WELCOME TO THE FUTURE: The NYT Election Slack bot is an exciting collab from our R&D and Interactive News teams:https://t.co/wjxUUKQ9rC
— Allen Tan (@tealtan) February 5, 2016
I established contact. (In brief Nieman Lab testing, we had trouble getting this feature to work on mobile.)
The New York Times has used Slack internally in a number of interesting ways: For a Republican debate over the summer, the Times built a Chrome plugin that allowed reporters to write liveblog updates directly in an internal Slack channel. The posts were quickly edited, then published straight to the liveblog on the Times’ site.
This is the first time, though, that the Times is using Slack to initiate a two-way conversation with readers — and, in doing so, the rules are a little different than they are when readers come to the Times’ site. I spoke with Marc Lavallee, the Times’ editor of interactive news, about the project (which, he cautioned, is still in its very early stages). Below is our conversation, slightly edited and condensed.
We’ve been looking at and using Slack in a bunch of different ways over the past year or so. On the internal side, that’s largely as a result of the fact that it’s a piece of technology that’s been so quickly adopted, in a variety of ways, in our newsroom like few things we’ve ever seen before. The people we are working with inside [the Times] more or less immediately get their heads around it, which gives us this great starting point for experimentation: We don’t have to do all this additional development and training.
We were also looking what we had done in past cycles with live Q&A’s during debates, where you would type your question into a form that was part of our liveblog page. We are trying to see how something like this would connect with readers more where they’re at. Certain types of people are already using Slack to chat with their friends. Quartz just had that piece about using Slack to manage communication with family. This is us looking at Slack in a much broader way: Between Slack and Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, there’s increasing use of these types of tools in daily life in ongoing, permanent ways. So what does it mean for the Times to have a presence in those arenas as well?
The question we’re still getting our heads around is: What is useful to a person or a group of people who have their own room and are talking about things, like a debate or primary or caucus, who would benefit from some amount of automation from the bot, but also some kind of human-like integration? And how could that be two-way?We also have to figure out what the reporters have time to do. How can they participate alongside all of the other things they’re doing in unfolding news situations, like when returns are coming in on a primary night? Can [a Slack bot like this] be useful and time-saving in some way, or is it just another thing they’re trying to juggle? That’s what we’ve been grappling with lately.
We haven’t crystallized what we’re committing to, and we haven’t decided how to present the value of this to readers. We’re just practicing a bit in public. We’re having friends and family install the bot, and having them think through what they’d want this to do, if they have the TV on and are following our coverage and other people’s coverage.
We’ve adopted Slack heavily in the newsroom, and the newsroom’s a 24-hour operation. You’ll see people talking to each other and dropping links in our Slack channel on weekends. So many people have the app installed on their phone — it’s not like you shut down your computer at the end of the day on Friday and have no contact with any of your colleagues until Monday. That’s helped Slack in particular, and also other group chat platforms, blend into personal life in various ways.
Part of the idea here was, well, you’re just chatting with your friends, so it’s a safer space for you. Your stuff isn’t being published to the New York Times website. You’re just having some commentary and analysis piped in that you can build off of in conversation with your own friends. Instead of asking you to come to us and be part of this massive room of people shouting over each other, you can bring us to you, and have us be, essentially, one more person in your conversation.
A lot of what my team does is working closely with the other desks in the newsroom to try to figure out how we get these things out into the world that way. What is that useful balance?
Starting from a reader perspective, what pacing makes sense? Since we’re bringing [the bot] into people’s own space, and not asking people to come into our space, we really have to try it out in a beta or experimental way and get some sort of even anecdotal feedback from folks.
With Iowa, on Monday, we just watched the night unfold and tried to think about what would make sense. With channels like Twitter and Facebook, we build up best practices over time just by doing things over and over again. Slack bots are such a nascent tool that we’re trying to figure it out.There’s also the fact that it’s a bot. Another place where the graphics desk has played around with bots and bot personality is with the 4th Down Bot. A lot of the tweets were human-written at first, and it’s become more automated over time, but we’re trying to sort out that dimension.
Does it makes sense to have results come in on a regular basis, the way you get traffic on the eights? Or should it be when there is some sort of major update that actually is more relevant? The first feels more bot-like, the second feels more human-like. We’re still at the very early stages of figuring out how to strike that balance.
Also, the people who are willing to even be chatting about something like a primary or caucus night on Slack are a little more of an insider audience. We’re using this as a way to explore the idea for much larger events later in the year.