In May, after more than a year of planning, investigating, writing and editing, The New York Times was almost ready to publish an investigation from reporter Sarah Maslin Nir that would reveal ghastly working conditions in nail salons throughout New York City. Almost.
It was the eve of publication. Elisabeth Goodridge, the deputy editor for the paper’s metro section, was lingering in the newsroom, waiting for the last elements of the story to come in. The article had been translated into three languages — Korean, Chinese and Spanish — but Goodridge had not yet received everything required for the finished product. She finally left The Times’ Manhattan headquarters at around 10 p.m. and returned early the next day to await their arrival. That morning, Metro Editor Wendell Jamieson sent his deputy Michael Luo an email checking on the project.
“He said he was about to have a heart attack,” Luo said. “Because you know, this was a gigantic project for Sarah, for the metro desk, and we wanted to hit the window of big traffic. And every minute that it delayed getting up, we were worried, because this was our one shot at getting big numbers for it and getting big impact.”
They needn’t have worried. The translation came through, and the first half of the two-part series – which collectively runs about 10,000 words — was published at around 8 a.m. The story went viral, generated national and international coverage and was touted by industry observers and an award-granting foundation. In the following days, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled a plan requiring New York nail salons to post a “workers’ bill of rights” on their premises.
But for media watchers, the article’s unconventional presentation was also newsworthy. By using four languages, The Times sought to reach the audiences most affected by the subject at hand: nail salon workers subjected to low wages, long hours and potentially harmful chemicals. Although The Times did not reveal how many pageviews the foreign-language versions of the story garnered, the article remains one of the most prominent examples of a news organization attempting to find a broader readership by meeting international audiences on their own terms.
The Times isn’t alone. As news organizations realize the potential of reaching international audiences with their journalism, more and more are translating their work into different tongues. BuzzFeed, Vice and The Washington Post have all made forays into the realm of translation, as have some smaller news organizations.
At The New York Times, international audiences have become such a priority that managers have created a separate team, led by Deputy International Editor Lydia Polgreen, dedicated to bringing Times journalism to the wider world. Polgreen’s team includes about six individuals with different backgrounds, including business, design and research, which are examining which international markets might be ripe for expansion.
Although the project began in earnest early this year, the Times has already experimented with translations into Spanish and Portuguese, and Polgreen expects the team will try out additional languages as the project proceeds. So far, the strategy has been to put translations on nytimes.com, promote them via social media and examine how they perform. Each story is translated by a human, Polgreen says, because machine translation can’t deliver the quality copy the Times aims to provide.
“This is part of why we’re taking out time and really figuring out how to do this right,” Polgreen said. “Our goal is that we would like a reader of a story in another language to have the same type of reading experience that you would have reading The New York Times in English. That’s a tough goal to hit.”
The Times is joined in its international ambitions by digital media companies, such as Vice and BuzzFeed, which are also using many languages to reach untapped audiences abroad. This year, BuzzFeed — which has offered translated versions of its lists and quizzes since 2013 — expanded to feature translated content from its Life and News divisions. The company previously relied on a third-party translation service, but this year added an international news coordinator who manages longer stories, such as its much-touted interview with President Barack Obama.
For BuzzFeed, translation also acts as a kind of wire service for the company’s many international outposts. The company’s overseas editions, which are smaller than its American operation, can translate relevant stories from the U.S. into their respective languages for use on their websites. The reverse is also true. If a foreign edition comes up with a particularly popular post, such as this dispatch from BuzzFeed Germany about a broken door that became plastered in memes, staffers can translate the post into English and republish it.
“Our goal in growing internationally is to build a global network of locally relevant sites, so we also work with our international teams to highlight great stories that are going viral around the world and bring them to a wider audience,” said Liz Wasden, vice president of communications for BuzzFeed.
Vice Media, which began its life as a punk magazine in Montreal, has stayed true to its international roots since moving to New York at the turn of the century. Although it expanded to several different countries early on, the company aspires to offer more content in more languages. In April, Vice Media Global Head of Content Alex Miller told Poynter his dream is to get the company to a position where it can publish 90 percent of its work “in a multitude of languages” simultaneously. In recent months, the company has published multiple special sections in several languages at the same time, including its guide to mental health and its examination of Guantanamo Bay.
“The reality is that Vice may be a large company, and it may be an international company operating in many different languages — but the fact is everybody here knows everybody and they’re all kind of mates,” Miller said. “So it’s not that difficult.”
But publishing translated stories can be a delicate operation that involves many moving parts, as demonstrated by the down-to-the-wire production of The New York Times nail salon investigation. It can require working across multiple time zones using multiple languages with staffers on different sides of the planet. It can also be costly: Several news organizations interviewed by Poynter pay for human translation either in-house, through freelancers or through a third party. Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, managing editor for digital at The Washington Post, tells Poynter that The Post has not yet perfected its model for a translation process he describes as “very expensive and time consuming.” As of early May, The Washington Post had only translated one article on its website, a Spanish-language editorial on Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba.
And getting international readers to click on a story in their preferred language requires more than simple translation, Polgreen said. In countries where the paper doesn’t already have an established audience, The Times also has to persuade readers that its journalism is relevant to their lives. And it has to do that while vying with other companies for the same turf.
“There’s clearly a huge opportunity,” Polgreen said. “A lot of other news organizations are working very very hard and moving very fast to build large audiences outside of their home countries — whether it’s The Guardian in the U.S. and Australia or Huffington Post in France and Brazil. Everyone’s looking at international as an area of expansion, and The Times is no different.”