New York Times discovers readers are looking for better cross-platform audience engagement.
New York Times discovers readers are looking for better cross-platform audience engagement.

Between major U.S. Supreme Court rulings, shooting incidents, and presidential candidacy announcements, the first half of 2015 has been busy with breaking news. 

Together with staff from The New York Times newsroom, our research team set out earlier this year to ​l​earn about audience needs during and after breaking news stories. 

What do readers seek most in breaking news moments? 

What role do devices play in shaping their news gathering decisions? 

How important is social media as a news discovery mechanism? 

To address these and other questions, we recruited 15 news consumers from across the United States who demonstrate a range of news interaction behaviours. We invited them to record their news consumption over the course of a week and share photos of their interactions (not surprisingly, we saw many photos of mobile stories). 

Following the diary study, we conducted hour-­long follow-­up conversations with these consumers. We wanted to hear about their interactions with all media, not just The New York Times. 

In the study we found two distinct need states based on when in a story’s lifecycle participants began learning, discussing, and adding more sources: 

  1. “Early followers” represent highly engaged news consumers who were willing to invest time in aggregating news from different sources shortly after news broke. Yet they were highly frustrated upon re-­reading or re-­watching the same details they had already learned about.

    They wanted better ways to find the newest and most important updates. Twitter was helpful to them when primary news sources were redundant as it offered the freshest news and highlighted relevant voices.

  2. “Latecomers” were the exact opposite: they had no context. Some were slightly embarrassed in sharing that they weren’t initially interested in a particular story until a new detail was revealed or significant conversation in their social feeds piqued their interest.

    They wanted to be able to understand key events and chronology seamlessly days into a developing narrative. Yet the news outlets they pursued assumed that they’d been following a story as early as a first breaking news alert, which caused a disjointed experience. 

    To fill in gaps in their understanding, “latecomers” turned to search and Wikipedia. The latter may seem like an unlikely source, but it offered a central place to understand a story in chronological order. One participant who frequently followed stories days into their development said he regularly pursued Wikipedia first for recent unexpected stories given its frequency and prominence in his search results.

Both “early followers” and “latecomers” hacked information­ gathering approaches in lieu of one destination meeting their needs well. This offers an opportunity to news publishers to offer both context and key details when they are most needed.