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May 19, 2017, 10 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

This is the story behind that double push alert The New York Times sent about Comey’s Trump memo

So why’d the Times make your phone buzz twice Tuesday afternoon? The inspiration was threaded tweets.

Just before 5:30 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday, millions of New York Times app users saw — twice — the news that ousted FBI director James Comey had written a memo detailing President Trump’s request that he stop the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

It was a major scoop for the Times, and, for the first time, it distributed the news to its mobile app users via two successive push alerts.

“We know a lot of people get their news from pushes predominantly, said Eric Bishop, a Times assistant editor for mobile. “I think being able to tell two sides of this story — one that explained the main news and then the other that had that color with the quote — gave people a second element of the story, and if they didn’t swipe into read it, they knew more about the full story,” he said. “It also was another entry point, another compelling aspect of it that might make you want to swipe in and read it.”

Combined, the alerts were among the most swiped-through alerts the Times has sent this year, Bishop said. The two alerts drove 41 percent of the story’s total traffic in the Times’ iPhone app; about 56 percent of the total swipes came from the first alert with the remainder coming from the second.

Because of the sensitive nature of the story, planning for distribution of the scoop began in the Times’ Washington bureau, which is where the reporting originated, Bishop said. Staffers in New York were brought into the planning at around 3:30 or 4 p.m. on Tuesday — about two hours before it was published.

The Times initially planned to send one alert about the story highlighting one of the quotes from the memo in which Comey recalls how Trump told him to “let this go.” Bishop said they thought it “was such a striking quote” but were worried that it might not provide enough detail.

“That’s only part of the quote, and that might be a little bit misleading, and that space might be better used to explain more of the news bit,” he said. “But we knew that we thought that the quote from Trump as quoted by Comey in the memo would be really compelling.”

The social team sits next to the news desk in the Times’ newsroom, and for big stories like this one, the teams often go back and forth on Slack to figure out the best way to frame stories.

Even though there are different requirements for each platform, “fundamentally, you’re trying to tell the story in the space of one or two sentences and give people as complete a story as you can and put the news in context.”

During this process on Tuesday, Bishop had a conversation with social editor Michael Gold, who was overseeing the Times’ Twitter.

“It’s a pretty common practice for them to thread tweets, whether it’s breaking news or not, and to double it up like we did with the push,” Bishop said. “That led to a conversation with him about how you should get that quote into the second tweet about it because it is going to be so compelling — especially the part about President Trump saying ‘he is a good guy.’ That would really get people’s attention. We sort of had this framework of how we were going to lay these two out on Twitter, but at that point, we were just thinking we were going to do the one push.”

As he was reading the story again before it was published, Bishop picked up on another detail in the story that he thought was newsworthy: Comey had purposefully left a paper trail of his interactions with Trump.

Bishop thought the Times could highlight that fact in a second push notification set a half hour after the initial alert was sent out.

But Clifford Levy, the deputy managing editor who oversees digital platforms, nixed the idea. Levy, together with Bishop and other editors, decided to go with the two back-to-back alerts.

Bishop recalled that Levy said, “‘No, no, no. We should just do two right in a row and forget about the paper trail — let’s do the quote.’ We came back to the idea of what we had decided to do on social and essentially said: Let’s do that for push too. It was definitely a discussion between Cliff and I and a few other top editors, but I think we all agreed that this was a story of significant magnitude that we wanted to do something that would draw attention to that.”

Bishop said he thought the double push alert successfully conveyed to readers the importance of the story. Still, some users initially thought that the alerts were a mistake.

The Times realized that users might initially be confused by the unorthodox presentation of the news alerts, and thought about ways — such as numbering the alerts like a tweetstorm — to provide a clear signal that it was intentional.

It ultimately decided not to do that, but Bishop said the alerts were written in a way to ensure that they could stand alone — especially because if a user was looking at them both on their lockscreen they’d likely read the second alert first since it was higher on the screen.

“Our style is to have full names in our pushes,” he said. “We did not say, ‘Oh, we’re going to have the second one read out of the first.’ In other words, ‘we won’t use their first name’ or something. We referred to the memo in both pushes, and we said — in the second one, we referred to it as ‘a memo,’ not ‘the memo.’ It’s just a subtle thing, but if you say ‘the memo’ there and you read that one first, the reader might think they’re already expected to know about this memo. The subtle language things — we tried to make that second one stand on its own as best we could.”

This was the first time the Times sent dual alerts like this, but Bishop said the paper is looking for additional ways it can experiment with reporting on the lock screen.

Last year, with the release of iOS 10, Apple enabled interactive push notifications and outlets such as the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab, Mic, NBC News, and more have been experimenting with video on the lock screen.

The Times doesn’t yet have the technical capability to send rich push notifications — the paper is working on it, Bishop said — but he said he thinks they offer lots of potential for publishers. Bishop compared the lockscreen to Twitter, which started as just text, but has evolved into a platform with video, GIFs, images, and threaded tweets.

“If you just look at iOS, the capabilities that are available now to publishers are in their infancy,” Bishop said. “If you have a piece of rich media attached to a notification, you get a very tiny thumbnail image with the push. I think a lot of users are still unaware that if you expand the notification you can get a bigger image, a video, or whatever is in there. I could see that evolving into being much more a core part of the experience where the video just shows up on your screen or something like that.”

For now, the Times has no immediate plans to use the successive style of push again, but Bishop said it could be used for other major exclusive stories — or even possibly fiction.

Publishing an original piece of fiction through push alerts is a “blue-sky brainstorming thing that we bat around,” Bishop said, but he said he could envision a story told in quick-fire successive alerts or in several spread out over a longer period of time.

“This medium is so immediate. It’s so personal,” he said. “It’s something that literally lights up the device and maybe buzzes it or causes it to make a sound. It’s one of the most personal devices that we own. There’s a lot of potential there for the use of push to really tell compelling stories in new ways.”

Photo illustration based on photo by Timothy Allen used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 19, 2017, 10 a.m.
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