Why journalists shouldn’t be threatened by the most-viewed NYT story of 2013

The Atlantic’s post on Friday about the list of the top New York Times stories of 2013 has prompted some interesting discussions.

The most-read story of the year was a dialect quiz — you answer questions about how you talk, and you’re shown which parts of the country mostly closely match your dialect patterns.

It’s a data-driven interactive quiz based on 350,000 survey responses collected by an NYT graphics editor. It’s a game. It’s not an article.

The Atlantic post says this:

“Think about that. A news app, a piece of software about the news made by in-house developers, generated more clicks than any article. And it did this in a tiny amount of time: The app only came out on December 21, 2013. That means that in the 11 days it was online in 2013, it generated more visits than any other piece.”

A journalist friend of mine expressed dismay that the quiz didn’t answer the why and how of the issue. It lacked context and utility, he argued, and he compared it to a Buzzfeed list.

Here’s what I think: Journalistic standards for importance and excellence can get in the way of providing a product people want to consume and use. Turning the research behind this quiz into a story would be valid and informational. But it’s not the only way.

If the Times wrote that explanatory story and I read it, I’d immediately want to know if it would work on me. (I’ve lived in eight states and learned to talk in three drastically different regions. Like most people, probably, I think I should be hard to figure out!)

Not everything has to impart as many facts as possible, offer as much illumination as possible or answer as many reader questions as possible. The highest good might be … something else.

With each piece of journalism, we should decide what we’re trying to accomplish. Picking interactivity and personal relevance over explanation isn’t wrong, it’s just different.

Also, I have this huge hope that the New York Times will stay in business for years to come. And in this case, offering something entertaining and engaging that people wanted to share with their friends — that helped people figure out where their speech patterns fit in the bigger picture — looks like something that will keep people coming back. That’s good for advertisers and users. It doesn’t turn the New York Times into Buzzfeed. It shows that the New York Times cares about making things users like.

I wish more journalists could see that as a win instead of being threatened by it or thinking it’s a reflection of what’s wrong with the profession. It’s not threatening that this quiz ranked first. It’s a sign that users appreciate features like this, and that the Times would be likely to attract a lot of new users by doing more of it. The trick then is to keep those users on the site, and to make the rest of your content applicable and compelling.

In a similar way, the most-read story on the Columbia Missourian’s website in 2013 was written by a reader, not a journalist. It was a father’s account of the events surrounding his son’s suicide. It was powerful and moving, and I’m not at all surprised that it was so widely shared and consumed.

Should that make our staff worry that we’ll be out of a job, or that readers should write all our stories from now on? Of course not.

Instead, the popularity of stories like these should make us think more broadly about the expanding methods we have to tell stories and share information.

And it should teach us who’s in charge of deciding the real value or utility of stories. (Hint: it’s not the journalists.)

Back to the quiz …

I’ll add that I took the dialect quiz half a dozen times the day it published before it actually gave me an answer. When I mentioned that on Facebook and Twitter, it seemed lots of users were also being served up a blank page where the results should have been. I wonder if the snafus actually inflated the page views — if dedicated users trying in vain to get their results drove up the number.

And in case you’re curious, when I first took the quiz, I was shown to be most like a few cities in Arizona (one of the few regions I’ve never lived in). Today, I was shown to be a fit for Missouri. That’s where I currently live, but it’s not where my dialect was formed.

Regardless, I’m a sucker for quizzes. I’m dying to know how I fit into the bigger picture. I enjoy seeing how each individual answer compares to the various places I’ve lived. I enjoyed the quiz each time I took it. I shared it. And I saw a lot of other people enjoying it as well, and not just the ones who usually read the New York Times.


4 thoughts on “Why journalists shouldn’t be threatened by the most-viewed NYT story of 2013

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