reader-centered thinking to other places at The Times? Are you going through desks one by one? How does that work, exactly?

We're sorting that out now. As have a better sense of what our goals are and our vision, we can then figure out what our priorities should be. We want to be establishing best practices, but we also want to be leading by example, getting our hands dirty and working on projects and not just being strategists.

We want to be creating journalism and working closely with journalists while teaching others how to think a different way and work differently.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the desk that partnered with the Washington desk during Mike Shear's trip abroad. It was the international desk, not the national desk.

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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