The Problem At The New York Times

May 17 2014, 11:22am CDT | by

As I read the leaked New York Times innovation report which Buzzfeed had “exclusively,” I couldn’t help but think about a Thursday morning two years ago. After being prodded awake by NPR, I was lying in bed reading the news on my iPad. I saw a tweet about “how companies learn your secrets.” I decided to click on the tweet because my beat is privacy and how people dig up information about us that we sometimes don’t want them to know. It led to a piece by Charles Duhigg that would be published in the New York Times magazine that Sunday, and was put online early. Buried near the end, seven “pages” into the story, was an anecdote about a father who walked into a Target in Minneapolis angry that his teenage daughter was receiving coupons for maternity clothes and nursery furniture. He felt the store was encouraging her to get pregnant. When a Target manager reportedly called him a few days later, the father apologized. His daughter was pregnant and Target’s predictive analytics had figured it out before he had.

I was stunned. It was an amazing anecdote that crystallized so much anxiety we feel about corporate data collection, how much “they” know about us, and how they’ll use it. I report on this stuff all the time and rarely come across stories that good that put faces and emotion on the privacy implications of big data. I couldn’t believe it was buried nearly 5,000 words into the story rather than being the lede or broken out on its own. So I blogged it. I wanted people to know about this, and I particularly wanted my audience — readers interested in privacy issues – to know about it. I headlined the piece, “How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did.”

A lot of people read it. It went viral. Soon, it was not just the story that was getting attention but me for “stealing a New York Times article and getting all the traffic,” an allegation made by blogger Nick O’Neill.

The original title was “How Companies Learn Your Secrets”. Kashmir Hill, a writer at Forbes, realized this and quickly developed a condensed version of the article with a far more powerful title: “How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did“. It cut out the crap and got to the real shocker of the story. As of the writing of this story, the New York Times article has 60 likes and shares on Facebook versus 12,902 which the Forbes article has. The Forbes article also has a mind boggling 680,000 page views, a number that can literally make a writer’s career.

Now that article has a mind-boggling 2.5 million page views. I have done other, independent reporting that I feel has in fact “made my career.” But I do often get credited for bringing that story to light. I am actually bothered that the most-read story of my career is a blogging of someone else’s but I’m proud that I helped bring the anecdote to the fore as I’ve heard it used so many times to illustrate the power of big data, metadata and (corporate) surveillance – important topics these days that are much easier for people to wrap their heads around in the form of a pregnant teen, her unsuspecting father, and a Minneapolis Target store.

There was a lot of controversy, with people – including the NYT’s then-social media editor — tweeting angry things at me about stealing from the Grey Lady. It was stressful and horrible being accused of doing wrong to a piece of journalism I so admired. But someone else who worked at the Times made me feel better, revealing that I had not in fact stolen all of the New York Times traffic. I was the top traffic driver to their site for several days.

The Times should have tried to hire me after that. It didn’t.

The paper also packaged the story poorly in print. Friends who subscribed to the New York Times told me they’d seen the magazine’s cover — “Hey! You’re Having A Baby,” spelled out in corporate packaging — and skipped the story. They thought it was about feeding junk food to babies. They wound up reading it online though after I pointed them to it and explained how good it was.

Two years later, the New York Times still hasn’t learned a lesson from this. Their innovation report is hugely interesting, if depressing. They have wonderful journalism but recognize that they are failing at “ the art and science of getting our journalism to readers.” I read it because I run Forbes’ social media team. I was perplexed by some of what they’re doing over there. “Our Twitter account is run by the newsroom. Our Facebook account is run by the business side,” it says. At Forbes, everything comes from the editorial team, except for promotional accounts. It contains references to New York Times stories that have been repackaged by other sites such as Buzzfeed and Gawker where they performed extraordinarily well on social media. My Target story isn’t mentioned strangely, even though Charles Duhigg – who authored the story I reblogged – looks to be one of the people who helped compile the innovation report.

One of the pieces of advice from the report authors was this, “Consider a task force to explore what it will take to become a digital-first newsroom.” No, just be digital first. Be creative and flexible and move fast online.

The report was never meant to be made public. But it was leaked and published Thursday morning by Buzzfeed. Initially it was a sloppily photocopied version. Mashable posted the original easy to read PDF of the report a day later. I read it there.

