Half the battle, in Bilton’s experience, is fighting older readers’ nostalgia, which to him is a kind of blindness. “ ‘I like the way paper feels,’ ” he scoffs. “To the next generation, that doesn’t mean anything. You know, if we were all reading Kindles, and someone began raving about this new technology, the ‘book’—here’s something you can’t share, can’t search, that only holds 500 pages—no one would be interested.
“Print is just a device. The New York Times is not just a newspaper, it’s a news organization.” For those who believe these changes are gimmicks, he 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.”
A few weeks after our first meeting, I join Dance, Pilhofer, and Duenes for drinks at the Algonquin. In the interim, the website has fizzed with change. During the Mumbai bombings, the home page solicited the submissions of strangers; just that morning, the site launched Times Extra, an alternate home page linking to other news sources. Intended to make the newspaper open-ended, it just seems busy: one bit of spaghetti likely to fall off the wall.
As we talk, the generational gulf between the coders becomes hilariously apparent: “You graduated in 2004?” moans Pilhofer, who didn’t realize quite how young Dance is. We older folks do our early-technology rag, trading experiences with basic and Pong, recalling the days when a newspaper’s website was uploaded from a single hard disk, then back to college, when publishing involved literal cutting and pasting.
In contrast, when Dance was in high school, he was running a Dave Matthews music-sharing site and playing Doom with global opponents. But even more than his seasoned colleagues, Dance is inflamed by his sense that his employer’s reputation is something embattled, very vulnerable.
“When I came to the Times, I knew that a large percentage of the population did not trust where I was going to work. The idea that it’s all just manipulated by some guy at the top, it really lit my fire: I was like, ‘These are great, great journalists!’ They’re being slandered by these people who don’t feel that it’s legitimate work, you know what I mean?” By exposing their work process online, journalists won’t lose their validity, in Dance’s view. Instead, they’ll reestablish themselves as trustworthy curators of data—custodians of the true and the quantitative. “The Internet provides a way to say, ‘Look, this is real. Real, real, real.’ ”
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?
There are skills the Times geeks admire that could enlarge the capacities of journalists: a respect for databases, a sweeping fascination with the quantitative. (Pilhofer’s background is in quantitative history, which itself reshaped the romantic landscape of academia.) 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. In this new world, reporters reveal their personalities as part of their job, a loss as well as a gain—many writers went into this business precisely not to be personalities, to subsume their work into that of a greater institutional voice.
It is of course impossible to see into the future (despite the Times’ actually hiring a “futurist,” no longer employed). But Pilhofer has an application in at the Knight Foundation, a proposal for which he’s teamed up with the nonprofit newsroom ProPublica, seeking funding for software called Document Cloud. Like many innovations, it’s hard to describe until it exists, but from Pilhofer’s account, it would let news organizations display documents on the web—rich transcripts, polling, and other research tools—rendering them easily searchable, commentable, sharable. It could become a journalistic form in itself: the reporter’s cache, embedded in commentary from every corner.
“One of the New York Times’ roles in this new world is authority—and that’s probably the rarest commodity on the web,” explains Pilhofer as the waiter gives us our check. “That’s why in some respects we’re gung-ho and in other respects very conservative. Everything we do has to be to New York Times standards. Everything. And people are crazy about that. And that’s a good thing.”
Over time, Pilhofer adds, 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. If this comes true, it would mean this terrible year was not for nothing: that someday, this hard era would prove the turning point for the paper, the year when it didn’t go down, when it became something better. Pilhofer shrugs and puts his glass back down on the Algonquin table. “I just hope there’s a business model when we get there.”