A visit to the R&D department of the New York Times

[ I originally published this post on the Headshift blog in 2009. ]

Recently I was fortunate enough to visit the Research and Development department of the New York Times thanks to the kind invitation of the people of Agency.com that I am working with here in NY.

For many people the Gray Lady stands for excellent journalism, as well as innovation when it comes to exploring the opportunities of the Digital World. The paper has won 98 Pulitzer Prizes, which is more than any other newspaper. Some of you may be familiar with projects like One in 8 Million or TimesPeople, or initiatives to open up NYT’s front page to outside content and the release of the Article Search API.

So it goes without saying that I was very excited and went to the meeting with high expectations. I wasn’t to be disappointed.

The first stop was at the gadget section. A group of the R&D department plays around with all shiny toys that recently came out or are still in development. Obviously, they had the Kindle, Sony’s e-reader, various netbooks, touchscreens and others. But they are also exploring the use of virtual laser keyboards, pocket sized projectors, iPod Video Glasses.

What have all these gadgets to do with a newspaper? Well, they do not have anything to do with the physical medium itself but with content. The people at the NYT know that the days of the print medium are counted and are looking for ways of distributing their content across any device and exploring new ad revenue streams. This became especially apparent at the next two stops – the interactive newspaper rack and the R&D Living Room.

The interactive newspaper rack is equipped with a monitor displaying the latest headlines, a touchscreen where you can choose sections you are interested in and which are then conveniently printed for you to go (on A4 format). The printed edition also includes QR codes to link people to sources online. Well, nothing really exciting you may think. However, include a card scanner and GPS functionality and all of the sudden you have a host of interesting options. The newspaper rack knows who you are and can simply print your favorite sections that you usually read on your way to work. At the same time those sections are forwarded to your mobile in case you want to access any multimedia content. Since the system knows where you are, you will also receive local news and for example advertisement from local stores. If you choose to go through the news on your mobile you can flag specific content that you would like to be read to you while you drive or for later consumption in the evening (for example video). This brings us nicely to the NYT Living Room.

After a long day you arrive home and sit in front of your home-entertainment system. The news items that you flagged on your mobile in the morning are already waiting for you. One of them includes a documentary about China. While you watch it, you can access additional information about things being said on the fly. In this case an airline or hotel chain could also give you information about their latest offers for China. Since you liked the documentary so much, you simply forward it to one of your friends – all without ever getting up from the sofa!

On your screen you also read about a new recipe by Mark Bittman, which another friend sent you earlier. It looks delicious and you want to try it out on the weekend. So, with one click you send the recipe to your mobile, which automatically creates a list of ingredients and gives you the latest offers from shops in your neighborhood. Maybe one day the system will first check your kitchen and fridge to see what ingredients you already have at home. But that’s still science fiction…

While people are still arguing about the future of newspapers, the New York Times is re-inventing itself. It is indisputable that making content accessible to anyone, anytime, anywhere through any device will be paramount. However, if this will really mean the survival of the brand New York Times or if it will eventually be merged into a larger media conglomerate is yet to be seen. What I do know is that they soon need to change their motto: All the News That’s Fit to Print.

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