Friday, January 23, 2009, the New York Times Test, and Flight 1549

Since I launched in 1996, one of the ways that I generated traffic was to get the attention of mainstream media. Most of the time, success is measured by a link to the site within an online story from a local newspaper or television station. If you visit's media page at and the Conversation at podcast at, you'll find several of these kinds of articles and interviews.

You may think that an interview on the worldwide radio network of the BBC or a couple of minutes of conversation with Wolf Blitzer on CNN would lead to an avalanche of site visitors. I used to think that way too, until I reviewed the traffic statistics in the days after those events. There are however a few media entities that have consistently a huge effect on's traffic, and the two that have consistently produced a combination of both high traffic and attention from other media entities are the New York Times and the USA Today.

Based on the role these two publications play, its not much of a surprise. The New York Times is very influential because it often influences what news stories or policy issues are covered by major print, broadcast, and online media organizations both inside and outside the United States. When it comes to commercial aviation, the USA Today is at least as influential as the New York Times. The paper is the one you would most likely see in the hands of an airline passenger (at least in the US), it has an extensive online presence, and the organization has consistently produced comprehensive coverage of major aviation events, especially those that happen in the US.

That influence extends beyond the news world. In 1991, the New York Times published a news article about the result of a research I coauthored with my adviser while a graduate student at MIT. Some time after that, I was watching Saturday Night Live (this was before it got rebranded as SNL) and had the eerie experience of watching my work lampooned on live national television. I don't know if the writing staff decided to try to generate a few laughs after reading the article, but I have to believe that if the story didn't run in the Times, the research would not have been joked about on the show.

Based on that experience, I came up with something I call the "New York Times Test." The test is a simple one, you only have to answer one question--if something that you do ends up being featured in a front page story on the New York Times, could you deal with it? Could you deal with the kind of scrutiny that happens when your family, friends, colleagues, coworkers, and millions of total strangers suddenly take a keen interest in your work? Would you be able to stand the criticism, whether it was deserved or not, whether it was honest and fair or mean spirited and destructive? For me, it happened twice, and I'm happy to say that I passed the test both times.

Last week, I took a variation on the New York Times Test when the USA Today featured part of my site in a page two story the day after the ditching related accident involving US Airways Flight 1549 (the night before, I'd had a hurried cell phone conversation with the reporter who interviewed me while I was negotiating rush hour traffic). The story, which mentioned that the crash was only the fourth time that a jet airliner had ditched, came out on Friday, but I didn't realize it was printed until Sunday. I may have seen the story earlier, since I bought the paper that day, but I was way too busy dealing with the aftermath of the accident.

What tipped me off was multiple emails with the following kind of message--"Hey Todd, you missed one, what about the time airline XYZ had a plane crash in the water." To make a long story short, I didn't miss any and I didn't have to change any of the accident data on the site. had always had a specific set of criteria for calling an event a ditching. However, prior to all the attention generated in part by USA Today, I had never felt the need to explicitly state on the site what definition I was using. After last week, I saw the need, and you can see my definition at

It wasn't a classic "New York Times Test" because it was neither a New York Times story or even a front page story. However, it certainly generated the kind of attention for the site that a front page story in the Times would generate. If you want to see what was written, check out the article, which was reprinted as a sidebar story on one of the USA Today's online pages about the accident.

After last week's experience, I've decided that the "New York Times Test" is still a valid test, but it doesn't have to involve a front page story on the New York Times. On today's Internet, you don't even need a media organization to make the test happen. It could be a YouTube video, a blog post, or some combination of online information services that may take your work from obscurity to prime time in a matter of hours. This test has many of the elements of a common nightmare of college freshmen--you can't study for the test, you can't predict if or when it will happen, and you may not even know that you're taking the test until after it has started. My only advice is that if you find yourself in the middle of the test, be prepared for an experience.

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