The most visited article of 2013 on The New York Times wasn’t an article at all. It wasn’t written by a big-name journalist or pundit. It wasn’t the product of a team of investigative reporters or the result of a leak from some highly placed source. It wasn’t reported from a far-flung spot on the globe.
The most visited piece of content of 2013 was an interactive data visualization created by an intern with no journalistic background. The Times’ most visited article of 2013 was created by a graduate student of statistics.
Talk about disruption. But this is the story of disruption that serves both the disruptor and the disrupted.
The interactive “dialect map,” called “How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk,” wasn’t posted until the end of December–giving it less than a month to beat out all the other content posted throughout the year.
What’s more, the creator, Josh Katz, developed the idea as a grad student in the department of statistics at North Carolina State University. He posted his early work to a university community for developers, where it was discovered by the graphics department of the Times, earning Josh an internship. Josh refined his thinking at the Times, pitched the project to the editors, and eventually it was posted. (For more detail on the backstory, visit Northwestern University’s Knight Lab.)
First, if you haven’t already, go take the dialect quiz. It’s clever, fun, and informative. Several hundred thousand people were polled to refine the questions, such as whether you pronounce “aunt” as “ant” or “awnt,” use the term “sneaker” or “tennis shoe” or something else,” say “sunshower,” and so on. Every answer creates a map for that question, some of which are predictable, but many of which will have you scratching your head (as we say here in the Northeast.)
Once finished, you can post your results to the leading social media platforms. My final results were dead-on accurate and still managed to surface insights into things I had taken for granted. It has the gee-whiz factor. It’s a great piece of content.
But what’s it doing on the Times? That is where the real lesson lies.
The Times was established in 1851 and has won more Pulitzer Prizes than any other news organization. By any definition it is an incumbent, a defender. Yet the Times has been a leader in embracing digital--an early adopter and willing experimenter with new forms of narrative, creative use of data, and video. The Times has made innovation in storytelling a part of its brand. And because the people at the Times understand their brand so clearly, they have been very focused on how that innovation serves their brand position. The dialect quiz doesn’t seem at all out of place on the Times, and yet it stretches its reach and capabilities and accelerates the opportunity to learn.
And what of the dialect quiz? It’s enlightening on its own, but without the Times’ credibility and massive audience, it would still be an underdeveloped and undiscovered prototype on a university Web site.
This is a collaboration of old and new that enhances both. It’s a mashup of the disruptor and the disrupted. And its popularity is an endorsement of the model.
But to make such a model work, the disruptor and the disrupted need to leave a little bit of their identities behind and recognize what each brings to the partnership. Too often we see big companies buy challengers, only to subsume their thinking under the weight of their own, or we see challengers unable to stop challenging long enough to take full advantage of the scale and resources the bigger company has to offer.
The dialect quiz is just a small example of how to get the best of both worlds. But that’s how you change cultures–one small example at a time.