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The New Journalism: Goosing the Gray Lady

THE WORD TRAIN (left) This interactive mood database appeared on the home page of the New York Times on Election Day.
CASUALTIES OF WAR: FACES OF THE DEAD (right) Merging photography, databases, audio, and graphics, this project marked the date U.S. military fatalities in Iraq reached 3,000.

It was a particularly gratifying moment for Dance, who had joined the New York Times at 24, convinced—with the radical innocence of the cocky Kerouac fan he was—that he was entering a golden age of journalism, not overseeing its death throes. 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. Certain facts about journalism online struck him as obvious and inevitable: the legitimacy of the first-person, the immediate, and the anonymous, as well as the notion that sources should be shared and transparent.

But when Dance was hired by the Times, in 2006, shortly after completing an experimental-journalism program at the University of North Carolina, that glimmering Utopia seemed far away. Dance had no boss, no real department. His cubicle was located eight blocks away from the main Times Building. “I took the job because they had agreed to embrace integration,” Dance recalls. “But at first it was difficult, very difficult—we’d make sure we were in on a meeting, but if we didn’t go up, that meeting was going on regardless. Nobody was coming over to the dot-com.”

In the aftermath of the pinch-me meeting, the group began launching a series of audacious new features. The year before, they had developed Casualties of War, the website’s first “database-driven, outward-facing application,” which had debuted on December 31, 2006, the date U.S. military fatalities in Iraq reached 3,000. The project combined graphics, databases, and audio—but putting it together was “total torture,” Pilhofer tells me with a laugh, recalling weeks of scratch-coding. “It feels like dog years since then.”

Casualties of War featured three tabs. On the first, Faces, the reader confronted one large black-and-white soldier’s face: a raw and isolated image. A second glance revealed that first image to be made up of smaller pixels, and when you ran your mouse over the surface, each revealed another name and date. Click that pixel, and the central photo changed to the new soldier. A search engine allowed readers to find individuals by name or hometown. Grim and elegant, it aimed to “show one person, but give the feeling that they’re one of many,” says Dance.

A second tab, Analysis, contained an enormous cache of data, graphically displayed: deaths by age, race, branch of service. You could mouse over a map with deaths by province, or isolate incidents, like the second invasion of Fallujah. A time line with a movable “scrubber” let readers compress the scope of information. The final tab, Their Stories, was frankly narrative, with audio interviews with family and colleagues, the equivalent of clips from a reporter’s recorder—a different effect than reading quotes, less curated, more emotional.

Casualties of War won a Malofiej International Infographics Award, and set the stage for experiments with storytelling in the Times voice. There were video features of Darfur’s Generation X and of the “Vows” column; a dizzying tour through the Met’s Greek and Roman galleries; a partnership with the site Bloggingheads, which streams webcam discussions among pundits and activists. Some attempts were downright weird, like the Pogue-o-matic, a hologrammish feature in which an antic David Pogue analyzed new technology. Others fell flat, like TimesPeople, a rudimentary social-networking site.

Perhaps most interesting, there were data dumps of documents. As Guantánamo records emerged, the Times’ website posted the entire set of legal documentation, affixed to a search engine. Readers could click on William Glaberson’s reportage, but they could also dive into original materials, searching for a particular word or prisoner amid transcripts of legal hearings.

“In the early days, the attitude ranged from a few early adopters to, at the opposite end, the hostile people,” Jonathan Landman tells me of the cultural transition at the paper. “Now at the adoption end are a lot of people—and at the hostility end, almost nobody. Well, so few it’s of no importance.”

Of course, despite this massive cultural shift, no one had yet figured out how to, in that hideous term, “monetize” online readers—a massive 20 million unique visitors per month compared with the daily print edition’s readership of 2.8 million (4.2 million on Sundays). Still, as Landman puts it with a certain delicacy, “We’re trying very hard to protect it, because that’s where the action is.”

These experiments were hardly occurring in a vacuum. 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. It has become easy to imagine a future without a “paper of record,” in which news arrives in many forms: some authoritative, some fly-by-night, some solo, some collaborative.