Yet there is something exhilarating about watching web innovation finally explode at the Times, with its KICK ME sign and burden of authority. 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? Despite the effectiveness of blogs, the majority still mainly provide links and commentary. 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.
If there are readers who question these changes, the mood within the Times suggests that resistance dissolves with surprising swiftness. “Only history will judge whether we should have made the real-estate move we made—but that integration, when the web co-located with the people who made content for the paper, it came at a really opportune moment,” says David Carr, whose Oscars-season Carpetbagger blog was one of the earliest genre-breaking experiments at the website. “We were ready. And it also validated what we had all been thinking, which was, 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.”
Carr is no credulous online utopian. The gorgeous multimedia site he created to promote his recent memoir sold “no books,” he tells me; he worries that too much experimentation might overwhelm his readers—and about how they will pay for it all. Yet creatively, and as a journalist, he relishes the cultural shift. “This notion of ‘Let’s give it a whirl’—that’s not how we act in our analog iteration. In our digital iteration, there’s a willingness to make big bets and shoot them down if they don’t work. And yet it’s all very deadly serious. Other print websites can innovate because nobody’s watching. Here, everybody’s watching.”
It was a radical reinvention of the Times voice, shattering the omniscient God-tones in which the paper had always grounded its coverage.
There’s another face of innovation at the Times Building, in a lab on a separate floor: research and development. I spoke to Nick Bilton, who designs what his website describes, with ominous confidence, as “technologies that will become commonplace in a 24-to-48-month time frame.”
Bilton’s team works on emerging platforms. Other teams cover analytics and multivariant testing; everyone seems to have a job title like “creative technologist,” giving the entire floor a mad-scientist air. Near Bilton’s desk, a table is littered in Kindles and other experimental displays for e-ink. There’s also an old-fashioned newspaper kiosk with a touch screen up top—I tap on it nervously, and options for selecting articles appear. It’s a joke display, Bilton explains; but then again, he demonstrates, it actually works. When Bilton swipes his Times key card, the screen pulls up a personalized version of the paper, his interests highlighted. He clicks a button, opens the kiosk door, and inside I see an ordinary office printer, which releases a physical printout with just the articles he wants. As it prints, a second copy is sent to his phone.
The futuristic kiosk may be a plaything, but it captures the essence of R&D’s vision, in which the New York Times is less a newspaper and more an informative virus—hopping from host to host, personalizing itself to any environment.
Bilton and his colleague Michael Young walk me to a space-age living room, a holodeck for future media. There’s a sofa, a flat-screen TV, and four smaller screens. One displays a traffic map, another a pretty avatar of a newscaster, the third a Twitterlike list of recommendations. There’s also an ambient green glowing device that measures stock prices, a squat something called a Chumby, and an “air-mouse.”
As we chatter about the potential for multi-touch walls covered in physical sensors, Bilton demonstrates his technologies. He slides his finger across the rainbow-striped, Twitter-ish “Lifestream,” dragging a stripe off the edge, only to have it pop up on another, larger screen, then open out into a video of food writer Mark Bittman pouring some milk into a pitcher. He touches another Lifestream strip—a recommendation from a friend that he read a certain article—and the software texts the article to his iPhone.
Bilton praises his bosses, especially Landman, who he feels truly gets the necessity of investing in these projects. But he also 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.”