The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

The New York Times as a digital playground

I’ve always agreed the New York Times is the standard bearer for American Hans and the Timesjournalism. I’ve just never thought it lead the pack in online convergence. I remember some of the great old lady of journalism’s first online forays seemed amateurish. I worried that like, say Gannett, the Times’ editors were simply giving their reporters a digital video camera and audio recorder and telling them to go nuts.

But I must admit the multi-media offerings at the Times have certainly improved, and now that they have put TimesSelect out of it misery, access is universal. But a good friend and fellow cyberbrain made me realize how far the Times’ greatest online innovations may not have anything to do with Nicholas Kristof’s videos or David Pogue’s tech reviews.

Brian Hamman, who helped found MyMissourian when he was a Mizzou graduate student, now works in the Times’ new media department, and in a visit to his alma mater two weeks ago, he showed the Times not only is starting to get that people want something different than the print edition online, but also that its leaders are embracing openness and creativity in bringing the best information in the world to readers’ homes.

The New York Times has always excelled at presenting complex information in simple ways. Take a look at these interactive maps Web editors created to show where the 2008 presidential candidates contributions come from. For a long time, however, Hamman explained the Times resisted making the data they used to create such charts available to the average reader. Those times have ended, and if you don’t believe, look at this list of campaign donors from my very own zip code 65201.

The Times has gone even farther in providing information the way readers want it with the Times Topics section, a kind of encyclopedia approach to the news. Times Topix indexes stories and brief summaries of important news figures and stories in one place. For someone like me who hasn’t been following the Blackwater scandal, for example, I can easily get a brief tutorial by visiting this page. If I want to know more, I can click on the links to Times’ stories at the bottom or I can listen to Times’ reporter John M. Broder talk about the congressional hearings. The list of topics is impressive. I also appreciate the frequent links to sources outside the Times, both other news organizations and other Web sites including blogs. I was shocked when Hamman explained the Times isn’t advertising this service much – It may not even keep it – because to me, this may represent the future of online news. If readers are really so busy they can’t read a newspaper or regularly tune into the evening news, they’ll need a trusted source to compile the information for them when they need it.

The biggest nod to readers may be Open, the Times’ blog on open source software, including its own projects. I admit I hadn’t hear of this until Brian spoke about it, but after browsing it for two weeks, I knew I had to do my best to publicize it. In the news business, we talk a lot about transparency, but most efforts to be more open result in self-serving mea culpas, not real glimpses into the news business. I think Open is different. Look at today’s top story, for instance. I love that Derek Gottfrid can laud an Amazon.com service in a New York Times. I’ll admit that most of Open’s content is a bit over my head as a relative tech novice, but to me, it really seems to remove some of the barriers between reader and journalist, at least on the Internet end.

Just as news organizations have followed the Times’ lead in news coverage for centuries, I now encourage them to follow it into the Internet age. I applaud the Times for recognizing news must be presented differently online and for taking chances. Initiatives like Times Topics, despite their non-traditional formats, better fulfill the Times’ stated mission of providing “all the news that’s fit to print,” not just the news that editors and reporters think readers need. I also congratulate them for hiring a tech journalist like Brian that can bring all of this together.

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November 6, 2007 - Posted by | Hans Meyer

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