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Sept. 23, 2014, 9:15 a.m.
Aggregation & Discovery

Watching what happens: The New York Times is making a front-page bet on real-time aggregation

A new homepage feature called “Watching” offers readers a feed of headlines, tweets, and multimedia from around the web.

The rhythms of the homepage of are by now familiar, even a little predictable. The core of its layout has been steady for almost a decade; regular readers have come to know how stories flow in and out of slots, mixing the day’s top news, timely features enjoying their minute in the sun, nods to the opinion section, and a breaking story or two. While the page might have live updates — say, if the fate of Scottish independence hangs in the balance — few would confuse it with the frenetic pace of a newsy Twitter stream.

The Times wants to play with that familiar rhythm with “Watching,” a significant new feature on the homepage that aggregates breaking news updates from the Times and across the web 24 hours a day.

nytwatchingThink of Watching as a cross between a constantly updating wire feed and an in-house Twitter stream of stories Times staffers are keeping an eye on. For those of us who spend more than a little time living our lives in 140 characters, that may seem redundant or odd. But for a very large subset of Times readers — the ones who still rely on homepages more than social media to stay on top of news — Watching will offer a carefully filtered window into rest of the world of news, all with the NYT stamp of approval.

The cascading feed of news, multimedia, and tweets has the effect of not only bringing the web — and competitors’ headlines — into the Times, but also adding a new rhythm to the paper’s online reporting. Times editor at large Marcus Mabry said stories from the paper tend to fall into two units: breaking alerts and finished stories. The paper is trying to find ways to more effectively deliver stories that are still developing, said Mabry, who is working on the project along with reporter Jennifer Preston.

Mabry and Preston work in concert with editors and reporters across multiple desks at the Times to find developing stories. That’s why the daily mix in Watching cuts across subject areas; you’ll find updates on New York Fashion Week alongside tweets about airstrikes in Syria targeted at ISIL.

“I think it’s a huge service to offer readers the best of the rest. We feel our web experience on The New York Times homepage is second to none,” Mabry said. “At the same time, it is not all the information you need as a well informed reader today. To pretend that is silly.”

It’s a new twist on All the News That’s Fit to Print: Our reporting plus our curation of the rest of the news you need to know. The paper wants to spin up more experiments and products following the now famous innovation report. In calling on the paper to take charge of its digital future, that document did not mince words in outlining the mistakes and oversights from the Times. While the paper can still meet its own standards for reporting, the Times could be less precious about the ways it delivers information to readers, Mabry said.

“We were living in this old-world vision where you thought the only thing worth putting on your website was your own stuff,” he said.

Watching builds a new space on for the kinds of hectic, constantly updating, breaking news reporting that people have become used to on social media, said Preston. “There was a speed in between the finished article and the breaking news alert for many years, which was The Lede blog,” Preston said. But The Lede met its end this summer in the Times great blog cull of 2014.

This is not the Times’ first attempt at introducing aggregation into the paper’s homepage. Back in 2008, they launched Times Extra, a short-lived experiment that fed automated headlines from other sites onto homepage widgets.

Watching is a spiritual descendant to Times Extra, but built for a world where Twitter streams, not RSS feeds, are the rising tool for assembling need from many sources. The tool was developed by assistant managing editor Ian Fisher and Tyson Evans, the former digital editor recently moved over into newsroom strategy.

In recent years the Times has found more ways to increase aggregation in and around On Bits, reporters use Scuttlebot to provide annotated links to tech stories from around the web. This year, the paper also debuted What We’re Reading, a collection of recommended stories from Times journalists specifically for subscribers.

Arguably the Times’ biggest bet on compiling and packaging stories has been the NYT Now app, which focuses on delivering readers a precisely targeted bundle of news, including a section dedicated to other news organizations’ stories. But that’s a separate app — Watching gets a slice of the Times’ most prime real estate, the homepage on both mobile and desktop, a sign that the paper has high hopes for the feature. That’s a bet on aggregation, as well as the staying power of the homepage as a destination for readers. The Times, like many publications, has seen the share of its traffic going to its homepage traffic shrink, with only a third of readers actually visiting the page, according to the innovation report. “What we hope this will do is give readers a reason to come to our homepage more often and stay there,” Mabry said.

Photo of a woman with binoculars by Chase Elliott Clark used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 23, 2014, 9:15 a.m.
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