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Nov. 19, 2015, 9:51 a.m.
Reporting & Production

How one blog helped spark The New York Times’ digital evolution

“I certainly had editors tell me that I shouldn’t be wasting my time on Bird Week. But that was the best part of City Room…We were like unsupervised children.”

Last month, The New York Times announced that it was formally shutting down City Room, the metro blog that it had been running since 2007. Even before its closure, it had been reduced in recent years to just a repository for a couple ongoing features — a far cry from the lively, webby blog it had once been.

The Times had been publishing “on-line” since 1996, but most of what appeared at in those early years was a simple duplicate of what ran in print. By the 2000s, blogs and other online forms were building a new vocabulary for publishing on the web, and the Gray Lady wasn’t always keeping up, looking fusty and staid next to its digital peers. City Room, along with other blogs the paper launched at around the same time, played a big part in evolving the Times’ approach to digital journalism.

“If it were 100 years ago, this would have lasted for 50 years, but the way technology changes and the way reader nature changes every five years now, its lifespan was just so much shorter,” New York Times metro editor Wendell Jamieson told me. “That doesn’t mean it wasn’t an important bridge, but it’s a different industry than it was when City Room launched. It’s truly the post-blog era, and I barely had time to get into the blog era.”

I spoke with nearly a dozen current and former Times staffers who were involved with launching and running City Room about the blog, its impact on the Times, and, now, its legacy. What follows is an oral history composed from telephone interviews, emails, Gchats, and other published works.

JeremyZilar_CityRoomJeremy Zilar (then: editorial/blog strategist; now: director of platform engineering, Time Inc.): I started at the Times in April 2006. A few days in, I went and met a gentleman at the Times who I didn’t know. His name turned out to be Bill Keller [then the Times’ executive editor], and he said, “Go figure out how these things should be done, integrate it, and let us know if you have any questions.”

I built and designed the template, but most of my job was figuring out the best way to insert this form into the newsroom and onto the desks.

JonLandman_CityRoomJonathan Landman (then: deputy managing editor for digital journalism; now: Bloomberg View columnists editor):1 I was like the guy in the white coat. If you wanted to start a blog, you could. You didn’t have to have meetings or much of anything. I tried to find enthusiasts and cajole different people, and, yes, there was technical development, but presto there would be blogs.

Zilar: The blogs were very much part of the early integration strategy at the Times. They decided to give each desk a blog, and have me and the other people I worked with use that as a vehicle to get people up to speed.

The Times’ Metro desk had run a few short-term blogs during the 2006 election. In the year leading up to the launch of City Room, it ran a blog called Empire Zone, which focused on local and state politics.

PatrickLaForge_CityRoomPatrick LaForge (then: City Room editor; now: senior editor, Express Team): In 2006, we wanted to do some political blogging. We saw that some other political blogs out there were becoming increasingly popular.

SewellChan_CityRoomSewell Chan (then: City Room bureau chief; now: international news editor in London): One of the things we were responding to, no doubt, was the rapid rise and success of The Huffington Post, which launched in 2005 and did an energetic job covering the 2006 U.S. midterm elections.

LaForge: [Our political blogging] was pretty rudimentary. It was mostly text; we threw in a lot of pictures of the candidates into every post. We didn’t have any deep resources, but we had the writers and the editors who were working in WordPress, and we had some help from our WordPress developers, and we learned a lot.

Zilar: Sewell Chan became such a powerhouse in the newsroom. He was publishing two or three articles in the newspaper per day. He was always on Page One, he was always meeting with the mayor’s office. He was just formidable.2 So, they said, we should give this guy a vehicle to hone and elevate [his coverage]. That kicked off discussions about starting a metro blog.

WendellJamieson_CityRoomWendell Jamieson (then: deputy metro editor for the web; now: Metro editor): [Metro editor] Joe Sexton’s brilliance was launching it at a time when things were really collapsing around here, in 2007 and 2008. There were going to be cutbacks; the print metro section had been folded into the A book; there were the first layoffs; and with the financial crisis, the bottom dropped out of the newspaper business. Around this time, the staff had to take a five percent pay cut and had to take furloughs. It was a scary time, and for Joe to build something new amid that was, as Bill Keller said at the time, real leadership.

