In September 2014, The New York Times set out to create, in the words of newsroom strategy editor Tyson Evans, "the smartest Twitter feed you've ever seen."
The newspaper placed the feed in a widget on the right side of its homepage and called it "Watching." Staffed by a dedicated team, the widget was to include a mix of relevant, multiplatform content from Times journalists (links to articles, tweets, etc.) as well as links to, and summaries of, stories from other news sites.
That the Times would highlight stories from rival news sites, and in such a prime location, made "Watching" feel like a significant step in the company's digital evolution. It also raised some eyebrows. "In the beginning, it was kind of controversial with our readers," then-deputy executive editor Ian Fisher said for a six-month check-in on the feature.
The widget still exists, but the mix of content in it has shifted significantly over the last year and a half. When it began, said assistant masthead editor Clifford J. Levy, the widget featured more external than internal content. Now, the feed is mostly links to Times stories, with one or two external stories occasionally sprinkled in.
"We're really trying to figure out what the right mix is," said Mr. Levy, who noted that the current ratio of internal-to-external content is not "set in stone."
Digital experimentation is the name of the game, he said: Executive Editor Dean Baquet "is really pushing us to be more experimental, to be more innovative, to be constantly trying new things."
The homepage widget, which no longer has a name after lending "Watching" to another company product, is an easy opportunity for experimentation, as it's "very nimble" and can quickly be changed around, Mr. Levy said.
The Times has also been nimble in shifting around resources. The widget no longer has a dedicated team, and some of the employees who worked on it have now joined the newspaper's digital rewrite team (The Express Team).
Mr. Levy oversees the company's digital platforms, and works closely with the NYT Beta team that is responsible for products like NYT Now and Cooking. When that team asked for permission to use the "Watching" brand for a forthcoming TV and film product, the request was granted.
"We're not that focused on the name," he told Ad Age. "We're more focused on what's the best use of that space on the homepage."
Overall, Mr. Levy said the Times is "very committed to doing great external aggregation," though the company's curation strategy is still being finetuned. In addition to the widget, and to NYT Now, which Mr. Levy formerly edited, the Times surfaces external content in a newsletter called "What We're Reading."
The Times is hoping that some of this digital experimentation will be remunerative, as the company has set an ambitious goal of doubling digital revenue by 2020.
Mr. Fisher, in April 2015, said the Times was "selling" the widget, though no ads have yet appeared in it. When asked recently, a spokeswoman told Ad Age, "It's not something we're actively selling, but we're open to it."
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