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March 11, 2019, 12:45 p.m.
Audience & Social

The New York Times wants to know your religion, marital status, Insta handle, hobbies, areas of expertise…

But only for journalistic purposes — not to target advertising.

The New York Times wants to know more about you. It’s now asking readers to fill out a form detailing their contact info, online presence, occupation, race, political leanings, interests, and more. (“What are your interests or hobbies? Please be as specific as possible. For example: photography, sprint triathlons, narrative non-fiction writing, doing crosswords, hunting.” “List any organizations or affiliations, if any. For example, do you belong to any advocacy groups or trade associations? What school(s) did you graduate from?”)

It’s an initiative recently tweeted out by the Times’ editor of digital storytelling and training and digital transition editor, with the pure headline “Help Us Cover The News”:

The perspectives of our audience are invaluable to our journalists, helping us better understand the news and our world. This year, we are expanding our efforts to include readers’ experiences, and we would love to add your voice…

We hope that you’ll sign up to participate in our future reporting projects. The questions below will help us know what kinds of stories you might be able to help out with. Our journalists may contact you based on your answers, but we promise that the information will only be used for journalistic purposes.

That means the Times’ advertising department won’t be using the Facebook profile links and email addresses to target running shoes or swim goggles in the sprint triathlon-ers’ newsletters, as per the reader submission terms: “Your phone number(s) and email address (‘Your Contact Details’) will not be published by us, nor will they be used or disclosed for any marketing purposes.”

A spokesperson said the initiative (and the form) is being run by journalists with the Interactive News team and Reader Center, beyond “The Times is always experimenting with how we engage with our readers.” (I filled out the form, FWIW, though it was weird to try to explain my relationship with religion to a news organization’s database field.)

The New York Times has achieved huge success signing up digital subscribers, a group that likely includes a healthy number of potential sources. (Though of course Times subscribers — wealthier, more educated, more liberal — are not a particularly representative sample.) It’s also a sign of readers seeking more of a voice in the organization’s reporting responsibility and process. The Times’ 2020 innovation report noted:

Our readers must become a bigger part of our report. Perhaps nothing builds reader loyalty as much as engagement — the feeling of being part of a community. And the readers of The New York Times are very much a community…

Asking readers to invest their time on our platform creates a natural cycle of loyalty. Network effects are the growth engine of every successful startup, Facebook being the prime example. But the Times experience doesn’t get more interesting or valuable as more of a reader’s friends, relatives and colleagues use it. That must change.

The Times is not the first in this area. We wrote in 2012 about American Public Media’s then-nine year old Public Insight Network, which today holds a database of 233,262 sources serving up insight for newsrooms including KPCC, Marketplace, and Minnesota Public Radio. The Times highlighted its reader response-infused journalism about evangelical millennials and politics and personal experiences with Jerusalem. PIN is helping the public media outlets report on “12 ways your fellow Angelenos are reducing their plastic waste” and “what makes your favorite lake” — out of Minnesota’s 10,000, obviously — “so special”.

Krautreporter, a crowdfunded digital magazine based in Germany, has also asked its users to create a profile about themselves to help the journalists pin down experts in their own database. Theirs is only five questions, though, compared to The New York Times’ 20.

POSTED     March 11, 2019, 12:45 p.m.
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