Aron Pilhofer: ‘You have to put priority on digital’
The New York Times has long served as a example of a media organization that is successfully combining digital technologies with high-quality journalism. From the Pulitzer prize-winning, multimedia story Snow Fall, which has generated more than 3.5 million page views, to its paywall subscription model, many are looking to the prestigious institution for answers on how to survive the digital future. But the New York Times is also still experimenting. “We don’t know what is best practice,” says Aron Pilhofer, one of the best digital minds at the news organization.
Pilhofer is head of the social media team, communities team and interactive news team, which employs journalists as well as programmers and data experts (follow Pilhofer on Twitter). He recently has a new team to manage – the newsroom analytics team which aims to better understand how content is consumed. In an interview with DW Akademie’s Steffen Leidel, Pilhofer explains his hopes for the new team, the lessons he has learned from past mistakes and the challenges facing future generations of journalists.
While speaking at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, you mentioned a “digital divide in the media”. What did you mean?
I was talking about news organizations. Some have embraced digital truly and fully and some have done so partially or not at all. Unfortunately, the organizations that have not embraced digital or only have done it in superficial ways are maybe the ones that won’t be around much longer.
Why are some media organizations still having problems embracing digital?
Believe me, I wish I knew. It seems so incredibly obvious that this is the path forward. Understanding native digital storytelling in all of its forms is completely lacking in many cases. They lack an understanding of what it means to be a digital news organization. We are still very much attached to our traditional publishing schedules. Even at the New York Times, we publish to our website on what is fundamentally a print news schedule. It’s crazy. We are getting better, but getting away from that mindset is just a small incremental step in the right direction.
To embrace the digital challenge, is it necessary that a new generation of journalists replace the old?
There is going to be a certain amount of people you have to bring in from the outside but outside doesn’t mean necessarily outside your company. It could mean outside the newsroom; it could mean reaching into your technology department, or your analytics department, or the equivalent of an R&D department. But I don’t think you have to replace people. You have to raise the knowledge awareness. You have to put priority on digital. You have to make people in the newsroom realize that this is important. This is number one but you do also have to bring in people from the outside.
You started a newsroom analytics team at the New York Times. What does the team do?
Right now, the New York Times publishes news stories on its homepage, packages them in a certain way, writes headlines in a certain way and promotes these stories in a certain way. And that is done through gut, it’s not done through data. It’s not even “best practice” because we don’t know what is best practice. What we need to do is start being more data-driven in our decision making about how and when we publish stories, how we package stories and how and when we promote stories. But let me be clear about this. We don’t want to turn the New York Times into a Huffington Post. We don’t want to be sitting here and say, “this is the most popular thing, let’s make it the biggest”. What we are talking about is using data as a way to know when a story, particularly a big investigative piece, has the highest likelihood of resonating with the audience we want to reach. The only way to do this is through analytics.
Can you give an example?
“Snow Fall” (a multimedia feature about skiers caught in an avalanche) was a huge hit on social. We launched that story on Twitter and it had about 250,000 uniques before the story even hit the homepage. People said afterward, “Wow, genius, I can’t believe you guys thought to do that”. But it was a mistake. We didn’t intend to do it that way. Without telling anyone, the sports editor (Jason Stallman who headed the Snow Fall production team) just suggested, “Hey, why don’t you guys tweet this out”. We didn’t know about it until we saw it on Twitter. When we saw what was happening, we said, “Holy cow, look at this”. It was unbelievable. In retrospect, if we had thought ahead of time, we should have realized that it was exactly the kind of story that was going to resonate among that crowd. We should have launched it deliberately on social media. The second thing is, it’s a story about relatively young people doing an extreme sport which is very popular now. We should have been able to segment our audience in much the way marketers do and ask, “when are those people most likely to be on the site?” “How can we publish this in a way that the people this is going resonate with will read it.” (Check out DW Akademie’s post about Snow Fall)
Snow Fall is an interactive feature, one of many produced by the New York Times. What exactly does interactivity mean for you?
Interactivity is one element of a bigger buzzword that we use a lot and can’t avoid – engagement. The other part of my team is social media and community. We have defined engagement as actions that readers who have been exposed to a particular piece of content take that they otherwise might not have. It could be anything from a comment to filling out an Oscar ballot, to sharing on social media to engaging with an interactive. Why do we care about such things? Because engagement reflects a certain amount of immersion with the content. It means they have gone deeper than other readers and that’s the goal. You want people to go as deep with your content as possible.
Are there things that have failed in the past that you have learned from?
A couple of years ago, there was a lot of sort “best practice” around social media where news organizations hired professional tweeters to be the voice of the organization or institution. We looked at the numbers and it turned out it wasn’t worth it at all. The dirty little secret of social media is that 90 percent of the referrals – of the links that you see and click on in social – are links shared by people not employed by the New York Times. Ninety percent! The return of investment is close to zero. So that’s not what our social team does – periodically dives in and works accounts, but that’s rare. We do it when it is really important, like during Hurricane Sandy (which hit New York and other parts of the United States in October 2012). But we don’t hire professional tweeters. That is one thing. The other thing is on the interactive side. Social is huge. We used to do a lot of interactives that just kind of sat there. You could play with them but frankly those kind of interactives don’t work as well as interactives where you the user can actually create some sort of an artifact and then share that artifact with the people and say, “hey look at this”. I have a good example. Maybe two years, the graphics desk made an interactive that allowed users to go through a couple of scenarios to balance the federal budget. It has been done over and over again. It was hugely popular because they made it very shareable.