One person responded with a thumbs up. Another with an emoji of two hands clapping. A third wrote: “Thanks for the updates. Your efforts make Pope visit feel closer.”
The New York Times launched its first experiment with a messaging service around Pope Francis’ trip to Latin America earlier this month, and for many of our readers, it was a hit.
Users, from literally around the world, judging by their country codes, signed up to receive daily WhatsApp messages on their phone from our Vatican correspondent, Jim Yardley, as he traveled with the pope in Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay.
WhatsApp is a messaging service owned by Facebook, typically used to chat with one’s family and friends via a smartphone. This was very different. As part of The Times’s experiment, users received photographs taken by Jim and links to his coverage of the trip. (And after some readers mentioned that they wanted more visuals, we sent additional photographs and a link to one of Jim’s mobile videos, a perk derived from direct dialogue between readers and editors.)
Jim would email a note or call New York and describe what he was seeing, and we would then send out a message to our contacts quoting him.
Many WhatsApp users seemed to appreciate the interactive nature of the platform. We would send out a note about the scene in Quito as crowds waited for the popemobile to pass. Or we would provide telling details about the relationship between Francis and the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, and users would reply with a quick comment, or an emoji.
“Love the piece about coca leaves. And Yr level of detail is greatly detailed,” wrote one user.
One reader had a quibble with Jim’s tone in a message. We alerted Jim to this while he was on the pope’s trail, and he messaged a response. The reader thanked him, seemingly grateful that her concern had been heard.
There was also great curiosity about how the project worked. Were we using some cool new tool? Nope, just a couple of editors working in New York. Nothing special behind the curtain.
And at least one reader offered a suggestion for our business plan:
Despite the high level of interest among readers in receiving updates from The Times on their phone, and the immediate and personal nature of a relationship that the platform fostered, we probably won’t use the app again until some technical hurdles are overcome.
The process was labor-intensive. With Twitter or Facebook, readers could follow news organizations on their own. But with WhatsApp, an editor had to add each interested reader to the contact list. WhatsApp does not have a publishing back end available to us, so we operated like an ordinary user with an abundance of very active contacts.
The interest in receiving pope updates over WhatsApp was so overwhelming that the app was unable to keep up with the sheer volume of chats we received. As messages from interested (and increasingly frustrated) users piled up, the app kept freezing on us.
There were also challenges in unsubscribing users. Once someone signed up, he or she was along for the ride with Jim and the pope whether they wanted to be or not.
The interest in receiving news in such a personal way was perhaps even higher than we could have anticipated.
Throughout the trip, users would call the phone, which we kept in New York (technically, in New Jersey on nights and weekends). We never answered it. We assumed that people were dialing the number just to see if someone answered. Plus, while messaging felt appropriate, talking seemed a bit too — intimate.