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Sept. 30, 2016, 11:56 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Om mani padme hum: The New York Times wants to help you meditate (and run and lose weight and just feel good)

With increasingly product-driven thinking, the Times’ Well is breaking out of the news cycle — through VR, evergreen newsletters, and how-to guides — in an attempt to connect more deeply with readers.

The New York Times, not content with just being the newspaper of record, wants to moonlight as your meditation teacher.

Today, the paper’s Well section is publishing Meditation Journeys, a new series of virtual reality meditation videos hosted by noted meditation guru Mark Coleman. Each of the four videos offers viewers a different immersive, scenic vista of northern California — the ocean, a sunset, a sunrise, redwood trees — while guiding viewers through the meditation process. (The landing page for Meditation Journeys went up Thursday, and the videos should be in the NYT VR app at some point today.)

“With everything we’re doing now, the key principle to present the story or content in the way that’s best suited for it,” said Sara Bremen Rabstenek, Well’s product manager. “VR felt like the natural medium for this because meditation is all about getting people to separate from the everyday world a little bit.”

The meditation videos are first that the Times’ VR team has created in tandem with Well, the newspaper’s health and wellness section. But it’s not the first time Well has been the home of some of the Times’ more product-driven thinking, taking advantage of the longer lifespan of health content. The section has developed a handful of new products designed around a new editorial strategy: to create deeper, more personal relationships with readers as they look for guidance about “the many different health journeys happening at a given time in their lives,” Well editor Tara Parker-Pope told me. “People are thinking about the idea of health with every small decision they make on a daily basis.”

One of the most prominent manifestations of that idea are the section’s new Well Guides, which are designed to give readers comprehensive introductions to big wellness topics such as running, high-intensity interval training, and meditation. The running guides, which went live last month, offer training techniques, gear recommendations, stretching exercises, and podcasts and audiobook recommendations. Well has taken a similar approach with its meditation guide, where it both introduces readers to basic concepts in meditation and offers them exercises on how to improve their skills.

“What’s great about these guides is that they serve what we saw as a very direct user need,” said Rabstenek. “People wanted a single place that they could go to and learn a lot of information, and the guides are all about serving that need.”

This productized news-you-can-use thinking isn’t all new to Well; back in 2009, we wrote about an interactive marathon training application called Run Well that told readers when and how long to run in the weeks leading up to a race. But this wave of projects are products of a process that started when the Times pulled Well into NYT Beta, a cross-disciplinary division that includes staffers across engineering, editorial, design, and marketing.

Beta — which has also produced The Times’ Cooking app, its NYT Now news app (R.I.P.), and its TV and film recommendation newsletter product Watching — was formed to create products that both solve problems for readers and build sticky relationships with them by giving them reason to back day after day.

“We started this process by looking at the paper to find journalism that already serves our readers and design new ways to build products around that journalism, said Rabstenek. “It’s a very user-centered approach.”

Approaching its coverage from the readers’ perspective has also been a guiding principle for Well, which has not only reformulated how it approaches and organizes its health coverage, but has also reexamined the definition of health itself. Parker-Pope said that while many publications have traditionally taken a strict definition of health as solely a physical concern, that conception is often at odds with the way average people think of health decisions. Well “isn’t defining health as just a medical concept,” she said, but rather as broad idea that also touches on relationships, family issues, and education. This idea drove Well’s decision to reorganize its content under five central content pillars that together offer a more inclusive idea of wellness — Eat, Move, Mind, Family, and Live.

The desire to create sustained relationships with readers and respond to the way they look for wellness information have also become the core driving forces behind Well’s newsletter strategy. Alongside its running guide, Well has also created a weekly Running newsletter, which offers readers tips, advice, motivation, and links to relevant articles from The Times’ archives.

That archival content has become a particularly powerful asset for Well, which regularly looks to its old content to provide info and context on new developments. Each Tuesday, for example, the Well team sends out a special newsletter focused on a big, newsy topic — Zika, the back-to-school season — which it digs into by pulling in related, often evergreen content from the past. A recent newsletter about the nutritional value of sugar, for example, featured eight New York Times articles that covered various parts of the topic (“Is The Sugar In Fruit Healthy?,” “Is Sugar Really Bad for You? It Depends,” “Why Your Granola Is Really a Dessert”) and which were originally published at various points across the past two years.

It’s worth pointing out that finding new ways of repackaging and presenting content from its archives was one of the many challenges the Times mentioned in its 2014 innovation report, which noted that there were opportunities for the Times to republish stories “in areas where The Times has comprehensive coverage, where information doesn’t need to be updated regularly, and where competitors haven’t saturated the market.” As the report put it: “We can be both a daily newsletter and a library — offering news every day, as well as providing context, relevance and timeless works of journalism.”

“When you look at so much of what we’ve written, it’s often just as relevant today as it was a few years ago,” said Parker-Pope, explaining the power of Well’s evergreen content. “A lot of new readers are coming into Well and seeing what were doing now but not finding all this other great reporting and journalism that we’ve collected. That was one of the problems that we wanted to solve from the beginning.”

POSTED     Sept. 30, 2016, 11:56 a.m.
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