Saturday, December 6, 2008

Times Extra: An Assessment

The New York Times just launched "Times Extra", an "alternative" home page that appends to some stories a list of links for related stories at other websites.

The home page basically looks the same, except for the new list of links under certain stories, like the one at right.

What's future-of-news-y about it:

-- It embraces the mindset that "we aren't the only ones who know what's going on." In the early days of the Internet, the name of the game was attracting people to your site and keeping them there. Today, it's about helping your readers find the best stuff out there, irrespective of whether it's on your site or not.

This might seem counter-intuitive. If a reader leaves your site to go elsewhere, aren't you losing those ever-important eyeballs--and consequently your bill-paying ad impressions? In the short term, yes. In the long term, no. A site that declares, implicitly if not explicitly, "we know we don't have a monopoly on good information and interesting stories, and we want to help you find the best out there" builds trust. And trust these days is what builds loyalty. And loyalty is what keeps people coming back to your site. So you might lose a few ad impressions today by letting your readers go elsewhere. But that will more than pay for itself in the ad impressions you'll get in the future when they come back, because they've come to see you as the trusted source for news, wherever that news lies.

What's old-school about it

-- Not much.
(Though I'm not crazy about the green font -- It's hard to read -- But that's a nit. And it's just bad design, not old school -- It's OK. The Times folks will figure it out and improve later -- No need to get everything right the first time out of the gate.)

What else I'd like to see / What else I'd like to know

-- I'd like to know how the Times is choosing the links. Are editors hand-picking them? Or are they being automatically generated through some kind of bot?

One of the links listed under the Obama story in the image above takes you to a blog called Slog. That's cool. But who's "Slog"? If you told me the link to that site had been hand-curated, I'd have confidence it was worth my time. So would I if you told me it came from a bot built to find the best items out there. But right now, I'm wondering whether that list is randomly generated. If so, that's bad news. Not only would the list not necessarily be helpful, it could actually send me to a bunch of time-wasting stories. In that case, the value of the list would plummets and the Times would lose my trust as a reliable source of good information. Lose my trust, and you lose my loyalty.

-- I'd like to see a behind-the-scenes blog from the experimenters at the NY Times, sharing with us what they're doing, why they're doing what they're doing, and what they're learning from it. They could answer the above question in that blog, for example. They could also report back on how readers are using Times Extra. How many people who try it stick with it (as opposed to convert back to the regular Times home page)? Which links seem to invite the most clicks? How quickly do people who leave come back?

Many companies already offer these kinds of behind-the-scenes looks. The Google team has one. So does the Google Earth team. In fact, Google has a whole slew of behind-the-scenes blogs for people who want to look under the hood at what the company is doing. The NY Times -- and indeed all journos who are experimenting with new forms of collecting and disseminating news -- should have blogs reporting on their efforts. It's the only way to speed up our collective learning and turbo-charge the innovation we need to in order to save this business of ours.

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