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The NYT’s new education site with WNYC will be collaborative, experimental…and meter-free

Visits to SchoolBook won’t count against the Times’ paywall, in part because the site aims to reach out to NYC students and parents.

This morning, The New York Times and WNYC announced a new collaboration: SchoolBook, a site for news, data, and conversation about New York City schools. Slated to launch September 7, the site will feature not only reporting from Times and WNYC education reporters, but also aggregated content from the local school-info resources GothamSchools and Inside Schools — an effort that will amount to, a press release promises, “customized pages for each of the 1,700 pubic schools and 800 private schools in the city.”

It’s a fascinating collaboration. And one of the more intriguing elements of SchoolBook is the fact that access to it won’t count against users’ monthly digital article tallies. Which is a rare move for a subscription strategy that, while porous and relatively lenient, encompasses almost every piece of content the Times produces. (DealBook and the Times’ Learning Network blog are also exempted from the meter.)

In an interview earlier this afternoon, I spoke with Jodi Rudoren, the Times’ education editor, to learn more about the thinking behind the free.

Rudoren laid out five core reasons why the Times decided to give SchoolBook a rare meter exemption:

  • The site exists in partnership with WNYC. “With membership for them, and subscription for us,” things get complicated, Rudoren says.
  • SchoolBook will be “truly a two-way site.” Much of the site’s content won’t be articles that are written by a New York Times or a WNYC author: A lot of its content will, it is hoped, come from SchoolBook’s community of readers. In that sense, Rudoren says, the site’s content, on a structural level, simply doesn’t work well with a digital subscription model. There’s also the fact that much of that content won’t necessarily consist of traditional articles or even blog posts; the team will be experimenting with narrative as much as with collaboration and conversation.
  • Much of the site’s content will be data-driven. There, as well, there’s a structural disconnect between product and payment: Perusing data, Rudoren points out, doesn’t necessarily compute with subscription-model tabulations.
  • SchoolBook, with its focus on collaboration and its emphasis on community aggregation, is a big experiment — both for the Times and for WNYC. “This is totally new,” Rudoren says. And while it’s a product, it’s also trying to be a community. Charging for access, to an extent, violates the spirit of both.
  • There’s an element of community outreach to the site, more than there is to a typical piece of Times content. “The public school population in New York City is by and large poorer,” Rudoren notes. She and her colleagues and collaborators want to reach the people most directly affected by the schools — the kids, their parents — freely, in every sense, without concern that the meter might turn potential readers and contributors away. At least, and especially, at the outset, the team wants to do community outreach in a “pure, everyone-can-participate sort of way.”

Those reasons may seem straightforward and, altogether, pretty obvious; that doesn’t mean, though, that they weren’t the subject of internal debate at the Times. The paper, after all, “is serious about its digital subscription model,” Rudoren points out. It has to be vigilant about the kind of content it exempts from its meter. But SchoolBook, at least to start, needed to be free, Rudoren says. “It was fairly critical to the parameters of the project.”

                                   
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Ann Marie Lipinski    July 24, 2014
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