Customizing and Localizing
a National Issue

The New York Times’ The Upshot latest interactive feature, The Best and Worst Places to Grow Up: How Your Area Compares, redefines personalized news as it renders a unique graphic and writes itself based on where I’m reading the story from.

It took me by surprise. At first, I thought the article was addressing an issue unique to the county I live in. It wasn’t until I got into it that I starting assuming that the article somehow knew I was reading it from Multnomah County as I live in Portland, Ore. Of course, this was a dead giveaway:

Consider Multnomah County, Ore., our best guess for where you might be reading this article. (Feel free to change to another place by selecting a new county on the map or using the search boxes throughout this page.)

And when I called the interactive up again from work, it automatically rendered the article for Lane County, which is where Eugene is. (Although, I work at UO in Portland. I assume that the network system here at the White Stag Building must be pinging off a Eugene-based IP address.)

The first couple of paragraphs of the interactive changed from (Multnomah County):

Location matters — enormously. If you’re poor and live in the Portland area, it’s better to be in Columbia County than in Clark County or Multnomah County. Not only that, the younger you are when you move to Columbia, the better you will do on average.
Every year a poor child spends in Columbia County adds about $120 to his or her annual household income at age 26, compared with a childhood spent in the average American county. Over the course of a full childhood, which is up to age 20 for the purposes of this analysis, the difference adds up to about $2,400, or 9 percent, more in average income as a young adult.

To this (Lane County, bolding the differences):

Location matters — enormously. If you’re poor and live in the Eugene area, it’s better to be in Marion County than in Benton County or Lane County. Not only that, the younger you are when you move to Marion, the better you will do on average. Children who move at earlier ages are less likely to become single parents, more likely to go to college and more likely to earn more.
Every year a poor child spends in Marion County adds about $60 to his or her annual household income at age 26, compared with a childhood spent in the average American county. Over the course of a full childhood, which is up to age 20 for the purposes of this analysis, the difference adds up to about $1,100, or 4 percent, more in average income as a young adult.

The complexity in seamlessly rendering a customized article based on geographic information is fascinating. Obviously not insurmountable but takes enormous amount of planning, smart analysis and structured data. This is a feat that the graphics desk at NYTimes pushes the envelope on consistently.

I’m intrigued by the possibilities of getting people to care about a national issue by localizing the story. Of course, one can argue that’s what journalism does everyday. But not like this. I clicked on a headline from NYT’s homepage and it presented an interactive article seemingly written for ME. And this isn’t the same as getting a set of stories personalized for me. That’s already happening on various platforms. But personalizing an article will go a long way in making people care about a national story…. especially when it’s in my backyard.

Bravo to The NYTimes & The Upshot Team.


Andrew DeVigal is an endowed chair in journalism innovation and civic engagement at UO-SOJC’s Agora Journalism Center, the gathering place for innovation in communication and civic engagement. He is also co-founder of A Fourth Act, maker of Harvis.

University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication’s Agora Journalism Center is devoted to transformative advancements for better journalism and stronger democracy.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.