Reading the Times this morning, I got to the middle of a story about the cost of medical care when I was stopped by this passage:
Consider Boston, our best guess for where you might be reading this article. It’s very expensive for spending on the average Medicare patient. But, when it comes to private health insurance, it’s about average.
Their best guess about my whereabouts was pretty good. I am indeed in the Boston area. I’m not surprised that they know that, but I was nonplussed to discover that they had altered the story according to my location. Here’s the markup for that paragraph:
<div class="g-insert"> <p class="g-body"> Consider <span class="g-custom-place g-selected-hrr-name"> Boston</span> <span class="g-geotarget-success">, our best guess for where you might be reading this article</span>. <span class="g-new-york-city-addition g-custom-insert g-hidden"> (Here, the New York City region includes all boroughs but the Bronx, which is listed separately.)</span> It’s <span class="g-medicare-adjective g-custom-place"> very expensive</span> for spending on the average Medicare patient. <span class="g-local-insert g-very-different"> But, w</span><span class="g-close g-same g-hidden g-local-insert"> W</span>hen it comes to private health insurance, it’s <span class="g-hidden g-same g-local-insert">also</span> <span class="g-private-adjective g-custom-place"> about average</span>. <span class="g-close g-hidden g-local-insert"> The study finds that the levels of spending for the two programs are unrelated. That means that, for about half of communities, spending is somewhat similar, like it is in <span class="g-custom-place g-selected-hrr-name g-hrr-only-no-state"> Boston</span> </span> <span class="g-same g-hidden g-local-insert g-same-sentence"> <span class="g-custom-place g-hrr-only-no-state">Boston</span> is one of the few places where spending for both programs is very similar – in most, there is some degree of mismatch. </span> <span class="g-new-york-addition g-local-insert g-hidden"> Several parts of the New York metropolitan area are outliers in the data – among the most expensive for both health insurance systems.</span> <!-- <span class="g-atlanta-addition g-local-insert g-hidden"> (Atlanta is one of the few places in the country where spending for both programs is very similar. In most, there is some degree of mismatch.)</p> --> </p> </div>
It seems I live in a
g-custom-place (“Boston”), which is associated with a
g-medicare-adjective (“very expensive”) and a
g-private-adjective (“about average”). Because the Times has been able to track me down, I get a
g-geotarget-success message. But for the same reason I don’t get to see certain other text, such as a remark about New York as an outlier; those text spans are
Presumably, a program running on the server has located me by checking my IP number against a geographic database, then added various class names to the span tags. Some of the class names are processed by a CSS stylesheet; for example,
g-hidden triggers the style directive
I suppose there’s no great harm in this bit of localizing embellishment. After all, they’re not tailoring the article based on whether I’m black or white, male or female, Democrat or Republican, rich or poor. It’s just a geographic split. But it makes me queasy all the same. When I cite an article here on bit-player, I want to think that everyone who follows the link will see the same article. It looks like I can’t count on that.
Update: Turns out this is not the Times’s first adventure in geotargeting. A story last May on “paths out of poverty” used the same technique, as reported by Nieman Lab. (Thanks to Andrew Silver (@asilver360) for the tip via Twitter.)
Update 2015-12-17: Margaret Sullivan, the Public Editor of the Times, writes today on the mixed response to the geotargeted story, concluding:
The Times could have quite easily provided readers with an opt-in: “Want to see results for your area? Click here.”
As the paper continues down this path, it’s important to do so with awareness and caution. For one thing, some readers won’t like any personalization and will regard it as intrusive. For another, personalization could deprive readers of a shared, and expertly curated, news experience, which is what many come to The Times for. Losing that would be a big mistake.