Building Community at the N.Y. Times

The New York Times Co. is applying knowledge management technology as a feature for its Web publications to target narrower subsets of readers by combining relevant content with higher-value interactive services.

The Times acquired Abuzz Technologies in July 1999. Abuzz was a software product company targeting a core knowledge management category known as expertise profiling, which typically involves putting experts in large companies in touch with one another. Its product, Beehive, was designed to infer subject expertise from analyzing employees documents and emails, and then to route questions to the person most likely to have the right answer.

The New York Times recognized an opportunity to apply the tool to building online communities for their Web ventures. Like most media companies, the Times realized that web audiences differ, as do their expectations, from print audiences. As good as its newspapers are, managers recognized that merely shoveling print content into a Web site attracts neither readers nor ad revenue.

Instead of repackaging print materials, leading publishers are trying to target narrower subsets of readers by combining relevant content with interactive services. The Internet provides ample opportunity to build community around this premise. And in the fiercely competitive world of publishing, attracting audiences to the Web plays an increasingly important role in generating revenues.

Engaging Online Readers
One study conducted by McKinsey & Company found that between 1990 and 1998, the number of U.S. consumer magazines increased to 1,050 from 550. At the same time, the overall number of readers remained fairly constant. Today, twice as many magazines compete for the same sized audience. The fundamental challenge for media companies is retaining existing print audiences and building a new cadre of loyal, engaged on-line readers.

For Abuzz, the acquisition by The Times Company Digital (TCD), the interactive media division of the New York Times Co., amounted to a serious redefinition of their business and customer base. Being part of TCD allowed a degree of autonomy that being a small subsidiary of a giant software company may not have. The founders opted to change their business model in hopes of keeping their company and its special culture intact.

Abuzz embarked on a 12 week development project to make Beehive accessible on four TCD sites: The city guides of New York Today and; the NY Times Learning Network, which brings current events into the classroom; and Wine Today, providing news for wine connoisseurs. These sites already had a strong following but no one knew if readers would actively seek each other out.

The core technology behind Beehive remained adaptive profiling, which tracks the user profile and system use patterns. Aided by this technology, users have a hand in defining their own areas of expertise for the system. Beehive tracks who answers--or doesn't--and gets smarter about routing new questions by monitoring the patterns formed between users as they begin to interact. The tool's objective is finding the right person, not the right document or Web site as a search engine would do.

But other technical challenges loomed. Finding a way to discern a question, irrespective of its length, represented a significant technical challenge. Several major search sites that use the same natural language technology haven't addressed this problem. And building a shared space where discussions could be generated on the fly and then archived for future use in a database also had to be addressed.

Social Experiment
Although the technical challenges were formidable, moving it into such an ill-defined and huge audience that is the Internet represented nothing less than a social experiment. The transition to on-line meant users would not be nearly as well defined as they had been for enterprise clients. And therefore, the needs and expectations would be more difficult to manage.

Jess Brooks, director of communities for Abuzz, has been pleasantly surprised with its success after an initial discerning skepticism about this experiment in new media. "I wasn't sure that people would use this," she noted. Brooks and her team watch over each community interaction, making sure that each individual gets their question answered and has a positive experience. She has also witnessed usage patterns emerge at the four sites.

The greater the affinity between the content and the user, the more likely a robust and active community seems to evolve. For example, the Learning Network provides classroom materials for teachers of grades 6 through 12. It has 400 active users. Last October, someone asked if anyone knew the history of New York's La Guardia airport. The ensuing discussion became an advertisement for Beehive. One particularly active participant had provided a list of links; her colleagues then logged on to verify the provider's helpfulness and the completeness of her answer. Beyond a running question-and-answer dialogue, the learning network had developed into a community of interest.

The city guides appeal to a much broader, general consumer audience. Their Beehives have not developed as well. What Abuzz has learned is that this system isn't bound by an ability to get questions answered, it's limited by the type of questions that users feel comfortable asking in a particular, collaborative environment.

Non-Corporate Communities
Andres Rodriguez, founder, general manager and now chief technology officer of TCD, noted that Internet collaboration will be much different from the collaboration fostered by groupware. In the corporate environment, pre-defined teams or divisions used groupware. It emphasized teaming, not the individual experience. "Internet collaboration will center on smaller, focused interactions." In early 2000, Abuzz will branch beyond these four sites into thirty communities around more targeted subjects such as golfing, parenting, travel, consumer electronics and wine.

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