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The New York Times sells premium ads based on how an article makes you feel (poynter.org)
132 points by hhs 5 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 92 comments

Below is the list of feelings, which, according to the article, the NYT is now predicting with ML models trained on a proprietary dataset collected internally from a sample of articles shown to a sample of readers. I've marked positive feelings with `(+)`, negative feelings with `(-)`, and feelings which could be viewed one way or another, depending on context, with `( )`.

Remarkably, a majority of these feelings are positive, so this advertising initiative, which has been successful at increasing per-ad revenues by as much as 80%, is creating a financial incentive for the NYT to produce content that generates positive feelings in readers!

On its face, this is shocking to me. I would have never, ever expected positive content to be more profitable than negative content! In hindsight, however, after thinking about it a bit, it kind of makes sense. I'm now wondering, could advertising perhaps become (gasp) a force for good, at least in certain settings?

  Optimistic             (+)
  Inspired               (+)
  Self-Confident         (+)
  Amused                 (+)
  Adventurous            (+)
  In the mood to spend   ( )
  Love                   (+)
  Sadness                (-)
  Boredom                ( )
  Interest               (+)
  Fear                   (-)
  Hate                   (-)
  Hope                   (+)
  Happiness              (+)
  Nostalgic              ( )
  Indulgent              ( )
  Competitive            (+)
  Informed               (+)

The predicted emotions are actually contained in the HTML source of each article. E.g. for an article I randomly grabbed off the front page:

  curl 'https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/14/sports/tiger-woods-wins-masters.html' | perl -n -e'/"emotions":"([^"]*)"/ && print $1'

> not_hope

This one is a little surprising. Does the NYT think this article dashes any hopes readers might have of winning the Masters?

It's not hopelessness, just not hope. As in, reading this article does not elicit feelings of Hope in the reader.

Isn't it a huge comeback story, Wood who has not won any major in 12 years?

I would assume most people do not place themselves in Tiger Woods' shoes

Yup. In fact, I venture a lot of stories like this border on eliciting emotions of despair or reduced self-worth for a subset of the readers, something along the lines of "so and so did x/y/z and they're n years (younger|older) than me, what have I done that's worth anything in my life?"

Is this potentially opening them up to data leakage? Could someone not crawl those pages, analyze the content and use the existing labels as the training set?

The fact that negations of emotions are also included somewhat negates the point of there being more positive emotions.

I guess it shows that it is all about marketing.

It has always been known that certain content would work better to sell ads than other. Travel, cooking, or home decoration, for example, are definitely better than political news.

And yet, the NYT has withstood the pressure to become the ground level equivalent of an in-flight magazine.

Can we maybe credit them for that, instead of just assuming that everybody agrees that they will succumb to economic pressure without feeling the need to even make the case for it?

The news industry has been aware of this forever; one of the fundamental problems with news being ad-supported is that advertisers don't want their ads next to bad news.

This predates the Internet; it's why glossy Sunday sections exist.

Some advertisers prefer the negative news. AM radio has lots of ads for guns and emergency supplies.

The important point is that the information that gets to the public should be in the public interest, not business interests.

Some glossy weekend sections are now entirely “sponsored content”, aka ads: https://twitter.com/canadaland/status/1116848132539678722

>* On its face, this is shocking to me. I would have never, ever expected positive content to be more profitable than negative content! In hindsight, however, after thinking about it a bit, it kind of makes sense. I'm now wondering, could advertising perhaps become (gasp) a force for good, at least in certain settings?*

News are good when they are neither positive nor negative by design.

They are good when they are relevant, useful, and informative (including them not being cherry-picked examples of stories with no impact to their readership, e.g. about some sensational murder case 10.000 miles away, and so on).

You're theoretical, respectively not related to the statement posted as it's subjective.

Feeling good is not the point of news. The point is being informed. I cant help but think of the saying, “ignorance is bliss.”

People tend to upvote a lot more than downvote. I believe it's because one's ego doesn't want to associate themselves with being negative, instead we always try to attach ourselves to more positive traits.

These metrics should only be used for categorizing purpose only. We need to be very careful in using it as a driver for more of the same articles, because in the long run this will only create a feedback loop that will keep feeding us the same content and narrowing our views, making us blind to more critical issues at hand.

More revenue per page view - but its likely that negative or controversial content will get shared more and drive more overall traffic/impressions. So not sure how much of an effect this would have on the overall sentiment of content produced.


