POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Mar 6, 2014
Which of the following interactive features drove record traffic to its respective news sites in recent months: a) How Much Time Have You Wasted on Facebook? for Time; b) The interactive dialect quiz for The ; c) The Adele Dazeem Generator: Travoltify Your Name, which appeared on Slate; or d) all of the above?
Congratulations if you answered d) all of the above.
News organizations are changing their formats in the digital age to connect with more readers, with quizzes and games having become popular offerings that audiences find hard to resist.
The Facebook quiz helped lead Time to its highest Internet traffic day ever, 3.8 unique visitors in January. The dialect quiz, which appeared in December, was the most viewed and most emailed article last year for The . And the Adele Dazeem name generator, which Slate put up Monday after John Travolta mangled the introduction of the singer Idina Menzel at the Oscars ceremony, calling her Adele Dazeem, was the most viewed article ever in Slate's 18-year history.
The feature, which allows readers to enter their name and find out how John Travolta might mispronounce it (this reporter came out as Laurence Keezy), had been viewed by 9.5 million unique users by Wednesday afternoon and was adding roughly 100,000 people an hour.
At first Slate's editor, David Plotz, was not sure this development was an entirely good thing: "Definition of ambivalent: The John Travolta name generator is the most popular story in Slate history," he posted on Twitter. Later in a phone interview, he said "bemused" was a better description of his feelings.
"Readers will go high or low with us," he said. "It was off the news and it was fun and shareable. All publications are aspiring to that direct connection to their audience."
And whether they like it or not, in these tough times news organizations are prepared to take advantage of a strategy that allows them to charge more for advertising rates are based on monthly visitors to the site and to potentially attract new readers who might become loyal followers.
"It is the gamification of content," said Joshua Benton, director of the Neiman Journalism Lab at Harvard. "Take the same dynamics that lead games and social sharing to be addictive and use them in way to connect to content."
Games have been part of the newspaper business for a long time. The has featured its crossword puzzle since 1942, while other newspapers have carried comics, word puzzles and acrostics. But the digital age has allowed for interactivity, which makes for an especially alluring form of game-playing. If users can put their own name and information into a template and come out with an amusing answer, it often prompts them to share it with others through social media, contributing to the holy grail of virality.
While such amusements are not new Slate, for instance, previously offered the Carlos Danger name generator, a reference to the supposed pseudonym used by the disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner the trend toward interactivity is only accelerating. Time magazine hired its first digital interactive graphics editor last August. BuzzFeed, the up-and-coming digital news site, installed a quiz template in its system in 2012. The Wire, part of Atlantic Media, has introduced a custom-made bracket competition to coincide with March Madness, the NCAA men's basketball tournament, where users vote to narrow the field in categories like the best college, the best city, the best seat in a movie theater.
The problem for media organizations is where, if anywhere, to draw the line between amusing content and the mission of reporting the news. Many digital publications have relied on addictively shared content of dubious news value like quizzes to determine which character of the Downton Abbey television series the user most resembles.
Still, there are plenty of sophisticated ways to use interactive games, says Ian Bogost, the co-author of "Newsgames: Journalism At Play."
"The really interesting thing about games is they can depict how things work and systemic issues that underlay stories, that we can look at in another way," he said.
Stephen Engelberg, editor in chief of ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news site, said he steered his publication toward interactive features with a public service bent, and had still found them to be powerful drivers of traffic. ProPublica's Dollars for Docs app allows users to find out if their doctor has taken money from pharmaceutical companies. It has generated 7 million views since it was first posted in 2010.
"The point of these interactives is not really to drive traffic," said Steve Duenes, The Times' associate managing editor of visualization, whose department produced the dialect quiz. "We use the same news judgment we apply to our articles and our videos: Is it newsworthy, is it interesting? It is not always extremely serious, but it is always smart."
Time's managing editor, Nancy Gibbs, who has been remaking her publication from a newsweekly into a 24/7 digital news operation, said that one of her most important hires was the interactive graphics editor. But she says there is a clear line between what they do and the quizzes that are blatant grabs for views.
"What's so important about what we do is that it is based on actual research," she said. The graphics "are very anchored in empirical data, it isn't just random quizzes and things that people are making up."
They are also extremely popular. The Facebook quiz generated 1.1 million visitors to help produce the busiest day ever for Time in January. Another interactive quiz, "America's Mood Map: An Interactive Guide to the United States of Attitude," helped drive Time's second-busiest day last October.
Plotz of Slate says that as long as his magazine runs serious journalism alongside the name generators and other interactive tools, he sees no reason to worry. He pointed out that before Travoltify Your Name was posted, an 18,000-word article about the woman Ronald Reagan made famous by calling her the welfare queen had been getting the most attention.
"We will do anything that is interesting, journalistically worthy," Plotz said. "Travolta is explosive, but we published 50 other articles that day, including one on the Crimean Tatars. If we had a great idea we'd do another interactive today and tomorrow."
The Wall Street Journal apparently felt the same way. On Wednesday, when it was announced that SAT tests would revert to a 1,600-point scale, the Journal quickly published a quiz allowing readers to compare their SAT scores to those of their peers.