Innovation @NYTimes

Few industries have endured as much tumult and disruption as the purveyors of journalism. Within that space, big metro newspapers have likely suffered the greatest as readers and advertisers abandon their habitual inky relics for more digital, real-time pursuits.  Industry watcher Ken Doctor takes a sobering look at the “newsonomics” of the second half of 2013. As for newspapers, he writes:

“We thought that five of the 40 largest newspapers in the U.S. would be sold; now Tribune is just spinning them off. We thought there might be a half dozen bidders for The Boston Globe. Now there are apparently only three with bottom-of-the-range, sub-$100 million bidding. After low prices paid in Tampa, San Diego, and Philly, it’s clearer still that metro newspapers are distressed assets.”

Meredith Kopit Levien

In spite of the pain most big city dailies have endured, few that I know of have innovated more to try to stem the receding revenue tide than The New York Times. It was perhaps the first newspaper to establish a research and development department to look at new ways to keep its loyal readers (and the advertisers who covet them) engaged.

This week, The Times hired Meredith Kopit Levien as EVP, Advertising. I imagine she’ll bring to the new role some of the strategies she successfully deployed at Forbes Media whose intrepid media reporter Jeff Bercovici describes as follows:

“In that role, she has overseen selling BrandVoice, among the media industry’s first native advertising products, which allow marketers to interact with the Forbes audience using the same tools and publishing platform that Forbes’s journalists and contributors use.”

Over the years, I was involved in a number of The Times’s institutional announcements — from the 100th anniversary of the Ochs-Sulzberger family ownership to the colorization of the print product (and the opening of its College Point printing plant) to the debut of its local web guide New York Today to the launch of the ill-fated TimesSelect, the paper’s first attempt at a digital paywall to monetize access through paid subscriptions. Unfortunately TimesSelect was a couple of years ahead of its time. Today, a re-vamped subscription model has served as a life-sustaining preserver in still treacherous waters.

Michael Zimbalist

Under the leadership of Michael Zimbalist, a friend and my former client at the Online Publishers Association, The Times’s R&D Labs continues to innovate. Former New York Times Digital chief Martin Nisenholtz also deserves considerable credit for giving The Times its digital edge. This week TechCrunch’s Anthony Ha  posted a piece on the launch of a news app for Leap Motion that “will allow users to interact [with Times content] on their computers through gestures — in fact, it will be the only branded news app for the platform’s launch.”

Here’s a quick video demo:

Last year, I hosted a Social Media Week/Publicity Club of New York co-sponsored panel featuring social media editors from a handful of esteemed news orgs.  As a warm-up to the session, Jake Porway, then a data scientist in The Times’s R&D Group and now founder of DataKind, offered a peek at Cascade, an app that visualizes how a story evolved in the socialsphere.

Here’s a video of the session, which opens with some remarks from me followed by Jake’s demo:


KeyMe’s Lost Key Kiosk

And last week, I was able to nab a seat at the July New York Tech Meetup where I caught the founders of a cool “maker” start-up called KeyMe who built a kiosk that allows any key-retention challenged person to have a new key made instantly from the stored data on the kiosk. The kiosks are now installed in a handful of 7-11’s in Manhattan.

What does this have to do with The New York Times? Not much.

However, on that same stage a bit later, Evan Sandhaus and Jim Boehmer from the Times’s R&D Labs walked the audience of 800+ through something with which they’ve been tooling in their spare time: a much-needed successor to the five-year-old TimesMachine product that gave clunky access to archives of the 160+-year-old newspaper. TimesMachine was The Times’s first foray into cloud-computing, but a lot has changed since then with browser sophistication and the decreased cost of data storage.

Jim and Evan explained the challenge of providing access to the “tens of thousands of articles” published daily since 1851.  Only those since 1981 are available in full-text.  Before then, all The Times has is micro-film and some meta-data around that micro-film. The two demo’d the newest iteration of the TimesMachine experience, which is being released in beta “for a few issues” to elicit feedback.  Here’s a video clip of the demo:

Separately, but not unrelated, The Times was at the forefront of encouraging its edit staff to engage their social graphs on behalf of the news organization. The social currency generated by the likes of David Pogue (1.48M followers on Twitter), Nick Kristof (1.42M), Paul Krugman (1.04), Nate Silver (495K), Andrew Ross Sorkin (443K), let alone David Carr, Brian Stelter and others will, IMHO, continue to ensure that The New York Times will remain at the epicenter of all the news that’s fit to print, post or share.