The New York Times Reader Center’s role and responsibilities changed considerably during its first year of operation. Unsurprisingly, those changes were driven by reader feedback.
When the 22-person Reader Center first launched in May 2017, it was a small group with no presence on the Times’ website, no responsibility for the publisher’s commenting system and no clear role in driving subscriptions.
Today, in addition to touching all of those things, the Reader Center publishes dozens of stories every month, which either supplement or respond to stories written by Times reporters, or are created just from questions it asks of readers.
By responding to reader questions, concerns and comments, the Reader Center plays a part in the Times’ all-important subscription business. But the Times isn’t yet segmenting out the Reader Center participants or figuring out where they fit in a marketing conversion funnel.
“We think we can learn more about ourselves and use it as an opportunity to educate readers,” said Hanna Ingber, the Reader Center’s editor.
At the outset, the Reader Center was not meant to have a very external-facing role. Instead, Ingber said, she thought the Reader Center’s mandate was to inject a “new way of thinking” into different parts of the organization by sharing insights it gleaned from readers. But before long, readers began asking where the Reader Center’s content was on the Times’ site, and the team decided it would have to show its work more publicly.
Today, it publishes many different kinds of content on a special section of the Times’ site: stories written using reader responses to questions the Reader Center poses, such as a piece about the conditions in public schools or a Q&A with Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi and Times international editor Michael Slackman discussing the ethics of reporting in a war zone; or stories that own up to mistakes made, like one apologizing for an article about bubble tea that some readers thought was too exoticizing.
The Reader Center regularly solicits information from readers, using callouts from its site — on June 5, it was asking for input from anybody who has been in Miss America or other beauty pageants — but it also gathers feedback and input from other sources. The group analyzes and responds to comments that visitors leave on Times stories, and it gathers comments that readers share on social platforms, including Twitter. The Reader Center also tends a private Facebook group, which has gathered over 500 members since its launch at the start of 2018, where people sound off on the Times’ work.
The Times folded its 14-person community team into the Reader Center, both to facilitate debate and discussions and so the publisher can keep more of the external feedback it gets in a single place, as well as share it more efficiently with reporters and other stakeholders. (Subscription questions and complaints, as well as letters to the editor, are handled by different teams). The Reader Center will help flag interesting comments that readers leave on stories for the reporters who wrote them, highlight interesting letters it gets and analyze information en masse.
“Everything we do is connected to the journalism,” Ingber said.
While the Reader Center plays a central role in collecting feedback, Ingber said its job is not to replace the public editor, a position the Times eliminated the same week the Reader Center launched.
Like most everything else the Times does, the Reader Center plays a role in helping the publisher grow its subscriber base, too, mostly in a support capacity: The Times’ subscribers are big fans of the commenting system.
The paper hasn’t yet determined where the Reader Center fits into any kind of marketing funnel. It does not segment out people who reply to its calls to action, or anything along those lines. “Our business goals are to have a deep relationship with our readers,” Ingber said. “But we’re not measuring, ‘Did this person answer a call and become a subscriber?’”
Note: An earlier version of this story said the Reader Center launched with an eight-person team. It launched with one person heading it.