With Our World Cup App, Followers Are A part of the Motion

With Our World Cup App, Followers Are A part of the Motion


Times Insider delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how news, features and opinion come together at The New York Times.

It was the day of one of the World Cup’s most hotly anticipated games: After a weekend that sent Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo home, Brazil was playing Mexico — Mexico trying to advance to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1986, and Brazil charging toward its sixth World Cup title.

Fans were, understandably, on edge.

One just wanted to share his joy about his favorite team’s goal: “La la la la la la la la Brazil!” Another, a moment of stress: “I AM SO NERVOUS.” Both messages were sent through The New York Times’s World Cup messenger app, which allows readers around the world to interact in real time with Times journalists reporting from the games.

But the app is for more than keeping score (Live update pages at nytimes.com take care of play-by-plays). Instead, writers on the messenger focus on quirks and textures they notice on the scene, such as a bank’s advertisement featuring Lionel Messi (he went home sooner than expected), or a Mexico player’s new hairdo for the Brazil match.

“We’re trying to send a few snapshots of the World Cup each day that readers don’t get to see,” said Andrew Das, The Times’s World Cup editor. “A report from a game, something on the streets, a taste of the city we happen to be in — that gives people some insight into the broader life experience that is the World Cup, and there’s not always room for stuff like that in the paper.”

The messenger is part of The Times’s main mobile app; new messages show up as push notifications that lead to a chat interface where users can engage one-on-one with reporters, receive updates from a game and its surroundings, take quizzes on their favorite teams and even get personal answers to their questions. (After Russia’s win over Spain, another upset in a competition year full of them, one reader asked: “Are you expecting another surprise result?” Mr. Das replied: “FIFA and the TV networks are probably fearing that.”)

“It gives readers a way to be more participatory in the actual coverage in a way that, you can do it with the comments section of an article, but the feedback loop is much longer,” according to Isaac White, an Interactive News developer who spearheaded the app’s creation.

While reporters can’t field all the hundreds of messages they receive every day (some, like emojis or exclamations of joy, don’t require it), they do their best to answer pressing questions. The most engagement happens when reporters ask readers a question.

And on those particularly engaging days when readers flood the messenger with questions and comments, “Our faces go into that contortion that’s a combination of a smile and a frown,” said Jason Stallman, editor of the Sports desk. “We’re thrilled that so many readers are responding, but we’re frustrated because we realize we won’t be able to respond to all of them. So we do the best we can.”

Still, overwhelming reader response can often shape coverage. Sarah Lyall, a reporter who led a messenger conversation about swarms of insects on the field in Volgograd, Russia, got such an influx of questions and comments from readers that she turned the topic into a stand-alone story.

The World Cup messenger evolved from similar straight-to-reader efforts from the Sports desk. The team sent text messages to readers during the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. And during this year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the Sports desk also used a messaging app, though it was limited to one reporter, Sam Manchester. The new messenger, by contrast, connects users to many of the more than a dozen journalists on the ground.

The result is a great gathering of perspectives not unlike the World Cup itself. Over time Mr. Das has cultivated a rapport with messengers — or at least, “no one’s called me an expletive yet,” he said. There are even “regulars,” who hail from around the planet.

But Mr. Das’s favorite message so far came on the second Sunday in June: “Hi Dad. Happy Father’s Day” — from his son, reaching out from Connecticut.

Keep up with Times Insider stories on Twitter, via the Reader Center: @ReaderCenter.

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