Renegades at the NY Times

If you’re a blogger, you know that feeling. You read something and you just can’t wait to blog about it. You’re jumping out of your skin before you can get the source article forwarded around to all your friends and colleagues. Well, today was one of those days.  I saw  this fantastic piece on “The New Journalism: Goosing the Grey Lady” by Emily Nussbaum about the future of journalism via programming and interaction with data.    Those who read this blog or sit in my classes know that this is an area of deep interest to me, definitely an area of journalism that needs to be addressed and one in which I want to develop expertise in our program at TX State. And, one of the main subjects in the article, Aron Pilhofer head of the Interactive Newsroom Technologies group (described in the article as a “skeptical career print journalist with ‘nerd tendencies,’ one of the worried men who helped spearhead this mini-renaissance”), is coming to visit with us in San Marcos in February.  This is an amazing piece about the people behind these changes. Inspiration is a good place to start in understanding anything.

So, here are some of my observations from the article. First, great photo. If those guys are geeks, they made them look awfully cool.  B&W always helps.

A couple of passages really seem to describe quite nicely what the Times is doing, in terms of features, making it easy to understand for the uninitiated. “Each day, peculiar wings and gills poke up on the Times’ website—video, audio, “drillable” graphics.”

“It was a radical reinvention of the Times voice, shattering the omniscient God-tones in which the paper had always grounded its coverage; the new features tugged the reader closer through comments and interactivity, rendering the relationship between reporter and audience more intimate, immediate, exposed.”

One of the first new features the article talks about is the Word Train in which users are asked to submit adjectives on a topic. The program aggregates them in a visualization. “It was a kind of poll. It was a kind of art piece. It was a kind of journalism, but what kind?”

“Elements like the Word Train appear at first glance quite un-Timesian, but at second, they provide a philosophical jolt—what is the Word Train, after all, but a variation on the classic “streeter,” that roundup of quotes from twenty voters, this time done with many anonymous thousands?”

Casualities of War was the first interactive. “Grim and elegant, it aimed to ‘show one person, but give the feeling that they’re one of many,'” this was a quote from young multimedia produce Gabriel Dance. This is important, because it shows you don’t have to lose the personal in an aggregation of data.

“Dance was uninterested, even when he graduated from college, in 2004, in the whole ‘work in Podunk for a small paper and earn some chops’ model.” I hear this a lot from students, that it doesn’t interest them to work for a small paper. I have been telling then for years that it’s not the only option. Technology helps provide new opportunities.

Props to technologies that came before and influenced the Times features: “The Word Train echoes Twitter’s pithy revelations and also the magnificent tag-cloud art piece We Feel Fine. For over a decade, web entrepreneurs have thrown far cheaper spaghetti against the wall, beginning with Drudge. There’s the Smoking Gun, Wikipedia, and especially Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo—which provides its own daring vision of what online journalism might be.” I hear people say all the time that journalism should take cues from other industries. Each year at SXSWi, I see examples of technologies that are important to the future of communication. More communicators should recognize these opportunities.

“The Times Online suggests what might happen when technology fuels in-depth reportage—and more radically, when readers are encouraged to invest their own analytical skills in the site’s raw resources, when some kid in Kansas finds fresh patterns in an open electoral database, then posts on his blog with a link back to the Times, enabling an expansive, self-correcting interpretative voice.” – this really highlights the power and potential. It is about engaging, not lecturing. It is about making readers part of the process. Believe it or not, they want to be. And some will spend quite a lot of time doing something with no expectation of monetary compensation. Call it social capital.

These guys are Timesmen. They have a different skill set, but they share objectives, standards. And behind that came lots of changing metrics on what constitutes success around here.”  I agree wholeheartedly with this statement. These people are journalists, that just happen to have programming skills. That’s different than a computer science major that is trained in enterprise computing and doesn’t get the nature of storytelling. But, one glance at that cool picture attached to the article, and you can see that this is a man’s game right now. I hope to have some influence on that, by training young women to operate in the programmer/journalist environment.  I think it is also important to point out that the people in this article came from journalism backgrounds and/or educations, not computer science.

