The NYT dispatches reporters to social conversation hotspots

This past Sunday, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni published a widely read op-ed about the college admissions process in the paper’s Sunday Review section. The column, “How to Survive the College Admissions Madness,” had already been gained momentum by the time the Sunday edition hit doorsteps, though; the Times decided to publish the online version two days prior (Friday, March 13), at which point it started being widely circulated through social media channels.

Bruni’s piece has been in the top 20 most-visited Times articles every day from Friday to Tuesday, with approximately 70 percent of all visits coming by way of social media, according to Cynthia Collins, the Times’ social media editor.

Bruni himself started responding to comments about the story posted to the Times’ Facebook page, and the conversation lasted throughout the weekend. But on Monday, he ventured away from the confines of the Times’ page and toward that of conservative media personality Laura Ingraham.

The Times’ audience-development team had been monitoring the story’s social media performance and was alerted that Ingraham’s page had posted the piece. Recognizing her as an influencer, the social media team deployed Bruni to her page, where he answered the question Ingraham posed in her Facebook post about the story.

Whether it was actually Ingraham posting to her Facebook page was unclear. But it certainly was Frank Bruni commenting on Ingraham’s page, and the NYT’s willingness to deploy him to comments sections of other people’s pages is but one instance of how the Times is using social media data to identify where its stories are gaining traction and when it’s worth having writers interject.

The call to send Bruni to Ingraham’s page came after examining data from CrowdTangle, a social media analytics tool used by a variety of publishers, from BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post to CNN and The Washington Post. The Times has set up its CrowdTangle account so as to be alerted when influential social media accounts post a Times article, such as with Ingraham and Bruni’s piece.

The initiative simultaneously addresses two issues raised in the Times’ leaked innovation report: The NYT is not interacting enough with readers in the comments sections of stories, and the Times needs to more actively promote its stories and its stars on social media.

But while it may be thrilling for readers to square off with a Times journalist in a Facebook comments thread, it’s hard to quantify what that does for the Times as a business. Media companies publishing directly to social media platforms is the latest in vogue digital media trend, but for all its bluster, no media company has proven a sustainable business model for the practice. There’s lots of investment, but little proven return.

The Times late media columnist David Carr once wrote about how he, a professional writer, frequently posted on Twitter but never expected a paycheck from the platform.

That hasn’t deterred The Times, though, which recently launched a Snapchat account (@thenytimes) on which New York Times Magazine writer Jenna Wortham shared updates from the South by Southwest (SXSW) tech festival in Austin this past weekend. For the Times, having its brand-name writers directly interact with readers is a first but powerful step toward turning them into Times subscribers, Collins said.

“When Frank’s jumping into the comments, it’s a much more qualitative value, a more emotional connection,” she said. “It’s not broadcasting out, it’s our journalists having a conversation. When a Times journalist answers my question or challenges my comment, that’s a pretty powerful thing for a reader.”

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Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Collins by her old title. Also, the Times did not have Bruni participate in the discussion on Ingraham’s Facebook page because it was sending a large amount of referral traffic.