March 25, 2016

On the ninth floor of The New York Times building, way up above the heart of the newsroom, is a decidedly un-Timesean operation.

For one thing, there are people working together on couches. Nearby rooms are festooned with sticky notes and scribbling from whiteboard markers. Staffers file in and out of conference rooms to have conversations that often have little to do with the news of the day.

And it’s loud.

“When I walk around other parts of the building, I see offices and important people at their important office desks…just quietly Slacking each other,” said Renda Morton, a denizen of the ninth floor. “And (when) I walk around Beta, people are shouting.”

Morton, the executive director of product design at Beta, is working with her ninth-floor colleagues to serve up Times journalism on a variety of digital products. Since its 2013 debut, Beta — then known by an internal code-name — has been responsible for most of The New York Times apps you might download on your smartphone.

In less than three years, Beta has developed and released a series of products that touch nearly every cranny of the Times newsroom: NYT Now, the Times’ aggregation-fueled news app, was the first product released by Beta in April 2014. NYT Opinion, a subscription-based app that attempted to monetize the Times’ opinion content, came a few months later. In September 2014, Beta rolled out NYT Cooking, an interactive guide to the Times’ enormous library of recipes.

Since then, Beta has become responsible for the Times’ real estate app and NYTimes Crossword, the digital version of the newspaper’s popular word puzzle. Still to come are Watching, a website that will focus on entertainment, a revamped version of the health section Well and as-yet unannounced projects.

What do all of the products have in common? They represent an attempt to take a slice of New York Times journalism and turn it into a digital experience that solves a specific reader problem. What should I eat for dinner? How should I exercise? Where should I live? Beta wants readers to continuously consult The New York Times to answer these questions because of its authority, said Ben French, Beta’s vice president.

“News is and will always be the heart of (our) service,” French said. “But for an organization that puts out 350 stories a day — the equivalent of a Harry Potter book a day — we do a lot more than just tell you what the news is. We tell you how to live a better life.”

Central to these products is an effort to build a deeper connection to readers, which are increasingly essential to The New York Times and its competitors across the United States. As print advertising dries up industry-wide and ad blockers devalue traditional digital ads, many news organizations are turning directly to their audiences for a greater portion of their annual revenue.

It’s an especially urgent matter for The New York Times, which is trying to double its digital revenue to $800 million by 2020. Events, subscriptions and in-app advertising are all business lines that rely on habitual users, the kind that Beta’s apps are designed to cultivate.

But there’s also a strong editorial case for building apps like NYT Cooking, said Sam Sifton, food editor of The New York Times. Before the app launched, thousands of recipes created by The New York Times were sitting unusable in the paper’s archives. Readers wanted the recipes — one of the most-searched terms on the Times website a few years ago was “chicken” — but they had no way to get at them.

“Our belief was, we can reanimate those 17,000 recipes and make them part of a living, breathing database that would be exciting to readers and which would solve a problem for them,” Sifton said. “Which is either: How do you cook halibut? Or, what should I cook for dinner tonight? Or, how do you cook halibut differently? We can answer all of those questions now on your phone in a way we think provides a service to our readers or to our users that is as important in its way as the latest news from Waziristan.”

This change in the way The New York Times thinks about its so-called “reader service” content is exemplified by Beta’s culture, which differs from that of its newsroom. Beta staffers work in interdisciplinary teams, where editors are paired with product managers, designers, engineers and analysts in an attempt to apply Times journalism to readers’ needs.

The back-and-forth is robust and relies heavily on collaboration — hence the shouting — and proceeds according to staples of project development like road maps and design sprints. This process is unfamiliar for many old-guard reporters and editors at the Times, but it’s becoming the norm for companies where product development is intertwined with editorial output, like Vox Media.

But this strategy is less common at many local news organizations scattered across the United States, which are owned by corporations that consolidate design and development functions in regional hubs. The lack of development and marketing resources might be hurdles for smaller news outlets seeking to replicate the Times’ strategy, but these publications may be able to exploit some niches, said media analyst Ken Doctor.

“Regional papers will, in general, have a tougher time applying the principle,” Doctor said. “Why? It is based both on high excellence — well-resourced editorial and marketing collaborations, with talented, knowledgeable people focused on a topical area — and scale. Both, given the markets and struggling finances of most regionals, are in short quantity.”

Even with The New York Times’ size and scale, Beta doesn’t have a perfect track record. The paper shuttered NYT Opinion after the app failed to attract a sizable paying audience. But in general, Beta tries to head off ideas that don’t have broad appeal by doing research in advance. Desirability is the first condition for product development, before business concerns enter into the equation.

“People say, ‘Oh, we can make so much advertising money on this, we should start there!” Morton said. “No, we need to start with what people want and need and then figure out — is it feasible? And is it viable?”

So, is it working? With upwards of 50 people on the ninth floor in various capacities, Beta is a significant investment for The New York Times. But there’ve been encouraging signs. In less than two years since its launch, Cooking attracted about 8 million monthly unique users, according to a spokesperson for The New York Times. The Cooking newsletter has also garnered 600,000 subscribers, and its weekday edition has an open rate of 50 percent. Although the Times fell short of its initial goals for subscribers and revenue in Beta’s early apps, the company has since tweaked its strategy to garner a broader userbase that can be monetized with advertising.

In sum, Doctor said, attracting these audiences with the Times’ authority is a “great move” that will pay dividends down the line.

“These are beachhead businesses, with real estate the most advanced,” Doctor said. “The others all aim to build an audience first and then find a variety of commerce-related revenue streams, in addition to advertising.”

But Beta isn’t just having an impact on The New York Times bottom line — its culture has already begun to permeate its traditional reporting and editing ranks. Rosy Catanach, the program director for Beta, was pleasantly surprised in November 2014 when Sifton, a 15-year newsroom veteran, capped off a big project by requesting a “retrospective” — project manager-speak for a post-project accounting of missteps and victories.

“I almost fell out of my seat,” Catanach said.

Meanwhile, Brian Hamman is leaving his job as Beta’s engineering lead in an attempt to bring the team’s ethos to the rest of the newsroom. As The New York Times begins an ambitious overhaul of its entire operation, it’s hard to imagine that digital acumen from the ninth floor won’t figure into the conversation.

“Beta’s like a virus,” Sifton said. “A pathogen. It’s infecting lots of people throughout the newsroom.”

French laughed.

“I prefer party to virus — but you can describe us however you like.”

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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