Sarah Bures is a Community Engagement Manager at The New York Times where she runs Times Open, a company blog and platform for Times employees to share stories about their work. With posts like, “Launching a Product in One Sprint” and “How We Designed Our Front-End Engineer Hiring Process,” Times Open has evolved from a small developer blog into acclaimed community resource, offering up valuable behind-the-scenes insights into the newspaper’s process.
Karbo Com joined Sarah to discuss Times Open’s switch over to Medium, her advice for brands self-publishing on the platform, and her tips for designing a purposeful blog content strategy.
Tell us about the community engagement work you do at The New York Times.
I run Times Open, a company blog where we share stories about how things are made at the Times, and I also lead our internal speaker series, the Open Speaker Series.
Times Open was started about 10 years ago by New York Times developers to document the work they were doing with open source technology. For years it lived in a far off corner on The Times website, and then around the time I took over, we moved from Times site to Medium.
And we decided to expand the scope of the blog to encompass stories about product development and innovation, and behind-the-scenes stories about what it’s like to work at The Times.
Tell us more about the Times’ decision to move Times Open to Medium.
Our CTO Nick Rockwell made the decision to move Times Open to Medium primarily because that’s where our audience is. It’s typical of big tech companies, media too—everyone in the space seems to have a presence on Medium. A lot of tech and media companies have internal behind-the-scenes blogs there.
I think it’s a useful platform and it allows you to connect with a variety of big companies, individuals writing about tech, digital product development and media. My complaint is that the analytics are not as good as I would like them to be. The views and claps metrics are pretty limited. Medium recently updated so that if the piece does exceptionally well they’ll show what topics your readers are interested in—but still, it’s fairly limited.
Still, I think Medium is the right venue for Times Open.
What advice do you have for brands publishing on Medium?
Medium is an interesting platform because it removes the middle person. Just like on social media, brands can make their own statements about the work they’re doing. That can be very empowering. But brands should still be just as thoughtful and strategic on Medium as they are on other platforms. Even though Times Open is on Medium, every piece is up to New York Times standards. I work with the newsroom and our PR team to ensure that every story meets those standards. It’s still a part of the larger Times brand, even if it is off-platform.
It’s easy for a company to write something up and throw it up on Medium, but if you want to build an audience and develop a brand and a voice, having a plan and thinking about who the audience is—maybe even before that what the story is—is the best approach. It takes quite a bit of planning.
It’s not enough to say we launched a thing! There needs to be more of a story there. What makes it interesting? Does it already exist somewhere on the internet? If it does, and you’re not saying anything new then you don’t need to write that piece. There should be an overarching strategy and a plan for how you source pieces. And careful thought should go into the purpose of sharing something publicly. It’s not valuable to scream into the void—companies must find their audience and peers, figure out their messaging and go from there to tell their best stories.
Why is it important for brands to tell these kinds of stories?
Company blogs like Times Open give important insight into the company. If you’re showing how things are made, the people behind the scenes, it gives insight into where company priorities lie, the types of projects you’re doing, the way your company is thinking about solving problems.
A company blog also gives companies the opportunity to contribute to their industry by speaking directly to their peers. There is this culture of reading each other’s blogs, talking to one another, going to each other’s conferences and learning from each other. Having a digital space where we can talk about our work is valuable because it allows people to learn from us.
Times Open has also proven to be a really useful recruiting tool. It gives people insight to who we are and what we do. From the outside, The Times just seems like a big, established company—it can be hard to get a feel for what the culture is like. The blog gives a sense of what it’s like to work here; it shows the story behind the story.
The blog also supports company morale by giving people who work behind the scenes an opportunity to share their part of the story. New York Times readers might be aware of the journalists, reporters, and maybe the editors or social media teams who work there. But there are so many others who are involved; there are the people who build the structure in which those stories are delivered. We have developers, designers, project managers. The blog gives those people the chance to get there voices heard in a really powerful way.
What can other brands learn from Times Open? What does Times Open do especially well that other brands can emulate?
I think we do a good job of representing the variety of voices that we have here at The Times. A lot of pitches come through to me, but I also try to go seek out people to write for the blog. I try to make sure we have a diverse mix of voices.
I recognize that I’m not working with professional writers all the time, so making the writing process not scary, and setting up a structure for people who might not be comfortable talking about their work is an important part of the process. Companies who are interested in starting a blog or expanding their existing blog should consider putting a framework in place that helps employees talk about their work in a productive way.
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