JoeSexton_CityRoomJoe Sexton (then: Metro editor; now: senior editor, ProPublica) We started talking about creating a permanent blog dedicated to the Metro report. Didn’t know what a blog was back then. Still don’t. But Jim Dao, LaForge, and Sewell began to imagine what it would look like and how it would function.

LaForge: Sometime in the fall of that year, Sexton and Jon Landman, who ran the digital operations, asked me and Sewell and Jim Dao to come up with some broader digital news strategy beyond politics.

Chan: We announced the new initiative in March ’07, and that’s when I peeled off from City Hall, where I was covering the Bloomberg administration and the city council.

LaForge: We worked on that for several months, and met with various people on the Web design and development sign of things, and eventually settled on the idea of a blog. We started out more ambitious: We thought we’d take the Metro section front and turn it into something like it is today, which is live updates of news. Our CMS at the time couldn’t handle it, though, so we were encouraged to use WordPress.

Once the decision was made to start the blog, LaForge, Chan, and the rest of the staff set out to define the tone and scope of City Room. Meanwhile, Andrew Kueneman, who has since become the editor in charge of digital news design, worked to build the site’s visual design and branding.

LaForge: The Metro desk in the Times had the advantage of having somewhat of a scrappier tone than the rest of the report. We were competing with, and still compete with, two major tabloids. I think Ben Smith, who is now at BuzzFeed, was doing the Politicker at the Observer and then was at the Daily News. We were watching him during the whole political phase; he was certainly a competitor. Gothamist was around at that point. There was obviously Gawker, which was much more New York–focused in those days than it is now. And there were a variety of other people and a lot of smaller niche blogs that came and went.

We were looking at all that and realizing: We could be showing our readers all this stuff, linking out to all this, following the stuff we thought fit in with our type of coverage, and also checking stuff, because it seemed like a lot of other sites were content to put up things without fully reporting them out.

Chan: One of the questions at the time was whether we wanted City Room to have one individual’s personality or voice be dominant. I argued strongly against that. I felt — correctly, I still think — that City Room would succeed or fail based on the extent to which it was a collective endeavor.

Zilar: The editors, Patrick and Sewell, came up with a large taxonomy document that had every kind of beat, every kind of sub-beat that the Metro desk could cover. We went through and edited the hell out of that.

Chan: We spent a lot of time on taxonomy issues. Every post fell into one of several uber-categories, like “Government and Politics” or “Crime & Public Safety,” and then sub-categories, or tags.

Zilar: They wanted to make sure every beat had some sort of navigation, so it really pushed the platform forward. It pushed the medium forward with a conversation about how people use the Web and how they navigate. We talked a lot about volume, we talked a lot about rhythm.

LexiMainland_CityRoomLexi Mainland (then: digital editor, Metro; now: managing editor, A Cup of Jo): My early first duties were to help figure out the production workflow. None of us had spent a long time in WordPress at that point. I had worked on some other WordPress blogs before I joined, so I had a little bit of knowledge on everything from publishing to scheduling to producing images. It sounds crazy now, but those were new reflexes for us, new muscles.

LaForge: I insisted on having two copy editors assigned to the blog. They were part of the team in our IM chats. They would read behind on just about everything. If something was breaking, they might read on preview while it was being written, or they might look at it very quickly before we got it promoted. We were very committed to having a process comparable to the newspaper. That was just something I believed in terms of copy quality, and I think it definitely led to better headlines and fewer mistakes. At the time, it was not the case that every blog in the newsroom had this, but it was something we specifically asked Joe Sexton and the copy desk to support because we felt strongly about it.

Zilar: We did a lot of test runs: Okay, there’s a story about the mayor. Obviously there are going to be two stories for the paper. What does City Room do to complement that? What do we add to that package? If City Room is the only destination that somebody comes to, how are they going to be aware of the coverage that the Metro report has done on the topic? What is the value added? How does it not be duplicative?

Mainland: Similarly, I was involved in making sure that it worked correctly. Early on, and while we were testing the blog before we made it live, there would be moments when, suddenly, the whole front of the blog would be in italics. We tried to figure out why that was, and it was because we had put in some italic tag in HTML and forgotten to close the tag. That all sounds so routine at this point, but in 2007, there weren’t a lot of journalists in the Times newsroom who were using HTML to put content directly on the site.

