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May 7, 2018, 9:36 a.m.
Reporting & Production

The New York Times is ramping up conference calls for subscribers that are run a little like radio shows

“We weren’t sure how they would work out initially — the format sounded a little analog to us…As we’ve continued to do them, we noticed momentum building.”

“Conference call” might evoke routine business meetings and crosstalk of participants asking Can you hear me?

The conference call The New York Times held for some of its subscribers Friday featured Times ISIS reporter Rukmini Callimachi, producer-reporter Andy Mills, and the editorial director of the Times’ international expansion efforts Jodi Rudoren. It kicked off with about 15 minutes of technical difficulty — a confusing total silence for any subscribers who dialed in (including me, trying to figure out how I’d write this story if I didn’t end up getting on the call).

Finally, a voice came onto the line: “I think we just spent 10 minutes talking to ourselves.”

The next 30 minutes — the call was extended to make up for the technical hiccup — was anything but routine business. Callimachi, Mills, and Rudoren chatted like old friends. They teased each other (Mills is the one who cries easily, Callimachi will run into rooms soldiers are afraid to enter). They talked about how the narrative of Caliphate, the Times’ podcast about reporting on ISIS, came together. They talked about its closing music. They talked about reporting risks. They talked about helping sources understand the risks of talking on record to the Times. They talked about reporting while female (“ISIS is a male beat. It’s a bunch of bros, writing about a bunch of guys, doing things with guns”). Callimachi has done a lot of press and events already on these subjects, but she sounded unpracticed, lively, and totally normal on the call.

The New York Times has now held around 10 of these calls for its subscribers who pay for the All Access Plus or Home Delivery tiers. In addition to the Caliphate call, Times reporters and editors have discussed with subscribers everything from racial inequality to Game of Thrones to the opioid crisis. “Several hundred” subscribers typically dial into these calls, according to senior manager of events marketing at the Times Elizabeth Weinstein, and the demographics are “a broad mix.” (The Caliphate call featured a question from someone in the Netherlands.)

“We’ve tried live chats, we’ve tried livestreams. And then just experimentally, we’re trying conference calls. We weren’t sure how they would work out initially — the format sounded a little analog to us,” Weinstein said. “We’ve really been encouraged by the number of people on these ‘participatory podcasts,’ as I like to think of them. As we’ve continued to do them, we noticed momentum building.” (The Atlantic has held similar calls before. The Information holds frequent conference calls for its subscribers. They’re more common for the trade press and niche publishing than for general-interest outlets like the Times.)

The calls follow a tried-and-true two-way format, with an editor as host asking journalists about the reporting process, followed by call-ins from interested listeners, chosen by Times staffers managing the call from an online dashboard, which queues up all caller questions. How very radio!

The Times then makes the recording of the call for subscribers (though the audio versions of many previous conference calls are accessible on the main Times events page to anyone who’s looking right now). It turns out the subscribers who are happy to pay a higher price for Times content and interested enough to dial into a conference call are forgiving of call interruptions, too.

“In one of our early calls, the reporter was actually on the phone on the road and our editor was sitting in the office with us. The reporter and the line dropped at one point, the reporter cut out, and we were sitting there, horrified. We thought, this is really embarrassing,” Ben Cotton, the Times’ executive director for retention and customer experience, said. “But then we got an overwhelming amount of positive feedback about the call — that to the listeners it felt really real, that yes, the line cuts out when a reporter is in a bad service area. Of course, we hope that doesn’t happen all the time, but here is this experience into the real life of a journalist.”

The Times added 139,000 digital-only subscribers in the first quarter of this year, bringing its digital-only subscriber total to around 2.8 million (a number that includes targeted paid products like crosswords). It’s understandably ramping up all things subscriber-focused in order to keep these paying readers interested and paying. It’s been experimenting with how to advertise subscriber-only events like conference calls to a wider group of people, and how best to promote events more broadly as encouragement for people to pay for that first subscription or to bump their subscription to a higher tier.

This year, it’s rolling out a guide a month, all available only to subscribers, centered around “living better.” Each Caliphate episode is available a week earlier for subscribers. It’s letting subscribers enter a lottery to attend the Times’ morning news meetings on May 17 and May 30, with five slots for each day (editors have brought guests in plenty of times before).

“We find that subscribers are really intrigued by things that the newsroom is putting a lot of energy and effort into and making a priority of. It’s very much a two-way dynamic,” Cotton said. “When people come in for the first time, we try to give them a flavor of the best of the newsroom through some of the things we’re doing. We’re always soliciting ideas from subscribers or anybody else, and I think the whole program will continue to evolve over the course of this year.”

POSTED     May 7, 2018, 9:36 a.m.
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