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June 28, 2019, 11:47 a.m.

Newsonomics: The New York Times puts personalization front and center — just For You

The Times knows its editors’ judgment of what’s important is one of its critical selling points. But in order to surface more than a sliver of its journalism each day, it’s now willing to respond to readers’ interests in a much bigger way.

Remember The Daily Me? Not just the startup that came and went trying to provide a personalized product — I mean that original dream/nightmare of the golden news site that gives the reader what she wants, first voiced ages ago by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte. In the archives of news dreams lost and buried, it owns a special place.

Now, a few decades after that vision of digital personalization, The New York Times is out with a fresh, modern test of it.

It’s called “For You.” For some users, it popped up — prominently, by design — at the center of a new one-row nav at the bottom of the Times’ iPhone app homepage in mid-June. (The Times, like many companies, rolls out design changes to all users over time.) It sits between Top Stories, which remains the default view at launch, and Sections.

While the Times has been experimenting with limited forms of personalization for years, it’s that prominence in the interface that makes this a turning point.

“This is the most prominent surfacing of active personalization in the experience,” Matt Ericson, a Times assistant managing editor, who worked on this project, said.

No surprise: The goal here is more and deeper engagement. And of course the Times will be closely monitoring how subscribers and non-subscribers use For You, seeking datapoints to suss out “propensity to buy,” the holy grail of our reader revenue age.

“This is not a completely new feature, but the update that we have made is that we are now trying to make it a little more front and center, make it easier for readers to find their way to the stuff that they’re most interested in a and make it easier for them to get into the stories that matter most to them,” says Mollie Vandor, a Times product director, who came to the company in February after a half dozen years with Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

We’re all hearing a fair amount of nonsense about AI, ML, and the like. It’s not that these technologies won’t have a profound effect on the news business, but that they are simply tools in the hands of journalists and those that support them. It’s a great boon for the Times to use such tech to do something that seems quite simple: Show us more of the stuff that we say we’re interested in.

The Times launched the similar “Your Feed” last year, with a small and apparently confusing page-like symbol at the top right of the app. The Times gauged enough experience with that usage — by interpreting data and with qualitative focus groups — to take this step of providing prime real estate to For You.

This is one fundamental lesson of this relaunch: It’s not just about providing a function, utility, or service for the reader. It must be crystal clear what that service does for…me. For You is an attempted antidote for overload, one way to break through the noise of any app or a reader’s own busy days, to make it brain-dead simple to access a truly useful new tool.

A new reader habit can lead to increasing engagement, and more engagement means both better subscription sales and retention. Several years ago, the Times was the first news company I spoke with that had discovered that a reader’s devotion to two or more distinct news topics was a big boost to sales and retention. Hook ’em with one topic, okay, but two or more can help seal the deal. The now-1,600-strong Times newsroom publishes about 250 stories a day. While the phone is a wondrous interface for creating user habits, it’s lousy at displaying breadth. Consider For You one effort to widen the reader’s awareness of stories that would otherwise seem hidden — and maybe get that Trump-news-only reader to check out Smarter Living, or the Book Review devotee to spend more time in Opinion.

The major national/global news publishers have worked around the edges of personalization for a while. Each can bring more firepower to personalization than they have thus far. But all are mindful to maintain the tradition of making top editors’ judgment what leads the news presentation. Most are wary of the dreaded filter bubble and enabling readers to simply re-enforce — and not challenge — their own worldviews. (Ten years ago, the Times’ own Nicholas Kristof weighed in with a warning about that.)

As we move further into the fully digital news era, we’re learning that the combination of experienced news judgment and smarter technology will be as much as art as science.

“How do we get personalization to amplify our news judgment?” asks Ericson, a newspaper veteran and a valuable tweener between the newsroom and engineers. “There’s a fair number of signals that we have around from the newsroom in terms of curating a particular pool of stories. How can we make sure that the right one gets in front of you?”

As the biggest publishers experiment, they take different tacks.

The Wall Street Journal, with its My WSJ feature on mobile takes an approach different from the Times. It’s all about passive personalization; the Journal delivers to readers a “recommended” list of stories derived from their viewing history, without any explicit effort on their part.

Importantly for the Times, For You is all about active personalization. You get, more or less, what you affirmatively choose to get. The Times provides me with stories on topics that I have chosen to follow over the years when given the opportunity in various “Recommended” modules.

When I hit the For You star, it populated with a range of Mueller Investigation, Pop Culture, and Climate Change stories. Apparently, it has a better memory of my past choices than I do. (It’s no joke when we say we’ve downloaded our memories to our devices.)

I can’t pick out which topics in my feed I’d like to delve deeper into, newsletter-like; instead I scroll through a variety of stories from across my topics in an order that seems mostly driven by a sense of timeliness. A screen or two down, a carousel of “Saved for Later” stories reminds you of stories you saved but forgot about. Changing the topics you follow takes only a simple trip to settings.

Note that these really are “topics” — not “sections,” which provide the architecture of story placement in the rest of the app. A climate change story may appear in business or theater as well as in Climate and Environment. Options include The Future of Work, Obituary of the Day, Global Migration, Only in New York, and Bitcoin & Blockchain. (Oh, and Animals — “We thought you could use a break,” the app offers.)

“That story and that particular topic might span multiple newsroom desks,” Vandor says, “but the idea is that if you want to follow everything about climate change for example, you’re going to want to see our best stuff from across a variety of different desks, rather than just focusing in one particular desk.”

All of this is managed with lots of under-the-hood metadata. “Part of this is actually powered by the fact that we have actually a pretty good strong history of tagging our stories not just by where they appeared in the paper, but also what is the story about, who’s mentioned, and so forth, so that helps power it,” says Ericson.

For You then, doesn’t offer a bunch of touts for people like you. It’s you, gleaned from your stated preferences. (Don’t like what you see? Change your preferences!)

At this point, readers can choose from several dozen topics, a motley group. (Why, among columnists, do Dowd, Manjoo, and Krugman get topics, but not Gail Collins or David Leonhardt? Why ‘What to Stream’ but not Watching, or New York City Arts but not Broadway Critics’ Picks?)

I’ve liked the ability to follow specific journalists, as The Guardian used to allow and the Journal does currently, but publishers have told me the return on such an offering has been underwhelming. So only a few of the Times’ top reporters and columnists can be chosen. Given how the breakaway success of The Daily podcast has helped create a small galaxy of new Times personalities, there’s clearly more opportunity to allow readers to follow the voices they are getting used to.

For You is an iOS product only at this point, pending further testing. There’s no browser or Android analog.

We’re at the beginning of this personalization test. The Times, while innovative, can sometimes take a long time to build and improve new products; we’ll see over the next year whether this turns into a real hit or just another experiment. For now, this is an experiment that poses as many (good) questions as it answers.

POSTED     June 28, 2019, 11:47 a.m.
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