April 17, 2017

Even though The New York Times has a staff of more than 1,000 journalists that produce roughly 230 articles per day — the equivalent of a daily Harry Potter book — there’s some stories they just can’t get.

Controversial (but worthy) opinion pieces, harrowing first-person accounts and profiles of reclusive celebrities all exist beyond the walled garden of nytimes.com. In years past, The Times might’ve ignored these stories, rolled them into a longer article or tried to match them.

Now, they just link out. Along with colleague Michelle Dozois, Times Senior Digital Strategist Anna Dubenko publishes a twice-weekly roundup of stories under a made-to-share headline that signals temporary relief from the unending torrent of news from the capital: “15 great stories that have nothing to do with politics,” reads one. “Take a break from politics with these 12 stories.” “Sick of politics? Try these great reads.”

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The curation strategy might seem contradictory for a newspaper whose business depends on attracting readers and holding them on The Times’ owned-and-operated platforms. Why link out when you could flood the masses with Times journalism? But the articles are part of a plan to create habitual users of The New York Times who will return to the newspaper for news they actually want to consume — regardless of who made it.

“It might sound a bit ambitious or crazy to say, but it’s sort of my dream to really compete with what I think is a broken News Feed,” Dubenko said. “…The idea behind curation at The Times is: What if your really smart, funny, charming, friend — me — gave you recommendations of what to read without all of the craziness that you might get in your News Feed?”

The latest of these efforts is “Right and Left: Partisan Writing You Shouldn’t Miss,” a twice-weekly roundup of political writing from both sides of the ideological spectrum.

With the debut of hyperpartisan news sites and the rise of filter bubbles on social media, many centrist news organizations have launched initiatives aimed at dispelling the political myopia that afflicts us all. BuzzFeed has “Outside Your Bubble,” a feature that exposes its audience to viewpoints outside their personal ideologies. The Guardian has “Burst Your Bubble,” a weekly guide to the right-wing media commentariat.

But where The New York Times roundup differs from its competition is that Dubenko is interested in both the left- and the right-wing. And she’s trying to find writers who are actually interested in convincing readers who may not agree with them.

“The supposition behind those types of columns is that it’s reporting on a very particular conservative media,” Dubenko said. “A more fringe-y one that Guardian readers might not be exposed to. And that was less interesting to me than finding pieces from across the political spectrum that actually were doing the hard job of trying to convince their readers of arguments. Some websites take for granted that their readers are with them on their arguments. And it’s quite rare to find writing that does the work of trying to lay out an argument.”

Curation has a relatively brief history at The New York Times, an all-encompassing news organization that has traditionally been stingy with external links. That changed in 2014 when Gray Lady unveiled two products: Watching, a section of its homepage featuring the latest and greatest from around the web; and NYT Now, an app that curated news from other outlets.

Neither product is around in its original incarnation — The New York Times shuttered NYT Now last year amid a focus on bolstering its paying subscribership, and Watching now features Times journalism.

But the culture of curation has remained at The Times, Dubenko said. After she was hired from Digg in November, she discovered that reservations about linking to journalism not produced by the newspaper had dissipated.

“On a broad basis, the fight over whether we would link out to other peoples’ stories had already been fought and won by the time I got here,” Dubenko said. “I was worried that I would have to first convince people that it’s OK to acknowledge that there’s an internet outside of our homepage.”

Not the case. Like other news organizations, The New York Times has launched a desk devoted to aggregating viral stories from around the web. But journalists on the Express Desk rarely take up stories they can’t add any value to with original reporting, Dubenko said. They have a Slack channel (which she occasionally drops links into) and make decisions based on their time constraints and whether there’s an appetite for the story.

But it’s hard to decide what not to do, Dubenko said. Ultimately, it comes down to a few questions: Is it good? Would people share it? And have they seen it before?

There have been encouraging signs that readers appreciate the curation. Dubenko says The Times has gotten roughly 1,500 emails from readers about the roundup of partisan opinions, including from a pair of friends in Ann Arbor, Michigan with contrasting political views who meet weekly to exchange articles.

One of the men sent her a long, thoughtful email with his friend copied, Dubenko said. She wrote back. And then his friend on the other side of the political spectrum also wrote a reply.

All the feedback has been “pretty nuts, actually,” she said.

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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…
Benjamin Mullin

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