Manipulating people's emotions to elicit a short term positive response is not necessarily "a force for good."

Journalism has historically prided itself on telling the truth. The truth is not always a feel-good experience.

All good news, all the time is potentially a dystopian scenario where the truth is forbidden because it isn't profitable enough.

i m willing to bet that 80% more revenue is due to the novelty factor. i believe the ad business is extremely more arbitrary than it is thought to be, and advertisers might be buying these slots because they are new and exciting, not because they are more effective.

This is just their feature space. It's just what they use to distinguish between articles. It says nothing about their incentives.

Also, competitive as positive? I'd see that much more as a neutral (or maybe negative).

Negativity is for clicks, positivity is for renewing subscriptions.

I would add that the NYT is a very niche case. Their target audience has been educated coastal liberals for some time. It may be that this is a result of their audience and not predictive of an underlying phenomenon.

You're correct about the targeting, but I disagree that NYT is a niche case. NYT is a major news organization. Its a very specific one so its truths may not generalize, but I don't know if that makes it niche.

It‘d be interesting to compare this to a variety of news sources to see how universal this is.

Would you get the same result from USA Today, WSJ, WaPo, and the LA Times?

NYT has lost its prominence after esp after picking sides on several hot topic issues. The bias is way too obvious nowadays, and I personally only glance through it to see how the elite want the people to think, and then I just do the opposite lol.

The favoritism towards certain groups and the dismissal of others raises a lot of eyebrows. I would say it is mainly relevant to NYC and to everyone else I would pass it in favor of a local news source. I would agree that it has become a fairly niche news source and it is quite amusing in my opinion how they are trying to hype up their ad units as they struggle with declining readership.

I can see the headlines now:

  "Thousands killed in [less-developed country] civil war; more food left for survivors!"

  "Average global temperatures up 4' C in past decade; boom in tourism in Hudson Bay and Siberia!"

  "BigCo lays off 70,000 workers; social services employees self-worth increases!"

It would seem that such ad placement, based only on content and not the reader, is exactly what privacy advocates have been clamoring for.

I know the mention of emotions creeps people out. But it’s probably the only salient connection a general interest publisher such as the Times can offer advertisers. Very few of their articles mention any product, product category, or really any factual nexus to anything somebody might want to sell.

This sets up a horrifying set of perverse incentives for journalists. This is not to say that the set of incentives facing journalism today isn't already pretty bad, but this forces entities like the NYT further onto a path of convergent evolution with the National Enquirer.

The journalists I know describe something they call a "firewall". Supposedly the business staff and the journalists simply do not communicate except for very formalized channels. At some places they are not permitted to walk in on each other's floors/buildings. From personal observations, it seems they usually adhere to the firewall.

I’ve worked closely with media, and this is something I’ve witnessed as well.

Where many people like to propose that journalists and editors are steered by the business and sales staff-my own experience couldn’t be further from the truth.

I can’t speak for less reputable outlets. The journalistic outlets I’ve worked with have been very dedicated to their own voice—and passionately so.

This works for obvious direct pressure, but there is still pressure in that they work for the same entity. A nytimes journalist wants the paper to do well and as long as that journalist knows how the paper makes money, there will be pressure mentally to support that.

In my experience, most writers are much more detached from the business than that.

They admire working for a publication because of its journalistic reputation, are sometimes unionized [not always], and often stand opposed to business imposing its own desires ranging from editorial changes to working conditions.

So I know it's only anecdotal, but my experience leads me to believe your presumptions are largely unfounded.

Many journalists have about as much attachment to their publications as a GM factory line worker has to GM stock prices. The pride is in the quality of output. They never expect to become rich off of that work. For journalists, the money comes in publishing best-selling books—not selling 5% more subscriptions one year, or 10x ad-impressions.

The same incentives have been there for a hundred years in print journalism, when ads where placed manually, and they didn’t succumb then. The long term loss of readers is worse than the short term ad gains.

This was covered in the article:

> Journalists and other news purists may also wonder whether the Times newsroom is now being tasked with producing lots of emotional stories.

> Neither is the case, Allison Murphy, senior vice president of advertising innovation, told me in an interview. The newsroom turned out plenty of emotionally charged stories, anyhow. So it has done nothing different.

Sounds like a great conflict of interest. Emotional manipulation will become a metric to optimize. Depending on what the content manipulates you into feeling, you may sell more ads. This leads to more manipulative content since it's what sells more ads.

