10 Ways The New York Times Tells Stories Through Reader Content

When looking for inspiration for your own reader-submissions projects, The New York Times’ collection of storytelling tools is a good place to start because they do it so well. The following examples are ways that The Times have creatively gathered and displayed information submitted by people on the Internet to tell a story. The common thread amongst all of the examples below are that they limit readers to a very specific and thought-provoking theme.


1. Reaction Grid

When Osama Bin Laden died, The Times asked readers to plot their emotions about the event on a grid. The value in doing this, rather than opening a standard comment thread, is that you’re able to quickly gauge the public’s response.


2. Photo galleries

“The Lives They Loved,” where The New York Times asked readers to submit a photo and story of someone they lost in 2011. Reader photo galleries work best when you base it around a very specific theme, and in this case, a powerful theme.


3. One-word submissions

For the 2010 election, The Times asked readers to describe, in one word, to describe their current state of mind. Responses were filterable by party (democrat/republican) and allowed you to see trends for the most popular emotions.


4. Simple republishing

The New York Times gives readers a platform for sharing their stories by posting them to their local blog, The City Room. Integrating reader submissions doesn’t always have to take the form of a flashy interactive. Filter to the category called “reader submissions” to see all local posts that contain content from readers.

5. Two-tiered submissions

The Hope Cloud, as I’ve informally named it, is a feature that ran in 2010 to capture people’s hopes for the Obama administration. The reason I love this feature is because it curates the best from a group of diverse reader stories, then opens it up to all other readers to vote for whether they have the same hope, creating two different layers of reader submissions. It also integrates multimedia and allows you to filter by “most popular,” which helps give you the overarching idea of what’s on people’s minds.

6. Six-word descriptions

On mother’s day The Times asked readers to describe their mothers in six words. Limiting it to six words lets readers get creative and allows people to quickly scroll through and consume the responses. It was a fun twist on the standard user submission callouts.


7. Reader stories

In a powerful series about gay teens, The New York Times opened up to readers and asked them to share their stories. The important part of this example is that the user submissions weren’t tacked on like some background link to the main content — 183 of those stories were displayed as part of the main package, with equal prominence and play on the page.


8. Twitter callouts

This is something most news organizations tend to do — ask Twitter followers to tell them about something. The reason The New York Times does it so well is because, like many of their other campaigns around user submissions, keep it to a very specific theme. When Steve Jobs died, they started the hashtag #SteveJobsLegacy and asked readers to describe his impact in 140 characters.


9 . Reader recipes

When holiday season rolled around, The New York Times asked readers to submit photos and recipes for their favorite holiday treats and meals. The resulting product was a beautiful, scrollable display that looked of professional quality.


10. Photographic time capsule

In honor of the 7 Billionth person being born in 2011, The Times created a visual time capsule of what our world is like at 7 Billion. They weaved together 400 reader-submitted photos from around the world to create a storyline.


Today The Times also announced that they’ll be holding its first-ever “live Facebook discussion” with readers on Wednesday. Perhaps the results of that experiment will be another one to add to the books for reader engagement.