Just a few hours into the first day of the long Independence Day weekend, a New York Times push alert rattled my phone awake. “After dark, President Obama spends hours alone,” it said, “time he says is essential to think, write and have a snack—exactly 7 almonds.”
I might have passed over the article had I seen it wedged between more pressing news headlines on the Times’ homepage, but the quirky notification got me to read it.
As it happened, the story ran when the Muslim world was halfway through a week of particular turmoil. In the span of seven days—the final week of Ramadan—an attack in Istanbul’s airport killed dozens and injured hundreds; a group of militants took hostages at a cafe in Dhaka, executing 20 people during a 11-hour ordeal; a pair of bombs killed nearly 300 people in a popular shopping street in Baghdad, marking the deadliest attack in the city since 2003; and four suicide attackers in Saudi Arabia detonated bombs near two mosques and a U.S. consulate, killing four people and injuring seven.
Away for the July 4th weekend and largely unplugged, I didn’t go looking for news. Generally, relying on New York Times push notifications is a safe way to learn about big-ticket news without having to trawl Twitter or news sites—so I was surprised when that the gruesome bombing in Baghdad, which occurred when it was Saturday afternoon in the Eastern U.S., didn’t come with a push notification at all.
The news editors who place information on an online homepage or a TV chyron are juggling some of the same decisions that face the New York Times push-notifications team: Which stories should be prioritized, and why?
I spoke with two Times employees to try and understand how the paper of record determines what to push to the 30 million devices that are signed up to receive its digital notifications. Eric Bishop, the newspaper’s assistant editor for mobile, walked me through the thought process that led up to two push notifications being sent in the hours after the Istanbul bombings last week.
“We tend to be a little bit more conservative when there’s breaking news, making sure that we feel very confident about the facts before we push it,” Bishop said. “On that one, there was a little bit of debate in the newsroom about whether we knew enough at the time to send a push. But as soon as Turkish officials announced that initial death toll—ten—we felt like we had enough, and we felt it was important enough to alert our readers.”
The Times pushed the initial alert a little later than its competitors because it was waiting for that verifiable information about the attacks, Bishop said. Eventually, it sent a second notification, with an updated death toll—28—and reported that the attack was perpetrated by suicide bombers.
The Bangladesh hostage situation, though it spanned nearly 12 hours, got only one Times push notification: an alert about the end of the crisis, which came at about 4:30 a.m. Eastern time. “In general, there’s a little of a higher bar with overnight news, though not dramatically higher” said Bishop. “I feel like that news event definitely met the bar for an alert.”
But why, then, was there no alert after the Baghdad bombing, which occurred at 5 p.m. Eastern time on a Saturday, and which had a death toll more than four times higher than those of the Istanbul and Dhaka attacks combined?
A spokesperson for The New York Times said there were two reasons no alert went out about Baghdad. “By the time we confirmed key details on the scope of the bombing and had our own staff-reported story, the news was several hours old and we decided a push would feel stale,” the spokesperson said. “Also, we had sent six push notifications over the holiday weekend and did not want to overwhelm readers.”
Although the Times promoted its Baghdad coverage heavily in other ways—its homepage featured its extensive reporting on the bloodshed, which was also displayed prominently on the front pages of the Monday and Tuesday print editions—the lack of a notification still felt jarring.
Push alerts have become something of a yardstick by which to measure the relevance and gravity of a news item. Like the type size on a front-page headline, a notification communicates the importance of a breaking story. It feels meaningful that an editor decided the story you’re seeing was one of the few from among the 200+ that the Times publishes every day most worth sending out to 30 million devices.
Push notifications are still a relatively young news-delivery technique, and their reach continues to grow with each new smartphone and tablet that’s sold. The Times is experimenting with using notifications for more than just breaking news—that’s why I got that alert about Obama and his almonds over the weekend.
But with the changes comes inconsistency. Although Bishop advocated for pushing alerts even when the Times is a few hours behind the competition—“we still think we owe it to our readers to let them know that something big in the world happened,” he said—just such a delay helped keep an alert about the Baghdad bombing from being sent. (Bishop was on vacation when that attack occurred.)
The Times, of course, is far from the only news organization sending alerts about breaking news—CNN and Breaking News both offer popular apps that do the same. And even without a push from a news organization, there are many ways a smartphone user might be notified of a crisis abroad. Many Facebook users, for example, may have gotten a very different kind of push notification about the Baghdad attack—although not until more than 30 hours after it took place.
After the Istanbul attack, Facebook activated its Safety Check feature, which asks Facebook users in an area to indicate whether or not they’re safe after a disaster or crisis. They can also ask their friends to participate in the safety roll call, notifying their peers about their status. The day of the Baghdad bombing, however, the feature had still not been turned on there.
Facebook told Politico Tuesday morning that its policy is to avoid using Safety Check during “longer-term crises, like wars or epidemics, because such emergencies have no clear start or end, making it difficult to determine when an individual is ‘safe.’” But in fact, by early Monday morning in Iraq, local users had launched Safety Check on their own, using a new Facebook feature that monitors local chatter for talk about a crisis and confirms the event with a third-party source like a reputable media source or a local NGO. If the crisis meets Facebook’s criteria, the site asks users if they want to initiate and promote a Safety Check. (The Dhaka attack was also followed by a community-initiated Safety Check.)
The community-based Safety Check could resolve one of the main problems with the feature, which used to depend on employees’ discretion to designate the crises for which to deploy it. The company drew criticism when it activated Safety Check for the shootings in Paris in November—the first time it was used for anything other than a natural disaster—but didn’t for the bombing in Beirut that took place the same day.
Safety Check is a valuable tool for users in serious danger to reassure their friends and family that they’re safe, but it can also be a performative way for Westerners to remind their peers that they’re traveling or living in third-world countries. “Hey, high school friends,” the notification says. “You may be stuck in a cubicle, but I’m out here putting myself in danger in a far-off place. After you’ve commented on the alert declaring that I’m safe, consider flipping through my exotic photo albums.”
A Safety Check notification doesn’t have a lot of detail about a crisis beyond “a bombing in Baghdad” or “an earthquake in Nepal”—a curious Facebooker would need to Google the event, or scroll down and click “see more information” in order to read the latest news about it. But a notification about the safety of a friend is much more personal than a generic news alert, so it might prompt more people to learn about a catastrophe.
Push notifications will only become a more important way to get people to engage with news as the way that they’re displayed and managed changes. Apple News, the bundled newsreader that ships on every iPhone and iPad, will be able to send users breaking-news notifications when iOS 10 is released this fall, allowing publishers without the Times’ or CNN’s extensive tech know-how to take advantage of alerts. The new operating system will also allow publishers to modify already-sent notifications, which could allow news organizations to send alerts earlier and update them as more information comes in.
A 2013 study showed that smartphone users checked their lockscreens an average of 110 times a day—and that some looked at theirs as many as 900 times. In the years since, notifications have become an even more important part of the smartphone experience, so it’s safe to guess that the number has risen dramatically. That makes the lockscreen prime real estate: Instead of unfolding newspapers, people are glancing repeatedly at their phones—if important news can wedge itself between a text and a retweet, perhaps it will actually get read.