As an alternative to current targeted advertising, this seems much worse. At least I can block ads and trackers. I can't block content that's been engineered to manipulate.

I agree.

From the article - """Journalists and other news purists may also wonder whether the Times newsroom is now being tasked with producing lots of emotional stories.

Neither is the case, Allison Murphy, senior vice president of advertising innovation, told me in an interview."""

If this isn't a lie already it will be in a few months.

The simplistic counterargument is that writers do this already but as we know... once we have numbers to target the optimizations will kick in.

This won't end well :P

doesnt bloomberg already reward articles that shake the markets? (at least thats a rumour)


"The offering also includes “neutrality targeting”: that is, isolating upsetting stories that could decrease receptivity to ad messages — placements to be avoided."

In a news environment driven by ad revenues, expect the news to avoid hard hitting stories that make you feel bad. Shame and anger are emotions that cause change -- they don't sell consumer products well. Chipper stories are the order of the day, never mind the complete capture of the information system by corporations, government elites, and the rich generally.

News environments have been driven by ad revenue for over a century. Serious newspapers address this by a Chinese wall between editorial and advertising departments [1].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_wall#Journalism

And everybody who has worked in/around journalism and advertising knows that this "chinese wall" was already quite BS in the 80s, and is very much so now (and getting worse), even in the most "serious" of newspapers...

You should maybe coordinate with the other popular conspiracy theory, namely that „the media“ is driving outrage because it sells so well.

Or the naive, starry eyed, theory (only upper middle class Americans could ever be sold) that there are no conspiracies.

In other words, that whenever big private interests have a chance to make more profit by collusion, alignment, and covert action, they never do...

Can you call it a conspiracy? Its more of a temptation combined with financial risks for not doing it

Your idea that they'll avoid articles that make you feel bad is incorrect.

> placements to be avoided

Doesn't mean they won't have advertising on them, just that it will be slightly cheaper. Everyone wants to advertise in the NYT but it costs too much. If I get my ad there, but slightly cheaper, I absolutely would.

>Doesn't mean they won't have advertising on them, just that it will be slightly cheaper.

That's an incentive to put out less of them, if I ever show one...

Especially if "everyone wants to advertise in the NYT", which means they have all the headroom to push more expensive-ads-yielding ones...

What started as a counter-argument to the grandparent, actually made their point for them...

> Shame and anger are emotions that cause change -- they don't sell consumer products well.

I don’t know, news has been ad driven for a long time and is notoriously negative.

I know I live a comfy life but the disconnect between life and news is staggering; consuming news seems to me to be horrible shit nearly 24/7, almost all of which is completely absent in my day-to-day life. And yet almost everyone I know — comfy people like myself — consumes tons of news.

Could be that advertising does better per-reader on positive stories, but doesn’t bring readers back as well as frightening news.

I wonder how much they’re hacking the “Popular” section in the app to increase ad revenue. I notice that absolutely 0 of their top stories are ever at the top popular article list - usually travel, opinion and health, which presumably has more high traffic ads.

They’re also messing with the scroller - it will stop scrolling on an ad to make sure it loads.

Here's a video from one of the data scientists who worked on the project explaining the science behind it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sVzZmNxmWko

Good! I can't wait till I have a browser plugin that will tell me what my mood will be after reading a news article. You could make it an add-on to RescueTime. One could limit depressing or enraging news articles to 10 minutes a week.

NYTimes is the main reason I've been on the search for some kind of feature for HN (addon? greasemonkey script? ANYTHING) to auto-hide articles based on domain or title matches. Does anyone have a solution?

> NYTimes is the main reason I've been on the search for some kind of feature for HN (addon? greasemonkey script? ANYTHING) to auto-hide articles based on domain or title matches. Does anyone have a solution?

You'll leave an orphaned article info table row with this approach but you can hide the article row itself with uBlock Origin procedural filters[1].

Add the following to 'My Filters':

news.ycombinator.com##table tr tr:has([href*="nytimes.com"])

[1] https://github.com/gorhill/uBlock/wiki/Procedural-cosmetic-f...

This is pretty nifty! I never considered uBlock's cosmetic filters (nor looked into how they might be implemented actually). TIL!

Ohh this brings me back to my Stackoverflow days. HN simplicity makes this relatively easy, here you go (greasemonkey): https://gist.github.com/m00g00/99084d0ca401ab411e518bfdee46a...

