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Feb. 5, 2016, 10:41 a.m.
Mobile & Apps
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The New York Times’ new Slack 2016 election bot sends readers’ questions straight to the newsroom

“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.”

Want more election coverage right in your company’s Slack? On Friday, The New York Times rolled out NYT Election Bot, which anyone can add to their Slack channel to receive “live results and updates on the 2016 elections from The New York Times. You can also submit questions to the newsroom by using the command /asknytelection.”

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 10.18.39 AM

I established contact. (In brief Nieman Lab testing, we had trouble getting this feature to work on mobile.)

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 10.21.07 AM

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.

Laura Owen: How did the 2016 election bot come about?

Marc Lavallee: It was two tracks that came together. One was an ongoing series of things that my team, Interactive News, has been trying out over the past several election cycles. Then, also, the R&D group has been looking at bots and the ways they can extend our relationship with readers. We started talking about it as a sort of chocolate and peanut butter situation, figuring out how to make all this work together.

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.

Owen: So you are seeing this being used more by individuals, on their own time, rather than within company Slack channels?

Lavallee: I think it’s both. I’m speaking anecdotally, but it feels as if we’re seeing this sort of blending of technologies among personal and professional use, and those boundaries are becoming less and less distinct in terms of platforms and spaces.

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.

Owen: How do you see yourself using this technology beyond the election?

Lavallee: We’re curious about how this works for a large event. I’m thinking ahead to the Olympics and general election night. If we try to host some kind of singular live chat on our site, it would have tens, hundreds, thousands of participants, and it would break down very quickly. At some point, you can’t read fast enough to keep up with what people are saying. As a second screen experience, it can fall apart pretty quickly.

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.

Owen: Where will the content and the updates come from?

Lavallee: So far, it has been almost entirely automated. One of the big questions we’re still working through is how much involvement it needs. We’re in a bit of a chicken-and-egg moment: In order to really figure out what would make it awesome, we need to put a good amount of energy into it. So, are we adding someone to do that, or if not, what are we not doing somewhere else in order to run this experiment?

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.

Photo at 2014 Slack executive retreat by kris krüg used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 5, 2016, 10:41 a.m.
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