Social Media, the New Press Release

In The New York Times's new live news feed, tweets and updates from official sources trump those from ordinary people.

Sam Chills/Flickr

In 1928, The New York Times installed a news ticker on the side of its building. The prologue to today’s TV news tickers, the Times called it a “zipper” and displayed the headlines of the day on it.

A few years later, it was gone.

Today, the ticker has returned—though in a very different form. Last week, the Times debuted “Watching,” a live news feed on the news organization’s homepage. The new feature posts updates to developing stories, pictures, and links to live video links. It takes up a large swath of the right side of, and, as Justin Ellis writes at Nieman Lab, it switches up the now-familiar rhythm of the page.

“Think of Watching as a cross between a constantly updating wire feed and an in-house Twitter stream of stories Times staffers are keeping an eye on,” says Ellis.

“It’s one of the biggest changes to the homepage in many, many years,” Tyson Evans told me. Evans is a strategy editor for the Times who helped develop the homepage.

Watching as it appears on the paper's homepage (NYT)

The Times has a team of reporters, editors, and aggregators working on Watching as a part of the homepage team. But Watching is also a 24-hour affair, so reporters and editors in London, Paris, and Hong Kong also contribute and help manage the feed.

To me, there are two notable parts of Watching.

The first is that Watching can highlight and display what we’d normally call “user-generated content”: tweets, photos, and other atomic units of social media. In fact, the feature is produced with the help of the social media-monitoring firm Storyful. But when I talked to Jennifer Preston, one of the editors for the feature and a 20-year veteran of the Times, she highlighted that more often than not, the kind of content that’s destined for Watching isn’t just from any-old user.

No, said Preston, increasingly, “official sources are posting important information to Twitter and Facebook.”

“We saw this during the Boston Marathon, when the Boston Police Department was tweeting out important updates on that first day. We started embedding that content on, and we were able to publish a single tweet from the police department more quickly than updating a story.”

With Watching, said Preston, “we’re finding official sources, and we can present them in much more quickly.” Instead of waiting to update a story, the update from the official source can go straight to the homepage.

Just last week, the Times was waiting for confirmation from the Pentagon that the U.S. had begun airstrikes in Syria. The first confirmation then came in a tweet from the Pentagon’s press secretary. While the paper’s national security reporters placed that information in—and finalized—their story, the Watching team could slide the tweet onto the homepage: a sort of pre-announcement and confirmation of the story to come.

Preston said that the paper would also happily feature images from citizens at news events, such as reporting and photos from protestors and onlookers at Ferguson. But it struck me as worth noting: In Times social media land, often the slots we expected “citizen journalists” to fill have been supplanted by official sources.

The second interesting thing about Watching: It’s at least the third place where the paper created a job that could be called “staff aggregator” this year alone. Three new products from the paper in 2014—the NYT Now and Opinion apps, and Watching—curate stories from other publications for readers. All three present the same distinctive mix: Times reporting and writing, with deal-sweetening curation from other papers and sources. (Though the paper announced today that they are shuttering the Opinion app.)

Preston and Evans weren’t so sure that this represented anything new for the Times. Preston in particular noted that the paper’s now-defunct blog, The Lede, had pioneered a slightly different form of newsy aggregation. She added that “aggregation”—and a robust understanding of social media—had to be a core part of any reporter’s toolkit now, and spoke of how social media helped Times reporters find good stories after Hurricane Sandy.

But still: What’s emerged from the Times in the past year is a clear decision to use aggregation, curation, and the linky power of digital journalism. It focuses on augmenting Times reporting with Times-dignified curating, and it’s not afraid to devote Times labor to the cause.

Which isn’t to say everything is settled. Preston and Evans admitted they were still trying to find the right balance between Times-related content and otherwise for the Watching feed.

Like the rest of the Times’s digital strategy, it is “a work-in-progress.”