It's just a domain search, but should be easy to modify for title searches too (title is in a.storylink).

EDIT: Updated to filter on keywords in the title too...guess I'm bored: https://gist.github.com/m00g00/e539ec22bf588edca0e6dfe1a05eb...

Thank you! Javascript is not my bag, I'm glad it was simple!

Np. One of the many nice things of having a website not laden with overwrought design and javascript (ironically). I updated the script to deal with keywords in the title as well, in my parent comment.

It is difficult for me to see this as not being naive. Yes, the editorial staff of any newspaper would have opinions, and even worse, implicit biases. 1: that does not mean that the firewall between journalists and editorial is being broken casually; 2: you correct for bias by using diverse journalistic sources (and removing only the worse offenders like say Breitbart or Infowars), not by completely disregarding information from imperfect sources.

Likely just me, but nearly every title of a NYT article that shows up here elicits some kind of emotional response in me. I can't tell anymore if they're expertly crafted or that I've just become really sensitive to it. At this point I'm happy to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I'm just looking for tech news, man! I don't want to be prompted to get out the pitchfork every time I browse HN.

I think I disagree with the premise: there are many things that happen in the world that could easily make me angry, but instead of pitchforks I just try to act on only when I can change things (for which I need to be at least somewhat informed). There is this "prayer" that I like as an atheist: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference."

Appreciate this comment (not being facetious), but I do feel not wanting to be blasted with this stuff is something I can change!

Maybe it's not anger/pitchforks. I'm not exactly trying to live in a self-created bubble, but too often it feels like there are nefarious forces (and implicit biases) at work trying to force a reaction out of me to in-turn use that for market research. (Even more tinfoil-hatty, but sometimes I think this is how many "modern" memes work too). It's just not what I come to HN for.

In theory you could filter out articles based on the emotions the NYT thinks the article will elicit in you. Of course the advertising classification might turn out to be imperfect.

The commenter stated they wanted to skip seeing NYT, which seems like a personal preference. Why not skip breitbart and NYT? If you're trying to avoid exposure to a certain bias for personal reasons it seems reasonable that any news source could be avoided.

For example, it sounds like you might identify as center left. Some people on the left are so disillusioned with the establishment that they would rather avoid it entirely. For example one could replace NYT with Democracy Now and get an informed global perspective like the NYT without getting so much centrist exposure.

I concur with the sibling comment. I am not suggesting filtering based on political ideology. I am suggesting filtering based on journalistsic quality and honesty (e.g. WaPo on the left, and some parts of Fox on the right can be somewhat biased, but they are worthwhile) versus naked editorial decisions that do not care about facts (e.g. Infowars or some "antifa" outlets).

And yes, the OP can certainly be happy if they do not consume any news or if they consume only media taylored to their emotional pleasure[1]. However, it is in my interest for my fellow humans to be well informed, with a diversity of legitimate sources, so that when we make collective decisions we decided not-horribly.

1: Although specifically singling out NYT is very strange in that context, as they are by far a more moderate and truthful albeit imperfect source.

Your assumption is showing.

Truth be told I'd probably add democracy now to the list as well.

> Why not skip breitbart and NYT?

Are you implying NYT and Breitbart are equally biased around some mythical "center"?

Not to mention that if you disregarded all imperfect sources, you would have no news.

On one hand, I like this because it might skew "news" production toward positive news stories. On the other hand, I dislike it because the news should just be the news and the business of the news should not skew the content of the news. But, that's probably too much to ask these days.

Bet the Financial Times doesn't do this.

(See https://www.cjr.org/special_report/why-the-left-cant-stand-t... -- whatever your politics she makes a fair point)

Is this one of those instances where regulatory laws would help? Something like requiring publishers to place a notice saying, "This article typically invokes hope. The ads shown on this page utilize this tendency".

These premium ads look like the logical progression of content-based advertising. The only slimy thing is them pretending to be randomly placed.

Most respectable brands conform to AdChoices policies. If you click the little blue triangle on an ad it will usually tell you how an ad was targeted to you.

If there was any question that the NYT is not a newspaper, at least in the pre-internet sense of the word, this should put it to rest. The same kind of shenanigans are at play in every news outlet I can think off. How does one make sense of such a vast world when telling the truth is not profitable?

> telling the truth is not profitable?

