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.

 
 

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