How The New York Times Creates Different Content for Engagement Versus Clicks


It’s clear The New York Times is trying to get its act together when it comes to social media. But it still apparently has a long way to go.

As part of Social Media Week NYC on Wednesday, Jake Silverstein, editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine, interviewed Alex MacCullum, assistant managing editor of audience development, and Jenna Wortham, staff writer for the magazine, in a panel titled “Innovative Digital Storytelling in an Era of Tweets, Vines, Instagrams and More.”

MacCullum, whose desk resides in the newsroom, said that when she first started at The Times, multiple departments were handling different social media platforms. This is still happening to an extent.

One audience member asked MacCullum how sponsored content fits into The New York Times strategy – that she recently saw a sponsored post on Facebook promoting an article. MacCullum didn’t know anything about it, saying that it didn’t come from her department.

Innovation Report: Social Media Lessons Learned

MacCullum explained that The New York Times’ Innovation Report, which was leaked in May 2014, made it clear that The Times wasn’t thinking through distribution of content online. She said the newsroom was enthusiastic about changes:

One of the things the Innovation Report pointed out was, a lot of our competitors really think about, obviously the creation of good journalism, but they think about it all the way through the distribution. The Times newsroom really approached it as, we put out an incredible paper, we obviously have a really robust digital presence, but it kind of stopped there for the most part. Unlike BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post, we weren’t really thinking about how to get the content in front of the people where they are.

Implementing Change

The former Huffington Post co-founder grew a team that focuses on search strategy and operations, social strategy and operations, analytics, community, and engagement. The engagement editors are training each desk at The Times in terms of best social and search practices, and the desks will take over social and search responsibilities eventually, according to MacCullum.

She said that when she started her job, she said, “Let’s just change things this way,” but that was easier said than done at a newspaper the size of The Times, noting that 75 percent of the paper’s revenue still comes from print.

How to Use Social Media Effectively?

Wortham, who is constantly trying new social platforms and started using social media early on, said that at first she was nervous about combining her personal and professional life online. She explained Twitter, Instagram, Vine are like your online calling card:

I kind of think I got more out of Twitter when I stopped treating it as bombarding people with what I was working on. I would only post something if it was relevant or appropriate, like if I was up late at night, I would write: Uh, late night, pulling an all-nighter. Just documenting and presenting my real life online.

She explained that she does have a strategy around big stories she works on. For example, if she knows a big story is going out the next day, she thinks about if she’s going to Instagram it or tweet it:

I’ll tweet the photo when the story goes on the web to engage people visually. Then, when it comes out in the magazine or the paper, I’ll Instagram it.

Wortham pointed out that she doesn’t use social media solely as a promotion tool, that she actually enjoys it.

She said that for her Sunday business column, she always sends out the illustration that goes along with it on Instagram. “It wasn’t just like, ‘read this, read this, read this,” she said.

Social Media Engagement Vs. Clicks

Silverstein asked MacCullum if it’s true certain social platforms drive traffic back to The Times’ website.
She said there’s been a 150 percent increase in referrals since she’s been in the newsroom, and there are certain strategies used at The Times to drive traffic versus engagement.

For example, the team will post the core nugget of a story and a beautiful visual on Facebook. Whereas, on Twitter, they will use a Twitter card that gives the crux of the story. For the Paris attacks, they created social assets providing “here’s what we know, and here’s what we don’t know, and there were three bullets for each of them. There was really no reason to come back,” MacCullum said.

She explained that she does see a correlation between the number of people that engage with The Times on social media, and the number of fans.

MacCullum really likes what National Geographic is doing on Instagram, that it has made them relevant for a young audience. She said that The Times is launching an Instagram account in March that is focused on visual storytelling.

A photo editor is asking photographers to take additional photos for Instagram – so they can tell the story behind the story.

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