If you could sit down with a New York Times journalist or an expert source and ask them a question, what would it be?
This is the premise of a new online service, called Ask, launched last week by The New York Times. Ask is a question-and-answer platform on our website that invites Times readers to submit questions about a variety of topics. In return, they get practical responses from outside experts and our journalists.
Our Smarter Living section is soliciting and answering the first set of reader questions, in conjunction with four outside experts. Last week Jessamyn Stanley answered questions about yoga. This week, Robin Arzón answers questions about running, followed by Stacey Griffith on indoor cycling and Joe Holder on training.
The Times hopes to expand Ask, by getting journalists from other sections of our report and experts in other fields to participate.
To learn more about the service, I recently interviewed Karen Barrow, a senior staff editor for Smarter Living; Karron Skog, Smarter Living’s editorial director; and Sarah Graham, a Smarter Living senior digital strategist. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
What is Ask?
KAREN BARROW I think we realized that as readers go through their lives, over the course of a day, so many questions will come up, like “What’s the best way to make coffee?” or “Why was my run hard today?” Your whole life is a series of questions. Some of them stay in the back of your mind and you never Google them, but some stay at the front of your mind. The New York Times is such a trusted resource and we have so many reporters in the building and access to experts, so we decided to make a place where readers can come and get a definitive answer to the questions that they have.
How does it work?
SARAH GRAHAM Readers log in and ask their questions. Once we have a batch of them, we choose which ones we think will have a broad audience and which ones we want to answer. (It’s often impossible to answer every one.) Then we publish them so everyone can see the answers.
KARRON SKOG If we choose your question, we send you a response directly. All of the answered questions will populate a database that anybody can look at.
BARROW We made it so that the answers are very scannable. There’s a definitive answer at the top, which we call the takeaway, and it’s a sentence or two. So if you just want to read one sentence to get your answer you can. Or if you then want to understand why, there’s a section that goes into the science or rationale behind the answer.
How do you communicate with the experts who are helping answer subscribers’ questions?
SKOG When we were working with Jessamyn last week, we were basically on the phone with her every day for an hour. We asked her questions, she answered and we boiled down her responses.
How is this different from earlier services like Ask Well?
GRAHAM Ask Well allows readers to submit questions without specific prompts: Readers ask any questions they have, at any time. Then online and in the weekly column, our reporters answer some of them. This experiment said, “For these four days, we’re partnering with a fitness pro with a specific expertise to answer a whole bunch of questions within the week.”
What kind of questions have you been receiving?
GRAHAM For Jessamyn, questions like, “You are not your typical yogi. How did you get started?” and “What advice would you give a new teacher?” She was great at telling people how she did it and why you should just get over yourself and start.
SKOG And we certainly have gotten questions about knee pain and yoga. Knee pain, back pain, neck pain.
Have you been getting a lot of questions?
GRAHAM Yes. And some are so specific you think, You have to go to your doctor to fix that one. But it has exceeded our expectations.
What was the process you used to pick these four fitness topics?
SKOG We originally were going to do cycling and then we thought about bringing Stacey Griffith, the pre-eminent SoulCycle instructor, on as an expert and we were like, let’s do indoor cycling, because we get questions all the time about what kind of spin classes people should go to — what’s good for them, what’s not good for them — and so we changed it. We were originally going to do swimming and then we decided to do personal training because so many people go to boot camps or gyms where they have personal trainers. What could we learn from a personal trainer about what kinds of things you should do to increase your strength training? I’m anticipating that one’s going to be really popular.
What’s next after fitness?
SKOG We’re going to keep adding different topics, not necessarily health-related ones. We could do anything.
GRAHAM It has not yet been decided, but we could do this about so many other things. There is a survey for readers embedded in each Ask post in which we’re asking, “What other topics might you want to see?” I think that will help guide us.
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