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New York Times Weaves Custom Ads Into 'Snow Fall'-Like 'The Jockey'

'This Time We Learned From Our Mistakes'

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"The Jockey," The New York Times' new 10,000-word profile of horse racing legend Russell Baze, will draw comparisons to "Snow Fall" for its immersive web design and multimedia elements. But unlike "Snow Fall," where awkwardly inserted standard ads disrupted a lavish account of a deadly avalanche, "The Jockey" features custom ad units designed to better fit the new environment.

'The Jockey' will invite comparisons to 'Snow Fall,' but the Times hopes its ads are better received.
'The Jockey' will invite comparisons to 'Snow Fall,' but the Times hopes its ads are better received.

In "The Jockey," Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Barry Bearak profiles the 55-year-old Mr. Baze, who has ridden and won more races than anyone else in his sport. The story is told in not only words, but also with video and lush photography by Chang Lee. "Instead of a page-turning thriller on top of a mountain, this is a beautifully written profile piece," said Jason Stallman, sports editor at The New York Times.

The story's preparation and presentation took several months to produce, Mr. Stallman said. About four weeks before the story was to be published, the Times newsroom told the advertising department that something in the vein of "Snow Fall" was on its way.

"Snow Fall" carried standard ad units that were not custom built for the story, clunky additions to a slick feature. After its publication, the Times' business side said it planned to work with advertisers on custom ads for these types of stories in the future.

"This time, we learned from our mistakes," said Tracy Quitasol, executive director of the Times Idea Lab, which designed ads in "The Jockey" promoting BMW.

As publishers look for new ways to wring advertising dollars from their digital properties, many have embraced native advertising -- sponsored or branded content that mimics the site's own editorial presentation and mission. The Times has avoided going the sponsored-content route, instead focusing its efforts on re-imagining the display ad through the work of its Idea Lab, which translates newsroom innovations into new ad experiences.

Ms. Quitasol said the Times approached several companies about advertising in "The Jockey." BMW signed on and was kept in the dark about certain elements of the story: The company didn't initially know when it would be published, what it would look like, or even exactly how the ads would render, according to Ms. Quitasol.

"It's brave and shows a trust for our brand," said Ms. Quitasol.

The marketer did know the story's subject, which was one of the reasons it decided to buy the ads, according Tom Penich, media communications manager, BMW North America. Horse racing ties into an overall performance theme that BMW is trying to capture, Mr. Penich said.

BMW agency KBS+ worked closely with the Times Idea Lab to create the ads, but BMW still hasn't seen what the final execution will look like in the story, Mr. Penich added. "I'm as excited as everyone else to see this come together," he said.

Among the benefits of advertising in "The Jockey" was the understanding that like "Snow Fall," it has a likelihood of going viral, the Times said. The earlier story grabbed 3.5 million page views over a matter of days, Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson told staff in a memo that was published on the media blog JimRomenesko.com. It had 22,000 visitors at its peak, she added.

The Times is hoping to achieve similar traction with "The Jockey."

"The Jockey" includes a persistent BMW logo atop the story and ads that render as readers reach the end of the story's chapters. The ads do not offer "Snow Fall"-like interactivity within the story; they open a new tab or window if readers click on them.

The Times declined to discuss the price of the ads.

When the Times published "Snow Fall," many hailed it as the way forward for digital storytelling, while others questioned whether the feature -- which took months to produce -- was a sustainable model because of the time and cost associated with it. But if the newsroom creates more stories presented in the vein of "The Jockey" and "Snow Fall," the Idea Lab believes it is now ready to produce a fitting ad experience. "The goal is to make this more repeatable," Ms. Quitasol said.

Mr. Stallman stressed that "The Jockey" does not use the template of "Snow Fall," which he helped edit along with then-sports editor Joe Sexton, who left the Times for Pro Publica in January. The idea with "The Jockey" was to build an entirely new experience that would also incorporate multimedia storytelling, but in its own way. "The last thing we wanted to do was another 'Snow Fall,'" he said.

Instead, Mr. Bearack did several weeks of reporting on Mr. Baze and -- after winning extraordinary access to not only Mr. Baze but also the people close to him -- and Times editors called a meeting to discuss whether the story should receive the multimedia treatment.

Every story is considered for this type of treatment, Mr. Stallman said. The reason they chose Mr. Bearak's piece was partly because of his access to the subject.

Another "special project" with this immersive design in the works, he added.

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