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Aug. 28, 2017, 9:37 a.m.
Reporting & Production

With its interactive news team, Time is finding new ways to engage readers and tell stories

“We want to keep giving people experiences that push boundaries on the web and aren’t possible at all in print.”

Earlier this month, a few days after Donald Trump said that he would support a new “merit-based” immigration bill dubbed the RAISE Act, Time’s interactive news team had a question: Just how many people would make the cut were such a system implemented?

With that question in mind, the team created a short questionnaire modeled after the proposed bill, asking readers questions about their age, whether they plan to invest money in the U.S. (worth a maximum of 12 points) and even whether they’ve won a Nobel Prize (25 points). Over 3 million people have read the story so far, according to Time’s internal metrics, making it one of the site’s most popular stories of the summer. (It’s worth noting that The New York Times published a similar quiz a few weeks later.)

Time’s interactive news team, now at three people, was formed to capitalize on one of the basic realities of digital media: Quizzes and other forms of interactive stories are extremely compelling to readers. BuzzFeed, of course, publishes plenty of them, focusing not only on its bread-and-butter identity issues, but also pegged to certain news events. The Week and Slate also run weekly news quizzes, with the latter letting readers compare their scores to that of Slate reporters.

Chris Wilson, Time’s director of data journalism, said that, in certain cases, the quiz format can also augment the impact of certain news topics, such as that immigration story: “If we had done this just as a static table with a series of questions, we would have still gotten the point across — but it wouldn’t have given people the same visceral reaction that they got from doing it interactively. It asks you to put yourself in the shoes of someone where the answers really matter. It’s a really good demonstration of a process.”

Time’s interactive news team has seen success elsewhere as well. In June, pegged to the 20th anniversary of the first book in the Harry Potter series, Time published its Harry Potter Sorting Hat Quiz, which was designed to help readers figure out which house in the Hogwarts wizard school (Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, or Slytherin) their personalities are most aligned with. That idea is far from novel on the web (a quick Google search reveals that BBC, The Guardian, and, of course, BuzzFeed, have all run variations on the idea, among others). But what helped the Time quiz stand out was that it devised the quiz’s 21 questions by teaming up with social scientists at Cambridge University, who injected some scientific rigor into the process. Using questions from scientific personality surveys, the researchers asked quiz takers how much they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “I often push myself very hard when trying to achieve a goal” and “I think that I am entitled to more respect than the average person is.” To determine which personality traits corresponded with each house, Time and the Cambridge researchers also asked 650 self-described Harry Potter superfans to take the survey on behalf of characters from the books.

But there was also a twist: While readers were taking a Harry Potter quiz, they were also anonymously contributing their answers to the Cambridge University researchers’ work to determine the correlation between personality traits and geography. Over 600,000 people opted-in to sharing their results, offering researchers a tremendous amount of data, said Wilson. He said that he’s particularly proud of the Harry Potter quiz because “it involved so much good science.”

Time has experimented with other interactive formats. A July feature quizzed readers on how well they could draw all 50 states (it turns out people are really bad at drawing Michigan, Hawaii, and Maryland). The interactive news team also created, as a number of outlets did, a feature that let readers see what the solar eclipse would look like from anywhere in the U.S.

These interactives are still somewhat rare for Time. It can be hard to identify a news peg for them; there are also technical challenges to putting together the quizzes, which still require some developer legwork to come together. Wilson said that one of his priorities over the past year was to develop the backend work so reporters across Time Inc.’s properties could easily create and repurpose quizzes with minimal tech knowhow. (EW.com, for example, republished the Harry Potter quiz, and Travel + Leisure syndicated the interactive eclipse simulator.)

“What I really like about these is that they’re often the kinds of experiences that people are not used to seeing on many websites, certainly not on news sites,” said Wilson. “We want to keep giving people experiences that push boundaries on the web and aren’t possible at all in print.”

POSTED     Aug. 28, 2017, 9:37 a.m.
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