August 22, 2013

Dave Itzkoff’s oral history of “Saturday Night Live” auditions has a new feature for a New York Times article page: highlighted sentences that you can click to tweet.

“It’s a one-off experiment on this story,” Times Deputy Editor of Interactive News Marc Lavallee told Poynter by phone. “It’s not like a feature that’s in the pipeline to be rolled out sitewide.” The Times is continuing to experiment with article presentation online in advance of a redesign next year.

Itzkoff — with whom I used to work at Spin — and social media editor Michael Roston chose the sentences, Lavallee said, at least one of which is actually too long for a tweet. That one gets abridged, Lavallee said. You’re not required to tweet the same sentences the Times chose, but a tweet using that link will drop you onto that exact point on the page.

“I think that gives us comfort in providing these prompts without making us feel like we’re putting words in people’s mouths,” he said.

“I basically looked for two kinds of tweetable content: first, for standalone anecdotes that SNL nerds like me would gravitate to and want to share around,” Itzkoff says via email. “Then, I looked for individual quotes that would just about fit in a 140-character format with a link and, ideally, the speaker’s Twitter handle. (See Marc Maron’s line about possibly being high on pot when he met with Lorne Michaels.) Just a bit of educated guesswork trying to imagine what readers would be drawn to, and what would make the best traveling billboards for the overall story.”

Itzkoff says the Times’ interactive team “are wizards — literal, spell-casting, wand-waving wizards.”

How one “tweetable” sentence is abridged in a tweet

Lavallee said he “vastly” prefers seeing tweets that quote a story rather than share its headline and link, and the Times was curious to see if people would use quotes it planted through the story. They chose Itzkoff’s piece because it’s a “talker,” he said, and its structure is friendly to people dropping in to any point in the article and navigating up and down.

Lavallee had only limited data on what quotes were being tweeted, but he’d already had a few surprises. A Will Ferrell quote about a skit where he pretended to be an office worker who played with cat toys was a popular choice for people sharing the story, even though the Times hadn’t highlighted that quote. And readers were favoring two less-than-lighthearted quotes, one from Molly Shannon about getting mugged and another from Tracy Morgan about being on welfare.

“There’s no algorithm at play here beyond journalism,” he said. “If I were to take an almost algorithmic approach, I don’t think I would have picked” either of those quotes, because “My understanding of conventional wisdom is that people like to share more positive things.” (Eliana Dockterman reported on the news becoming “less mean” this week.)

Beyond the utility for sharing, Lavallee said, he liked that the highlighted passages almost work as pullquotes. “It’s not just there for the sake of being social,” he said. I asked, based on a friend’s grousing about the feature on Twitter, whether the Times would consider an off switch for anyone not dazzled by the feature. Sure, Lavallee said. “It’s very much a trial balloon to see how people take to it.”

Related: NYT design honcho on redesign: ‘We’re not going to do things that don’t work’

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City…
Andrew Beaujon

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