City Room launched on June 14, 2007, just days after the Times moved into its new headquarters on 8th Avenue in Manhattan. The blog had regular features, but breaking news was at its heart. While it might take 15 or 20 minutes in those days for a story to work its way through the Times’ proprietary CMS and onto its website, WordPress let the blogs publish immediately. City Room’s first big breaking news story came just a few weeks after it debuted: A steam pipe exploded in Midtown Manhattan, near Grand Central Terminal. One person was killed and several were injured.

LaForge: It happened right at rush hour and people were trying to figure out what was going on. A couple of years earlier, that’s a story they would have had to watch on TV or read about in the paper the next day, but we were actually able to do a whole service post that said: use a different subway line, this is what happened, there were injuries, and stay away from this part of town.

Readers were writing in with what they had seen. We got photos from them.

Chan: It was new that we were willing to take in information as it came, from all sources. Traditionally, we would have been leery of mentioning ourselves. But in that 2007 explosion, because of its proximity to the Times building, several of our staff members were able to describe what they had seen and heard, and we were very transparent about it.

Zilar: Articles always needed to be complete. Back in 2006 and 2007, most of the articles you read on the Times’ website came directly out of the paper. The blogs were one of the first places where we did digital-only journalism. You could actually have a little bit of first-person tone there, and there was an understanding that the writer was creating this for you, touching the Internet and trying to recap it for you.

LaForge: If something happens on the subway at three in the afternoon, by the next morning, unless people died, it’s not the greatest news story for the newspaper, but it’s great for a blog. We found that we got lots of interest and lots of traffic. People were grateful.

Mainland: In the early blogging days, the rest of the Times wasn’t necessarily comfortable publishing something that was just a couple of sentences long, but the blog provided a good way to do that. It didn’t look weird, it didn’t sound weird, and it could be easily updated.

Zilar: As new updates came in, we could do a rewrite on those pieces or actually let the reader know that new information had cpme in. That was very much a journalistic form that was not possible in the paper.

Mainland: We ended up doing our Q&A that week with someone who was a steam expert to explain how steam was powering New York in ways that people might not otherwise know.

Another major breaking story that City Room covered was the death of actor Heath Ledger in February 2008. City Room’s story on Ledger’s death ended up receiving 1.78 million page views, which at the time was among the most ever on a Times story, and as Landman wrote in a memo at the time, “That’s a little less than City Room — a very popular blog even at slow times — gets in a normal month. A number roughly equal to the Sunday circulation of the print paper. A lot of traffic.”

Jennifer8Lee_CityRoomJennifer 8. Lee (then: reporter; now: CEO of Plympton) I was sitting there, and one of the assistant Metro editors picked up the phone from the Cop Shop, and he puts down the phone and goes, “Keith Ledger just died?” He didn’t know who he was. So we turned around and were like, “Heath Ledger? That is fucking huge news.” It was before Batman but after Brokeback Mountain.

Chan: My favorite memory about that was that it was not our normal area of strength — coverage of celebrity — but one of our police reporters was the first to hear about it.

LaForge: [Sewell] was very good at working with these reporters, having them get the news they could put up so they could report their stories for the paper.

Lee: Sewell was incredibly fast. He wrote one of the first stories and because we were among the first to publish it, it was like the most viewed story in the history of The New York Times’ website up to that point.

LaForge: We were helped a bit on the timing. Our post went up just as it was morning in Australia. It was picked up by all the morning news outlets there.

Mainland: We had the ability to iterate within a single blog post to offer continuous updates, and that put us competitively in front of a lot of other media companies because we had the technology to do it.

Lee: What was really interesting was that that story kept evolving. The police gave us the wrong information. They told us that that apartment was owned by Mary-Kate Olsen. That was a much bigger deal, and then it got rewritten. It was the first example that showed me you need to archive the changes in articles after they’ve been done, because what the police told us was wrong.

LaForge: We were able to not do the typical Internet coverage of the time, which was to repeat the rumor. We actually nailed it down and had reporting. We wanted to be connected with the desk, and not be a blog off in the corner that was not tied in with the Metro desk overall. That’s an important thing.

