Phillip Smith
commentary

Debunking the lone intern myth

Did an intern really create the New York Times most popular piece of content?

Business Insider’s Henry Blodget and Northwestern University’s Knight Lab, among others, report this week that the most popular piece of content on the New York Times website in 2013 was created by an intern. These headlines risk distracting readers from the real story.

“The folks at Capital New York point out that the single most-read story in the entire publication last year was created not by one of the Times’ many Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists but by an intern” – Henry Blodget

That’s an eye-catching headline, and one that has been echoing across my news feeds and aggregators for the last few days – so much so, in fact, that I’m compelled to call “BS” and try to take some air out of it.

For starters, this isn’t just any ol’ intern, as the Knight Lab reports:

How do you create the most popular piece of content of the year at one of the nation’s most prestigious news outlet? Well, for starters, study or consider careers in politics, law, and philosophy before eventually deciding that statistics is for you. Then apply to grad school and while you’re there dig in to some intriguing data that Harvard researchers had published 10 years prior, apply some stats and smart algorithms, post your work online, then wait for The New York Times to call.

Joshua Katz, before joining the Times, was a PhD student in the Department of Statistics at NC State University, according to his own website and articles picking up on the success of the “How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk.” project at the Times. So, just for starters, this “intern” had already completed at least three years of graduate-level courses in advanced statistics. He’s not quite your average “just out of college” intern, I would propose.

Second, this is the New York fsckn’ Times! I think it would be stating the obvious to say that this is probably one of the most coveted internship programs in the US, if not in the world. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that the interns that make it into this program – an internship program in the centre of the world that comes with an apartment and a stipend of almost $4,000 USD a month – are probably outstanding academic achievers. My guess would be, however, that most who apply are undergraduates and not PhD-level students (I could be way off there). And, according to the Knight Lab piece, the Times reached out to Katz, not vice-versa (that’s gotta feel good!).

Last but not least, take one incredibly qualified “intern,” then add to the equation the award-winning team of graphics editors and interactive developers at the New York Times (Wilson Andrews, Katz’s collaborator, according to the Knight Lab, has won several awards for his work), and mix in an equal part of the generally accepted idea that people are often interested in reading about themselves – is it really that surprising that the project was so successful?

To Blodget, at least, it was immediately obvious:

For what it’s worth, we published our own version of the “how different people say the same thing” story last summer. It too, was one of our most popular stories of the year.

It’s a great, and fun, piece of analysis, packaged simply, yet creatively, by a team of very smart people. But the headline of “Intern Creates the New York Times Most Popular Piece of Content in 2013” misses the more interesting parts of the story: specifically, how Katz worked openly with other statisticians, essentially crowdsourced his survey questions, and – somehow – managed to get 350,000 individuals to respond. For me, that’s the real story here (and kudos to the Knight Lab for digging into most of it).

About

Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.

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