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Q&A with Emily Goligoski

Research at the NYT + the brand-new Membership Puzzle Project


Emily Goligoski has spent nearly three years doing deep-dive ethnographic research as a user experience research lead at the New York Times, where she analyzed reader interactions with breaking news stories, studied millennial news junkies, and more. Goligoski recently announced that she is leaving the Times to join the brand-new Membership Puzzle Project, a collaborative effort between De Correspondent and NYU, and kindly agreed to speak with us during her transition between projects.

Our interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Bringing Design Research to the NYT

Source: Before we dive into your new project, could you tell us a little about how you came to practice research/ethnography in journalism? If I remember correctly, you’ve been connected to journalism for quite a long time, but how did the two streams—research and newsrooms—come together for you?

I’m from a family of journalists and worked as a reporter before I became personally interested in learning theory. That led me to pursue graduate work at Stanford, where I worked in the design institute (“d.school”), a highly collaborative environment for understanding how people learn in groups. They got me thinking about using research to bring empathy to our work and to using social science approaches to become fascinated with the people we serve. Mozilla shared that ethos, and I worked with them on open education tools before combining my two areas of interest—UX research and journalism—at the New York Times on the Audience Insights team.

Whether it’s through a daily news report or code, there are lots of ways that we can become more empathetic in what we’re making. Even slight changes in design and delivery resulting from research can make audiences feel that a particular news product is imperative in their day-to-day lives, which is ultimately what all of us working in news are working towards.

Source: Do you find that the idea of news as, ultimately, product design making headway in the industry? I know some organizations and journalists talk about it explicitly, and maybe some are more resistant, so I’d love to hear what kind of resistance (or acceptance, or both) you’ve been seeing as you write and speak about this stuff.

There are two things I’d mention here: an increased emphasis on agile processes and experimentation within news (which is a good development) and taking user experience more seriously (which is a great development).

Within news and design education I’ve noticed more product orientation, though, as you’d imagine, there are a wide range of “news as product” viewpoints among journalists.

Source: What was it like to come into the Times as one of the first dedicated user research/ethnography staffers? And how did your role evolve over time?

I feel fortunate to have worked alongside a few human-centered design experts who joined the NYT around the same time period. Together we brought an emphasis on news consumers’ needs, which opens up possibilities for discovering new product and coverage opportunities.

The Times had a strong usability testing practice which we built on by adding a newsroom research lab and additional remote and live interview capabilities.

With research, as with some other offerings, when a reader insight is popularized around the company, people start to ask “How can my team work with yours?” and have thoughtful questions about their own potential growth audiences. The NYT audio team exemplifies putting research to work well: they’re curious about who’s listening to their podcasts and who isn’t and what drives those behaviors. They’re open to making changes based on the findings as well as their editorial vision for the shows, which makes them a terrific partner.

Source: As you wrap up your work at the Times and reflect back, how has the paper’s approach to research has changed since you first arrived?

It’s great to see more desks in the newsroom and more product teams benefit from hearing from current and prospective future Times’ readers.

Our audience insights and data analytics teams both grew over the past few years, allowing us to bring more research bandwidth as well as tools like Stela which enabled article-level performance monitoring for the newsroom.

By nature, journalists are good research collaborators, given that they want to learn the truth, make meaning from it, and share a great story about what they learned. The rigor that they bring, particularly around survey and qualitative in-person research methodologies, makes me want to work with a reporter or editor on every project.

Source: I believe it! So should journalists who want time away from news consider a sabbatical in tech-world research?

Yes—or as a compliment to their current roles. I’m eager to see journalists, editors, designers, and developers specialize in audience interactions within their organizations—say, as audience advocates who spend ten or more percent of their time on these important pursuits.

Source: What’s the least intuitive thing (that you can share) that you’ve learned about audience behavior in the journalism world?

It’s actually perfectly intuitive, but I am always amazed by the importance of day parting when it comes to interactions with news. In observing news readers over different breakfast tables, I’ve continually seen how different “sit down” reading or listening mode is from being in transit and only having a minute to browse headlines.

Organizations that have thoughtfully approached how to surface and package news to meet those different needs will win loyalty, largely because their podcasts, newsletters, and other offerings will be more strategically planned.

The Membership Puzzle Project

Source: What can you tell us about the new gig at the Membership Puzzle Project? What are the big challenges you’re anticipating there?

I’m excited about the opportunity to work across media organizations and analogous industries to understand what works for those that have highly functional membership models. What are the details of those social contracts? What makes participation valuable to members, to such an extent that they spend time talking about the organization with others and make it part of their own personal identities? What does the organization need to do to maintain its members’ trust? These are a few of the questions we’ll be asking in the first months of the project, starting with interviews with early supporters of De Correspondent who helped them launch a completely advertising-free digital publication in the Netherlands.

Along with De Correspondent, I’ll be working alongside Jay Rosen and his journalism students at NYU. We’ll take what we learn internationally–including from conversations with members of other types of entities, including gyms and different religious faiths–and use it to create two things. The first is a set of design principles for media organizations interested in growing their own membership models for increased reader involvement and sustainable funding. The second is a roadmap for launching the Correspondent in the U.S., including an ambassador program.

Source: What’s an ambassador program, in this context?

We’re thinking of this as an informal network of people who support the project’s process and goals by contributing knowledge, resources, and time.

We want to bring a very reader-driven approach to this work. One thing I wonder is what market peculiarities we might uncover across regions and cultures. It’s not necessarily a challenge but a curiosity: how contextually dependent is the concept of membership for independent media? What will it take for the concept to work here and elsewhere?

Source: You mention that you’ll be looking at models in media orgs and also in analogous industries—I love seeing cross-field research show up in journalistic projects. What other industries will you be analyzing as you do this work?

Broadly, we want to understand meaningful two-way interactions between members or subscribers and organizers, including media (i.e., Spotify and the team that created the Planet Money T-shirt), the arts (regional and local theaters), non-profits (faith-based organizations, Planned Parenthood, and others who rely on donations for a portion of their operating expenses), civic engagement (particularly The Clinton Foundation in regards to how they structured public commitments to action), fitness (ClassPass, Weight Watchers, and pay-to-play sports leagues), food (Blue Apron), apparel (Trunk Club), and more.

Source: What kind of timeline are you-all working on as you move toward the two goals you’ve defined at the Membership Puzzle Project?

We’re working with a one-year timeframe, so aiming for both goals by May 2018.

Source: I’ve been so pleased to see some of your work at the Times documented at the CJR and Nieman Lab, and we’ve loved having you at SRCCON for a couple of years now. Will you be documenting your work at the MPP in a public-ish way?

Jay, the De Correspondent team, our funders (Knight Foundation and Democracy Fund), and I are all deeply committed to sharing what we learn with the Membership Puzzle Project. We’re big fans of transparency in publishing, and it’s part of De Correspondent’s unique DNA (as is protecting readers’ privacy). Working at Mozilla showed me the immense impact that emphasizing openness in storytelling can have on an industry, and we’re excited to bring you all along in this pursuit.

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