Blogs like City Room, and also The Lede and Dealbook, taught the newsroom that this was a powerful form of journalism that we couldn’t ignore, and that everyone had to have a role in it. Eventually, we had more reporters, but in the short run, reporters or their editors were tipping us to things that we needed to get up something short about in order to stay competitive online. Reporters would hear from their sources or hear from readers, and that was one way they were converted to realizing that there was an audience there that’s hungry for news: “People are seeing what I wrote even as I’m working on the fuller story for the newspaper the next morning.”

BillKeller_CityRoomKeller (then: executive editor; now: editor-in-chief, The Marshall Project ):3 People would look at what this kid [Chan] was doing and saw that it was really neat. We were leading by example in the newsroom. And when someone did something really great, we let other people know about it.

Beyond covering breaking news, though, City Room allowed the Times to report on many lighter or more fun stories that wouldn’t normally have made it into the paper.

Lee: One of the main problems with the Times, historically, was that something had to rise to the level of a Times article in order to be noted. There were a lot of wonderful, interesting things that could be Timesean that were not of article-length, so we could take a Timesean eye on littler topics.

Sexton: My favorite fact, early on, was that 80 percent or so of [City Room’s] readership online was made up of people outside of NYC. The world joneses for news of New York, and City Room fed with both hands that appetite for comedy and tragedy, death and rebirth, truth-telling and joke-making.

Lee: I wrote a cute story about whether there was a cupcake bubble. This had a lot of readers, but it’s not something that would have been an article. You could just slice the world in different ways, and that freedom was really great.

Community engagement was also central to City Room’s mission. It had a lively and active comments section — in 2009 alone, the blog received 82,535 comments, 82,256 of which were approved by the moderators — and it was among the first places where the Times asked readers to directly contribute to stories. In 2008, in a post tied to a book release, City Room asked readers to contribute six-word memoirs. City Room’s was: “Dead tree’s future limited. Now us.” The post received hundreds of comments, and spawned a few follow-up posts in later years.

As the City Room staff wrote in its introductory post to the blog:

When we look around the Web, we see people in their separate corners, divided by ideology, by neighborhood, by their obsessions. Our obsession is New York City, and we hope New Yorkers will gather here in good faith for civil discussion about the issues and problems of the day.

Mainland: The Times can sometimes feel a little bit like an ivory tower. The Metro desk has always been really great at getting down to street level, and that’s sort of what its mission is. Even so, the idea of having a back-and-forth with readers didn’t come as naturally to us then as it does now. Sewell and Patrick led the charge on that for Metro and even for the Times. There were a couple of little features that we had on City Room in the first year of its life that really spoke to that.

LaForge: In the early days, the real genius behind that was Lexi Mainland. She was constantly coming up with call-outs, quizzes, and conversation pieces just to get readers to convene as an audience. We would pick the best entry on something, or the best comment, like a little bit of a contest atmosphere. That was real community building.

Mainland: We decided we wanted to start doing quizzes, and we called it Pop Quiz.

The first one we ever did was five or six different photos of areas of the city where you couldn’t identify easily from the photo what part of the city it was.

I remember we had a photo of a little kid jumping into the Bronx River, and it looked like he was somewhere in the Catskills, but he was actually within the five boroughs. We asked our readers to guess, using the letters that corresponded to the pictures, to tell us where the photos were taken. We published the quiz and, shortly after, got tons of answers that were all correct. We had thought we would stump people, and we were now thinking, “Oh, wow, people are really experts at this.”

Then, within the first hour that we published, we got a comment from a reader who said, “When you do a quiz, don’t put the location information in the alt-text of the photo.”

We had very carefully produced the photos according to how we had learned to do them with the blog. They were all SEO’d photos, where we had filled out the alt text and were doing our careful HTML that we had done for producing City Room. But we had totally gamed ourselves out of it because people could just roll their mouse over it in their browser and see what it was. It’s a story that goes to show that we were definitely learning as we went.

EmilyRueb_CityRoomEmily S. Rueb (then: digital producer; now: digital-focused reporter): Comments were on every article. We did a lot of reader interactions with prompts. One night, a friend of mine emailed me and asked if I was watching a lunar eclipse. I wrote up a quick item and asked readers if they were watching tonight’s eclipse. There was a real desire from our readers to interact with us.

LaForge: We moderated it ourselves. I spent more than one weekend when my daughter was playing in the sandbox at the park, and I was moderating comments on the phone and responding to them.

