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.