The article goes on to talk about the Times Research and Development team, not something you see at most newspapers.  They experiment with cutting edge technologies.  Nick Bilton  of that department had some interesting observations.:

He “admits to a distinct generational divide at the paper, describing a trip he took out to Seattle with Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and other older Times bosses, on a private plane. ‘Four of them were reading the paper, folding it this crazy way, the way people fold it on a subway platform—to show just one column at a time,’ marvels Bilton. ‘They’d been doing it for 40 years.’ I ask him how he reads the paper. ‘Me, I don’t read the paper anymore. I read the website. I read the mobile site. When I read the print paper, I get frustrated—I find I have to sit by the computer and Google things.'”  I have to admit, I have never been a fan of the paper form factor, big and wieldy with the newsprint coming off on your hands. And, then all those papers piling up at my house. I used to confess this to students like I was confessing to an immoral crime. I would never say something like that in the company of colleagues (until now).  There had to be a better way to distribute news. I just didn’t have the vision to articulate what that might be. I definitely relate to Bilton in that when I read or watch TV, I am constantly in need of Google or Wikipedia or IMDB to support the activity.

“Print is just a device. The New York Times is not just a newspaper, it’s a news organization.”- ummm, yes.

“For those who believe these changes are gimmicks, he (Bilton)  has no patience: “This isn’t a storm! This isn’t something that’s going to pass! It’s the ice age. People aren’t going to suddenly open their eyes and we’re back in print.” – ummm, also yes.  I think I said at our faculty retreat, that this isn’t a nice extra, a side item, or a line on your syllabus.  It’s what we do – social and online media. Sometimes it’s hard to get people to believe something until they hear the NY Times is doing it, though ;-).

The article goes on to summarize a vision for the future:

“It’s a beautiful dream, enough to make one hope that these experiments will kick-start—unlike so many online renaissances—a sustainable new model, giving journalism itself an opportunity to spark back to life. What is a front page, after all, other than an aggregator? Why does an article read the way it does—lede, nut graf, quotes? If that pyramid structure was designed for the physical facts of print production, what new structures will match the new technologies?” – definitely worth questioning the value of processes that were made for a different medium.

“There are skills the Times geeks admire that could enlarge the capacities of journalists: a respect for databases, a sweeping fascination with the quantitative. Also, a willingness to risk exposure, as well as a curiosity about visual tools that do not always come naturally to people who identify as writers.” -now we just have to get everyone else to value these skills, realize their importance in a curriculum, as well as a newsroom.

“This is the role the Times can play: exciting online readers about the value of reportage, engaging them deeply in the Times’ specific brand of journalism—perhaps even so much that they might want to pay for it.” – well that’s the bottom line. There always is one. And this one might be journalism’s only hope. But, I think that it is important to point out here that there are probably alternate revenue models as well, that combine subscription, pay as you go, advertising, maybe merchandising, and other ways to incorporate both free and pay. That’s a problem we can likely engage technology’s help in solving.

There’s more with Aron Pilhofer on Eric Ulken’s blog at Making Sense of Data at the New York Times.
My plan is to visit with Aron and his staff over the summer to better understand what they are doing, how other organizations can adapt, and how we need to engage these techniques in journalism curricula.


  1. Maira Garcia said

    Aron Pilhofer will be a real treat. I would like to see what he thinks about the death date the Atlantic set for them!

  2. This article speaks exactly to the point of what direction I believe Texas State can take the next generation of journalists. I had been predicting the events of today’s state of mass communications since 1994. I was prophetic, but not visionary enough to do anything about my predictions. I finally feel like I am in the game again since I have come to Texas State and have been re-educated by the brilliant faculty at this innovative institution.

    I not only look forward to Aron this spring, but I really look forward to see the work all the future “Arons” that will be Texas State Alums.

  3. […] Mann under Computing for Sustainability   Recent discussion (Eric Ulken,Emily Nussbaum, Cindy Royal) on the people behind the New York Times website puts a new light on the role of the sustainable […]

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