Some people would point out typos, or they’d give us tips, ask questions, or engage in further conversation. We’d respond to them in the comments. The first few times we did that, they were very surprised. We didn’t have the reputation of talking directly back to our readers in those days.

Back then, it was a little unusual for people to find themselves talking to a Times reporter. Twitter and Facebook were just starting to blow up at that point, so things that are now commonplace on social media could really only take place in comments sections, forms, or letters to the editor.

Mainland: We had something on the front of the blog, called the Comment of the Moment: A reader comment that we would highlight regularly on the blog. It was a widget that our blog designers had created for us, and I think that they thought that we’d update it once a week or so, but Patrick was shifting that comment several times an hour. This was before we were all glued to Twitter. We were just trying to keep a rhythm and a pace for the blog that felt more urgent and conversational than other areas of the Times.

Every week, we would do a weekly comment roundup as a blog post. We would publish 10 or 20 reader comments, the best ones a week. Again, Patrick produced that himself every week, with much effort. It was all hand-coded HTML with links back to the comment. We took it really seriously.

One thing we all know now, but were learning then, is that readers really respond when they get the sense that you’re listening.

Ruth Beazer (City Room commenter):4 Thanksgiving of 2006 when I started to read blogs — not just the Times, but other publications, too. Lo and behold, my publications were being posted, and I love it. I love having my comments posted. I keep copies; I have two huge piles of all my comments that have been posted.

Perley J. Thibodeau (City Room commenter):5 Municipal is much closer to people than state and federal governments, and that’s where people should start looking. Your immediate problem is your environment around you. New York City is a lot smaller than people think it is.

Rueb: We used to do a daily roundup called Blog Talk. We wanted to be shoulder to shoulder with Gothamist, Animal New York, and these other blogs that we considered our peers.

By 2010, most of the early City Room bloggers had moved on. Patrick LaForge was leading the Times’ copy desks. Sewell Chan had moved to the Washington bureau. Lexi Mainland had become a senior digital editor and was working on other metro projects. Jennifer 8. Lee had left the Times.

Wendell Jamieson was named deputy Metro editor for the Web in 2009, and he oversaw City Room. Andy Newman, who had been running The Local, a hyperlocal experiment in Brooklyn, joined in January 2010 as bureau chief.

AndyNewman_CityRoomAndy Newman: (then: City Room bureau chief; now: reporter): For me, it was going from doing a very local blog that mostly had a local readership in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill to City Room, which was a pretty high-profile thing at that time.

It was a steep learning curve. Being part of this whole operation was different from just running the whole thing myself.

Jamieson: Andy and I tried to rebrand City Room as its own, very distinct New York voice. I wanted to define a City Room story as a brightly written, casually written, but still Timesian story that truly embraced the uniqueness and wonderment of living in New York City.

Newman: The whole Metro section knew that if you had something that had to get up really fast, you’d go to City Room. Or you’d go to City Room if you had an idea that was too weird for a story, or just wasn’t a story but was something to write about.

One of those ideas was Hawk Cam, a webcam that followed the life of a hawk family through 2011 and 2012. Hawk Cam had a cult following that passionately followed the birds’ every move.

Rueb: I had this idea to do Bird Week. We produced a lot of series centered around a theme. I knew that there was a lot of overlap when you looked at a Venn diagram of bird watchers and New York Times readers.

They love data, they’re highly engaged, highly intelligent, and they’re competitive. So I drew up a series of stories that I wrote, and we commissioned Mike Tyson to write an essay in defense of the pigeon. We asked readers for photos of bird habitats in New York, and we partnered with WNYC to do a mobile map of bird watching spots.

My colleague David Dunlap, who was also very engaged in this idea of Bird Week, told me about a pair of red-tailed hawks that was nesting down at NYU. It was meant to be just a sidebar to Bird Week. I knew that we had a livestream account. I went down there with one of those little crappy portable cameras and taped it to the curtains. I got NYU’s permission, but I think they rued the day they let me in there. It just took on a life of its own, and that was mostly because of our readers.

Newman: People were watching at all hours of the day or night, and the livestream had a comment thread, too.

Rueb They were feeding us news tips, they were sending us photos of their animals watching the Hawk Cam. Scientists and veterinarians and ornithologists were watching the Hawk Cam because they had never seen or interacted with urban wildlife that was just going about its daily business. Then teachers were using it in their classrooms, and it was this amazing community experience. Everybody was rooting for this hawk family.