Where'd you get that idea? Plenty of newspapers tell the truth and still make money. They do make a lot less than previously though.

Which ones?

Why is the advertisement industry so sleezy and disgusting? Aren’t there any sensible ways of putting your product or service out there without insane advertisement strategies that invade privacy, cross ethical boundaries and sometimes, literally illegal?

Advertisement is why we have privacy issues (the other being governments spying on their people) and giant corporations based on targeted advertisement business model. It’s sickening and people working in this profession should be ashamed of themselves. Not to mention all the psychological tricks that go into the “smell” of the store, deluding people into buying and then underdelivering, buy one get one free, sales!!! sales!!! sales!!!, 20% off if you sign up for a store credit card, etc. what happened to ethics and honesty in doing business?

There has to be a more sensible way? Word of mouth, magazines, banners, trade shows, demos, putting product on the shelf, etc aren’t good enough? I am not a sales man but boy I despise that whole industry.

Is this really more slimy than targeted ads? At least this is based on the content, not the person's information who is browsing it.

One of the dead comments in this thread calls for "criminalizing advertising". I am quite positive to this idea myself. Does advertising really do anything positive to the economy and the world? Doesn't the paradox of advertising already prove that it is at best unnecessary?

Recently however I read about the time in the middle ages when guilts had forbidden advertisement. They took this to such a degree, that if a merchant would cough while a potential customer was walking nearby, the other merchants would accuse him/her of trying to catch the attention of the passer-by.

Perhaps the reason we allow advertisement is just that we don't know how to get rid of it. However, then we should certainly try to regulate it as much as possible; make rules limiting it to the tolerable and perhaps undamaging.

Unfortunately, it may be that so many industries now depend on selling adverts, that limiting it in any meaningful degree would be very hard politically.

Banning advertisement is fundamentally impossible in a free society because advertising is speech. You can't stop people from persuading other people. You can't realistically ban paid advertisement either, that just pushes it underground because it's so valuable that people will find a way to pay for it anyway. What you're asking for is a society free of financially-motivated influence, and I don't think that has/can/will ever exist.

Even if you could get rid of advertising, that just cedes control of advertising to random natural factors like geography or chance. It's not clear to me how that's a better state of affairs.

The alternative wouldn't be chance. In the ideal world we would have unbiased reviews to guide us.

I very much agree with you however. We can't ban it. It just practically isn't possible. We should be able to regulate it though.

You work for a company that makes chatbots, virtual agents, a personalization engine, and analytics. How do you hold such an extreme opinion while contributing to it every single day? Advertising literally pays your salary.

Ads do help with discovery. But most of it is exploitation of psychological shortcomings and biases.

And as formal ads get phased out, we're starting to see native ads more and more on youtube. There are plenty that are disclosed but there are plenty which are not.

The unregulated ones are already illegal though.

All industry will be sleazy and disgusting if it pays to be that way. If giving kids cancer meant they could make an extra dollar, they’d do it. (And there are plenty of examples of other industries doing exactly that.)

The only way to put a stop to it is to make it unprofitable.

There was a story a few years ago about a girl scout who found that she could be incredibly successful by setting up shop outside marijuana stores.

From one angle, this girl is giving the customer what they want. It's a win-win.

From another angle, this girl is using psychological tricks to exploit her customers to convince them to buy eat high-fat high-sugar cookies.

If it were easy to come up with a clear boundary between ethical and unethical advertising that most people agreed with, I believe we would do it.

There has to be a more sensible way?

Like what? If you were to put forth a recommendation it actually seemed like it could work, that would be something people could go forward with. Short of that, you're asking companies to not take advantage of legal methods that their competitors surely will take advantage of.

But there are no privacy concerns in this case. The ad placement is completely contextual based on content, not based on viewer. They just trained a model to learn what sentiment an article would elicit and allows advertisers to target based on that. This seems like the best case for advertisements for anyone concerned with privacy and targeting.

Competition. Other companies do shady stuff (that works), so you "have to," too.

What's slimy and dishonest about having a store that smells nice? Do you object to cleanliness and a pleasant temperature too?

This is not particular to NYT but when your news sources are A/B testing and have information on your feelings, they will happily make up the news to reinforce your confirmation bias.

The Royal Society's motto "nulius in verba" is becoming more true by day.

> they will happily make up the news

How are you possibly making that claim? There is nothing to support that.

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