Free innovative advice for the New York Times: publish your own innovation report along with some commentary about it, and stop letting Buzzfeed and Mashable steal all of your traffic.

 
 

Don't miss ...

 

<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/30" rel="author">Forbes</a>
Forbes is among the most trusted resources for the world's business and investment leaders, providing them the uncompromising commentary, concise analysis, relevant tools and real-time reporting they need to succeed at work, profit from investing and have fun with the rewards of winning.

 

blog comments powered by Disqus

Latest stories

Apple Declares to Launch the Apple Pay on October 20 for the New iPhone Users
Apple Declares to Launch the Apple Pay on October 20 for the New iPhone Users
The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus users will be enabled to enjoy the Apple Pay service on October 20
 
 
Apple Reveals the 27-Inch iMac with 5K Retina Display
Apple Reveals the 27-Inch iMac with 5K Retina Display
The 27-inch Retina iMac has been equipped with the 3.5 GHz Intel Core i5, AMD Radeon 290X GPU, 1TB Fusion Drive and 8GB RAM
 
 
Apple Reveals iPad Mini 3 and Refurbished First-Generation iPad Mini
Apple Reveals iPad Mini 3 and Refurbished First-Generation iPad Mini
iPad Mini 3 and revamped first generation iPad Mini start at $399 and $249 respectively
 
 
Apple Reveals the New iPad Air 2
Apple Reveals the New iPad Air 2
The iPad Air 2 has been equipped with the A8X processor, M8 chip, upgraded camera, and the Touch ID fingerprint scanner
 
 
 

Latest from the Network

Bush shoe-tossing painting hits record at Doha auction
Doha, Oct 15 (IANS/EFE) A controversial painting by Iranian artist Mahmud Obaidi, depicting an Iraqi journalist throwing shoe in 2008 at then US president George W. Bush, was sold for $62,500 at a Sotheby's auction in...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
US offers $45 mn bounty for eight terror leaders
Washington, Oct 15 (IANS) The US said Tuesday it is offering rewards totalling up to 45 million dollars for information on eight key leaders of the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) terrorist organisation. The...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
UNSC extends peacekeeping mission's term in Abyei
United Nations, Oct 15 (IANS) The UN Security Council (UNSC) has renewed the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Abyei border region between Sudan and South Sudan. In an unanimously adopted resolution, the...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
Ebola cases in West Africa could reach 10,000 per week: WHO
Geneva, Oct 15 (IANS) The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that the Ebola epidemic in West Africa could reach 5,000 to 10,000 cases per week by the first week of December. "Quite frankly, ladies and...
Read more on Business Balla
 
Turkey, Singapore sign strategic partnership agreement
Ankara, Oct 15 (IANS) Turkey and Singapore have signed a strategic partnership agreement to boost economic, political and cultural cooperation, as well as security collaboration, during the official visit of...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
Christina Aguilera is returning to 'The Voice' USA
Christina Aguilera will return to 'The Voice' USA next year. The 'Your Body' hitmaker, who previously shared a rotating spot on the judging panel with Shakira, has been replaced by Gwen Stefani this season as she is...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Kesha's music producer hits back
Kesha is being countersued by her record company boss, Dr. Luke. The 41-year-old music producer, who runs Kemosabe Records, claims the 27-year-old 'Tik Tok' singer is a liar and is trying to extort him after she accused...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Jason Derulo won't get back together with Jordin Sparks
Jason Derulo insists his split from Jordin Sparks is permanent. The 'Talk Dirty' hitmaker, who recently ended his relationship with the 'No Air' singer after three years of dating, has ruled out getting back together...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Josh Groban feels 'very lucky' to be dating Kat Dennings
Josh Groban feels ''very lucky'' to be dating Kat Dennings. The 'Brave' hitmaker was very nervous before singing in front of the '2 Broke Girls' actress for the first time at the Carousel of Hope Ball in Beverly Hills,...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Australian Richard Flanagan wins 2014 Man Booker prize
London, Oct 15 (IANS) The first Man Booker prize to allow American nominees was Tuesday night won by an Australian, with Richard Flanagan triumphing for a novel of love and war that tells the harrowing stories of...
Read more on Celebrity Balla