The New York Times wants text readers about the Olympic games in Rio — and it wants readers to text back.
Over the next three weeks, deputy sports editor Sam Manchester, one of dozens of Times reporters reporting from Brazil, will send readers periodic updates from the games. These won’t be generic news alerts, though. Manchester plans to give each of the 3 to 4 daily updates a personal touch, opting for smartphone snapshots, GIFs, emoji, and the kind personal tone people expect from texting.
The effort, the first of its kind for the Times, is a part of the news organization’s efforts to use SMS to develop a closer, more consistent personal relationship with mobile readers. And while there is no shortage of messaging apps it could have opted for, the Times chose SMS because it’s a simple technology already in the hands of almost everyone with a smartphone. The Times hopes to have tens of thousands of users sign up for the texts.
“If you think about the other text conversations that show up on your lock screen — it’s your mom, it’s your significant other, it’s your friend. I think that if we can be there its a really powerful relationship that we can create,” said Andrew Phelps, product director at The New York Times (and a former Nieman Lab staffer). “We can essentially create these little moments in your life and reconnect you to us and, hopefully, viewing it from more of a product perspective, bring you back to our core platforms to read more of our journalism.”Phelps said the Times’ project was inspired by politics news texting service Purple, which also combined texting with a loose, casual approach to news updates. The service, which recently announced plans to shift exclusively to Facebook Messenger, also regularly offers readers the opportunity to reply with certain keywords to get more information.
That functionality is here, too, with the Times project, which is designed to be a two-way effort between the newspaper and readers. People who get the texts will be able to talk back to Manchester, who’ll be able to read and respond to their feedback. To pull that off, the Times interactive news team created a custom interface (built, like Purple, on top of texting platform Twilio) that will let Manchester — with the help of a team in the Times newsroom — categorize responses based on certain keywords and reply to specific subsets of people based on what they say. Manchester will also be able to ask readers themselves what topics they would like to learn more about, which will help drive Manchester’s coverage. (“What should I ask Michael Phelps?”)
Marc Lavallee, Times editor of interactive news, said that with the effort, the paper is essentially using bot-like tech to “scale a human brain” to be able to converse with many people at once. If the Rio project is a success, this is an an idea that the Times hopes to offer in other contexts as well — both with planned events (think political debates) and unplanned ones as well.
“What we’re trying to do,” he said, “is figure out if there a space between broadcast, where everyone gets the same exact thing, and a total human-powered one-on-one interaction — which obviously doesn’t scale easily — to see if we can have the best of both worlds.”