Newman: The community of hawk watchers that formed around that livestream channel became really cohesive, but sometimes they would get into huge fights with each other about all kinds of things. They’d occasionally come to us and say, “Hey, Andy and Emily, you have to go over to the livestream channel because so-and-so is yelling at so-and-so.” It was like running a kindergarten sometimes.

Newman: They would have meetups, where they would all get together and stand around in Washington Square Park and take pictures of the hawks, look up at the nest, and talk about stuff.

Rueb: The first hawk mom died. You couldn’t have made up that drama. It raised issues of wildlife banding and intervention, and schools used it in their classrooms. It spiraled out in a way I don’t think any of us could have imagined.

RuthNY (a Hawk Cam regular):6 It reminds us that New York is a small part of the world. This really humanizes the online experience.

Rueb: I got so many letters from people. There was a woman in North Carolina who started illustrating the hawk family. She was housebound with a terminal illness, but this gave her a creative outlet that provided meaning in her life.

Newman: To build this thing and then walk away from it, to an extent, because it took on a life of its own — that was a really cool feeling.

Rueb: I certainly had editors tell me that I shouldn’t be wasting my time on Bird Week. But that was the best part of City Room. When I showed it to Andy, he was just as excited about it as I was. We were like unsupervised children.

As the Times’ CMS became more sophisticated, and the Times as a whole became more digitally focused, City Room started covering less breaking news.

Jamieson: The breaking news part of it became a little confusing after awhile. You had moments where Sewell and City Room and the regular Metro desk would be simultaneously writing and chasing and reporting the same stories, and publishing two different versions of essentially the same breaking story. City Room tended to be first, and it became a crazy duplication of efforts.

I was the web editor for the whole Metro report, and I felt at that point that Sewell’s speed and efficiency became a little bit of a crutch for the rest of the Metro desk. People would think they didn’t have to post a story now because Sewell would take care of it.

I tried to push the breaking news off City Room and make it second nature for the entire staff.

Newman: Over time, by around 2012, it became as easy to publish a regular news story as it was to publish a blog post. And the Times came around to being comfortable with having a very short story go up that called itself a Times news story, but that was obviously just the first 200 words of something that would ultimately become a full news story.

So what would happen is that we would have a story that would start as a City Room blog post, and then for the paper, we would have a real full-fledged story, and then we’d have an online version of that full-fledged story. We were dividing ourselves up and competing with ourselves.

At that point, there was a conscious decision to stop doing breaking news on City Room. It made no sense to have two different versions of the same story up, one as a blog post and one as a regular online story. That was a problem all along, and eventually we solved it by not doing breaking news on City Room.

One of the last major breaking news stories City Room covered was Hurricane Sandy. Because the blog was still run on WordPress, staffers could liveblog throughout the storm and its aftermath.

Mainland: City Room was blogging during Hurricane Sandy for days and days and days on end, with so much content. It was really not only a conversation with readers, but so much service, which readers love: This subway is up, this subway is down, etc., etc.

Newman: The Hurricane Sandy liveblog was 600 posts long, and there was really no way to look at it without crashing your browser. Eventually, for posterity, they made it into something that wasn’t on City Room.

Mainland: It was definitely a moment where social and City Room gelled really nicely. People were scouring social media for service-y information about businesses that were closed and train schedules that were being disrupted, and City Room could continuously tweet out deep links to areas of the blog or The New York Times where people could find that information.

We could also listen and watch for what people were talking about and asking about, and get lots of tips. We did a lot of hashtag campaigns around Sandy, asking people to tell us what their morning commute was like or if their power was back on. We were able to integrate what we were learning on social with what we were publishing on the blog.

Newman: Now the Times has a whole liveblog operation — a very flexible, powerful thing that has beautiful display features that were just impossible on City Room.

City Room started to slow down after Newman shifted his focus to help create and run New York Today, a morning news digest focused on New York City.

Newman: I basically stopped doing City Room as my full-time responsibility in June 2013, and I went on to help launch the New York Today column, which is its own full-time job.

LaForge: If you look at the history of what happened after we left City Room, Andy Newman was an editor there longer than any of us, Cliff Levy was involved with it and launched New York Today, that led directly to NYT Now, and now Cliff is running our news desk and our digital operation.

