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How The New York Times brings the audience inside

Years ago, newspapers used to be fire hoses of content. Readers would read what journalists wrote and accept it at face value. These days, communication is a two-way street. At The New York Times, the mandate is to make every subscriber feel like they're part of the community, with the goal of attracting new and retaining existing readers, according to Francesca Donner, director of Times Insider at The New York Times.

“We want people to come in to the Times and find out who we are and what we're doing,” she said, at a presentation at the Digital Innovators' Summit today in Berlin. Attracting new and retaining subscribers is a strategic problem, but The Times solved the issue with an editorial focus. 

Francesca Donner ()

“What we're trying to do is get to know each other,” she said of the audience. “Lets get to know one anoher. We want subscribers to know who is writing these stories, how does reporting work anyway, how many journalists does it take to put together an newspaper? How does it work?”

The New York Times breaks the fourth wall and brings readers in as participants. By doing this, they want to show how journalism is made, explain what happens and accumulate deeper insight into their audience. 

“Our goal is to get people up close and personal with the Times,” she said.  This is achieved by answering four questions with everything they do: how The Times works, who they are, what they know, and what they want to share with their audience. 

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“We answer these questions by writing stories,” Donner said. “That's what we do. We write stories about the stories we write.”

The tone of this content is  human, sometimes self-deprecating or funny. The Times also uses podcasts, newsletter and events to establish community and connection with their subscribers. 

“The idea was to go to tell you the story behind the story, we want to show you where reporters have gone, or what it's taken to land a scoop,” Donner explained. “That can sharpen the story as a whole, and we wanted to put a face on it.”

The New York Times' podcasting takes a similar transparent tone. “This little piece is a reporter's notebook,” Donner explained. “Podcasts can seem more intimate than seeing something on screen. You also have this wonderful conversation. Listeners can feel like they're sitting in on dinner party conversation.”

The Times Insider newsletter is an important tool for attracting and retaining readers. The Insider starts the same every day, where subcribers are greeted like members of a special community. The newsletter gets opened around 60 per cent, and people have responded to the conversational tone. 

The Times' events are high-touch, high-impact events. “They surprise and delight and connect people around what they care about – The New York Times,” Donner said. “Readers go from solitary readers, to attending this communal thing, and the connection becomes very real.”

Related: Quartz's Jay Lauf - Focus on human beings, not just technology 

For those who can't attend events in New York in person, the Times offers digital chats and live streaming, to bring their online community inside. Extending them online solves the scalability issue. “We do a lot with soliciting readers in advance, building in quizzes and challenges,” Donner said. “We feature and answer reader questions, post comments. If a journalist responds to them, it's incredibly fulfilling.”

This strategy, while based off editorial solutions, is applicable to other media companies around the world. It is also a real differentiator for the company in the US market.

“Readers need real communication right now,” Donner explained. “We need to remind people these are real stories, and that our reporters are real people and often funny.”

The strategy is based on transparency and trust. 

“The news business is built on trust, how can we cultivate this? By showing what we do,” she said.

“Journalism is expensive. You don't cover Mosul on a whim. You need a fixer, at translator, a driver. It's important we communicate that to people. There is competition in the marketplace. We differentiate  ourselves by showing this is what we are and that is what we do.”

Donner suggested that this strategy could be adapted by other media companies, as they all have their own stories to tell. Bringing the audience inside, inside the process, inside journalism, is  applicable for others. 

“Be personal, be human, be vulnerable, be candid, be funny.”

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