Alumni Portrait: Zainab Khan

March 2, 2021

Few people truly understand the way algorithms on the internet work. How they recommend content and draw people in; or how to use them to maximize audience engagement and grow a following.

But for Zainab Khan, they’re her expertise.

A self-described “student of the internet,” Khan spent years in front of a glowing screen for 10 hours a day reading through forums, bouncing from site to site trying to understand why outlets like Buzzfeed were so popular or why certain YouTube uploads got more views.

And then it started to click.

Patterns started to emerge and her understanding of internet behavior and what drives people to certain content heightened.

Khan is the audience strategy editor for video at the New York Times where she focuses on how to grow the audience of the news outlet. Her approach is multifaceted.

“It’s everything from the right cover image, to how do you write the right headline so that it shows up on Google and what platform has the right audience,” Khan said. “At the Times, I have to understand both what my team wants to produce and what my audience wants to watch [and read] and how to bridge those two.”

She became so good at what she does that she’s been featured in the storied Nieman Labs annual predictions issue and is a frequent guest speaker at universities and conferences.

Khan, a 2016 Berkeley Journalism alum, honed her skills during her years at the School where she focused on multimedia. Although she studied journalism and Middle East studies, Khan’s fascination in growing audiences is what she latched onto — something that was incubated during her first semester in the Richmond Confidential J200 course.

“I was thinking about what times of the day we should publish and what colors we should use and how do we get people who live in Richmond to read the site,” Khan said.

Richmond Confidential would be her first time ever reporting and while she found the experience rewarding and fruitful, her interests swayed in a different direction.

Ever since her time in undergrad studying history and Middle Eastern studies at Wesleyan University, the entreprenuerial Khan dreamed of making a website geared towards Muslim youth. And so she decided to make one during her free time at Berkeley. The site was called Mozzified, and within its first year, and with no outside funding, Mozzified had over 400,000 unique views.

“The cool thing about Mozzified was that everything I was learning in class, the next day I could try it out in the real world on my own,” Khan said. She spent hours in between classes and even on the weekends working on Mozzified, often with the help of other students.

“Every once in a while we would emerge from our mini-dungeons to go for a walk,” she said with a laugh. “I remember some of those moments very fondly.”

One of the professors whose help was vital during her time at Berkeley, she says, was Jeremy Rue. “J Rue,” as the students call him, helped convince Khan to stay with the program when she was considering dropping out. Rue’s patience and personal teaching style, she said, played a key role in her decision to stay.

“He is always available for his students and is very understanding,” Khan said. “To take a room of journalists who are not necessarily happy to be learning numbers or any sort of science and teach them how to code, that is an amazing feat.”

Rue remembers Khan’s remarkable interest in innovation and her interests in all things digital. He said that her time at the School has had a lasting impact not only on him, but the school itself.

“We owe to her our increasingly intense adoption of topics like audience engagement, entrepreneurialism, and social media strategizing at the school,” Rue said. “She came to us with a keen awareness of what audiences craved, and she nourished a desire to meld traditional journalism values with the revolution happening on social media platforms.”

That insight into the inner workings of the internet landed Khan a job as social content editor and digital strategist with AJ+— a branch of al Jazeera that focuses on human rights and “amplifying the voices of marginalized communities”—after graduating. Khan spent a year and a half there, focusing on the growth of their YouTube presence.

She was then recruited by the New York Times where she’s spent the last three years. During that time, Khan’s audience engagement skills flourished as she and her colleagues have more than tripled the number of subscribers for the Times’s YouTube channel to 3.35 million. Instinctively reflective and erudite, Khan is confident about her career choices.

“I could have been a producer, I could have been a video editor and maybe I would have been mediocre,” she said. “And then I realized there are a lot of really good story tellers on this planet and there are fewer people who know how to take stories and find them an audience.”

The changes she helped implement at the country’s newspaper of record hinged on getting others to better understand the platforms they were publishing on, how algorithms boost posts and content branding. She had to reconfigure the ways in which news content is presented on a platform like YouTube, “where people are really skeptical of mainstream media.”

Her long-term vision has helped grow the Times’s Visual Investigations team — an area Khan believes is ripe for growth across all newsrooms given its ability to pull open-source content from social media and string it together in a visually compelling narrative.

“I think the industry has just seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what open-source reporting can do,” Khan said.

Aside from helping to grow the Times’s audience, Khan is giving back to the School in her free time. In addition to being on the Advisory Board, she’s helping with the crowdfunding campaign for The Janice Clementine Douglas Student Emergency Fund — named after the late wife of Art Douglas, a beloved custodian at the School who many students and faculty grew close to over the years.

“He was one of the most honest and sincere people I’ve ever met in my life,” Khan said of Douglas. “When the School reached out and said he wanted to do this in memory of his late wife, I said, ‘Of course, sign me up!’”

To date, the fund has raised $44,000 with a goal of raising $100,000 by June 30.

Khan is also excited about the future of the School; from new courses being offered and the potential of the new leadership. She is particularly excited to see David Barstow running the Investigative Reporting Program and Geeta Anand as the new dean and the directions each is taking the curriculum.

Her advice for those going through the program now is to stay vigilant and optimistic about the future of the news industry. She says the future of the news depends not only on reaching communities that were once overlooked, but also on building newsrooms reflective of those communities.

“Whether the public at large will begin to trust the news media again,” Khan says, “will be dependent on if our institutions are able to build newsrooms that reflect the communities they cover.”

By Freddy Brewster (’22)

 

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