I’m running the Express Team. Sewell is in London tending to the overnight digital report. Lots of people on other blogs in the newsroom learned the same lessons. Dealbook, Bits, ArtsBeat, Well — they’re all in their third or fourth generation as verticals. Some of them are leaving WordPress behind, and some of them are falling into their main report, as City Room is doing.

The problem with a news blog is, eventually, you have to ask why it exists aside from the main news report.

Jamieson: The thing had really not been a live [up-and-running] blog for several years. It was kind of a repository for knickknacks that had no other natural home. When so many lamented its closing and said it was the best thing about the Times and the best thing about New York, I laughed because they obviously hadn’t been reading it. It reminds me of the person who laments the closing of a bar and then admits that they haven’t been there in 15 years.

Zilar: I did a big audit in 2014 about closing down many of the blogs. The success of a lot of the blogs was, in some ways, part of their downfall. For lack of a better term, they started competing with the existing sections.

Jamieson: People weren’t going on City Room to read it as a blog anymore; they weren’t going to read it in chronological order, as they once did. Instead, things were getting broken off as individual posts that were read on your phone and shared on social.

Zilar: City Room was, in a lot of ways, the dominant driver of traffic to the Metro desk, and the culture of the desk itself needed to come together to build and write one unified report that went out throughout the day. We were also in a time where the existing CMS for the rest of the [Times website] was capable of doing a lot more things. We needed to unify our strategy for covering the city. Having two different homepages was a problem.

Jamieson: We have more people involved in our live web report now. We have two rewrite people during the day, two producers during the day, and an editor. That’s roughly the same size staff that City Room had, but they’re totally integrated into the overall report. City Room jumpstarted the Metro staff into thinking about live journalism, but quickly became duplicative and a crutch for a lot of the department.

Newman: You can do stuff [on the Times website now] that looks way, way better than what you could do on City Room [with WordPress].

Listies are a new thing at The New York Times — they’re things where you have alternating photos and blocks of text. There was a baby born at the World Trade Center, or some other unusual public place, so I did a look back at weird places that babies have been born in New York City. It was exactly the kind of thing we would have done on City Room, but we weren’t really doing things on City Room anymore.

Rueb: “Share your experience with us” is now a standard question that we ask. We hope to continue with the interactive and multimedia pieces that I used to do on City Room. We’re just switching platforms.

Newman: In New York Today, we tried to talk to readers with a real conversational voice — to be The New York Times but also to sound like a real person talking to another real person.

That’s one of the things that the City Room helped at the Times. There were many blogs that did this. Rob Mackey’s blog The Lede made it more acceptable to have a conversational voice in a news context.

Rueb: The Upshot is a part of this model as well. They have small teams and operate almost independently.

That was another great thing about City Room: It was anchored by this energetic and smart bureau chief who could guide and provide gravitas to projects. We also had copy editors and a ready-made machine to produce some of this stuff, and we were given the freedom to do that.

LaForge: Another benefit of City Room was to start some of the traditional jobs on the path to being more digitally engaged, particularly the copy desks. I’m proud to say that, after six years, all the copy desks are editing in all of our digital platforms. They look at videos, they’re on the blogs, they’re in interactives, they’re doing newsletters, they’re dealing with social media. City Room was sort of the beginning of that. Having the copy editors in there was key. At that point, most copy editors worked at night, and we were starting early in the morning, and so were the copy editors. That was really the first of that.

Jamieson: It had a great run. It was a perfect bridge, but its time had come.

LaForge: We’re declaring victory. A digital sensibility has become part of what the New York Metro report is all about now. That was a project of some years, and that is true of the newsroom as a whole now. We didn’t do it in the way that digital-only startups might think we should, but we’re The New York Times, and we do it our New York Times way.

Top photo of the New York Times newsroom on Election Night 2008 by Nick Bilton.

  1. Source: George Washington University professor Nikki Usher’s book Making News at The New York Times []
  2. From June 2005-June 2006 Chan had 422 bylines in the Times, the most in the Metro section. The next highest staffer had 323 bylines. []
  3. Source: Making News at The New York Times. []
  4. Source: “Answers about City Room, Part 3.” []
  5. Source: Ibid. []
  6. Source: “Hawk watchers gather in the park.” []
POSTED     Nov. 19, 2015, 9:51 a.m.
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