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March 22, 2016, 2:13 p.m.
Aggregation & Discovery

The New York Times is still searching for the best mix of stories to curate on its homepage

The module formerly known as Watching is linking out less than it used to, but the Times says it still believes in curating the work of other news organizations.

In September 2014, a new module was born on the homepage. Watching, as it was called, was a Twitter-like stream of stories from within the Times as well as material from elsewhere around the web — including individual Tweets, photos, and even YouTube videos.

Then suddenly this year, the name disappeared, though the stream itself remained. A few weeks ago, the Times launched a new and different product called Watching, a standalone TV and movie recommendations site.

Though it’s currently nameless, the module formerly known as Watching still occupies a prominent space on the Times homepage — without scrolling, bottom third of the desktop screen. What the stream offers to the weekday homepage audience, though, is evolving. It’s featuring noticeably less aggregation as of late. It’s silent on weekends. Is the Times opting to feature less from outside sources, and offer more from within the Times, particularly from the Express Team, which formed last fall to “cover news that readers are searching for and talking about online”?

nyt-watching-module-2“I just want to be perfectly clear: We very much value the curation of outside sources, which we currently have in a few different places,” Times assistant masthead editor Clifford Levy, who serves as the lead on NYT Now, told me. “But we are just trying to figure out the right balance between New York Times stories and outside sources; how to offer smart, meaningful curation to our readers.”

Levy works with members of the Express Team, NYT Now staff, and others on the news desk to find that sweet spot and to figure out where aggregation fits in, not just as it applies to the homepage module, but also elsewhere on the site and in its mobile apps. Often there are pieces from the Express Team, lighter stories from other desks, and occasionally information about running news stories, he said.

“Dean [Baquet] has been pushing a culture of innovation, and he really wants the newsroom to embrace that spirit of innovation, to try out changing the mix of the module, to look at traffic from that, how readers are responding to changes, whether we should put stuff from certain sections in the module, whether those stories go in the module or in other places, where they fit in on mobile. All those questions are still out,” Levy said.

A quick analysis of what’s been posted to the module in the past few months (since early December) illustrates how Times-centric it’s become. Of the past 932 links posted, 765 — over 80 percent — have been to Times content. (Other news outlets linked to at least occasionally: The Associated Press with 29, Reuters and the BBC with 7 each, The Atlantic, Bloomberg, and The Guardian with 5 each, and The Washington Post with 4.) Rather than a curated set of interesting links from around the web, it’s mostly become a distinct homepage window into some subset of all the stories the Times produces daily.

NYT-watching-module-homepageIn its earliest days, “Watching” received about 40 percent negative feedback, then deputy executive editor Ian Fisher (now head of investigations) told Politico. Six months in, links to non-Times stories were performing better than links to Times stories, and readers were returning to the Times site though they clicked stories that took them away, according to Politico’s update from last April.

Levy didn’t share specific numbers with me, but said the stream continues to do well in terms of getting readers to click on stories featured within it: “The module does well. We’ve really had no negative feedback. I do look at how individual items do but try not to spend too much time comparing one piece to another.” divides roughly into three columns (from left to right, A, B, and C). Opinion pieces live at the top of the third column, and the bottom corner of that column gets understandably less engagement from readers than the lefthand side of the homepage. The team, for instance, is playing with using more visual elements on featured pieces.

“The lefthand side is the newsiest — to some extent we’ve habituated our readers to that. I don’t think you could put a module of this size on the lefthand side of the page,” Levy said. “We have experimented with putting the module in different places, but the thing of the homepage, as you know, is that it’s crowded real estate, and needs to consider the newsroom’s needs, the opinion section’s needs, the video department’s needs, and of course advertising, which is very important. There are a lot of interests, a lot of stakeholders.”

Is there any specific direction for what will happen to the former Watching module, and any sense of whether it might get its own section within the NYT Now or even the main Times apps?

“The only direction I can assure you of is that we believe in outside curation. We do it in a way that’s helpful to readers, and we know the newsroom can do a good job at it,” Levy said. “To some extent, that’s a seismic shift. Three years ago even, it’s not something we would ever do.”

POSTED     March 22, 2016, 2:13 p.m.
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