Reflecting on Times Open

Like everyone else who managed to get into the standing room only event (or at least everyone I had a chance to meet there), I had a great time at Times Open, the New York Times’s coming out party for its APIs. I won’t try to summarize, since Taylor Barstow has already done that superbly (also, check out his nytexplorer app!).

Also, people have commented about the intense Twitter conversations that took place during the presentations. I feel strongly that they added to the event (see my response to Owen Thomas on Valleywag). And, by no coincidence, I want to use this space to talk about what I felt to be the most interesting topic that came up through the event: the handling of user-generated content.

The New York Times is one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious media brands. As their CEO  Janet Robinson proudly told us, the paper has won 98 Pulitzer Prizes, more than any other newspaper. Moreover, she added, they have been around for 158 years and plan to be around for another 158 years. For perspective, some folks don’t even give the New York Times 158 days to live! Despite the thei recent financial troubles, I think they’re here for the long haul–and not because I  have any financial interest in their success. Rather, it is because I see the vast numbers of people who look to the New York Times as something more than news wire with a pretty logo.

They care about the most personal aspects of the paper, like its columnists. When Tim O’Reilly called attention to science and technology writer John Markoff, everyone turned to him, eager to put a face on a writer whom many of us have been reading since before there was a World Wide Web. With all respect for the Associated Press, I can imagine that they or their staff command this sort of devotion. Personality makes a big difference, and personality comes from people.

But of course there are far more people reading the New York Times than writing it. Those people increasingly want to play a more active role. They do so in various ways today:

  • Contributing to the “Most Popular” stats by email articles to one another.
  • Commenting on the select  articles that offer this opportunity.
  • Linking to articles in their blog posts, tweets, and other social media.

Here is an audience eager to participate! But there’s a big catch: the New York Times is paranoid of diluting its brand equity by mixing up user contributions with their carefully vetted writing. As a result, all comments are moderated, and their aggregation of blogs linking to articles is a limited, proprietary system (Blogrunner). The New York Times wants to have its cake and eat it–all the benefits from users’ active engagement without the costs of diluting their brand.

I think their APIs make this possible, at least in theory. Someone else can now repurpose New York Times content, allow others to annotate it, etc. The concern now is licensing and monetization. Surely the New York Times won’t simply let someone else mirror their site with looser restrictions about user-generated content. Or will it, for the right price?

Money issues aside, can readers get used to the idea that authorship and its associated brand equity are independent of the site on which content appears? Can media brands embrace such a new world? And, if user-generated content starts to blur the line between readers and writers, does a media company morph from a publisher to that of a professional editor-in-chief of a sprawling graph of writers and amateur editors?

These questions, which strike me as some the key questions for the future of newspapers, stuck in my mind as I left Times Open. I’m curious what others think? Are these the right questions? And, if they are, what are the answers?

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

8 replies on “Reflecting on Times Open”

These are extraordinarily big questions, but I’ll take a crack at them. They’re my passion anyhow.

Yes, readers can get used to reading content wherever it appears. My sense is that RSS readers haven’t quite figured it out yet but will soon enough in some way. Why, for instance, must clicking a link from one blog post to another take us outside the reader to the actual page of the other? Why can’t the RSS reader grab that post and let us stay conveniently where we want? The killer reader would be able to monetize NYT content better than the NYT could alone, keeping (most of) the difference but making the NYT (better than) whole.

User-generated content will blur the line between readers and writers. It will for the simple reason that very many of us are both readers and writers and find it more efficient to do our reading and writing in one place rather than many. That’s not an argument that one winner will take all; it’s just a prediction that users will tend to be attracted to sites and services that simplify their lives by letting them do more with less.

I do not believe that the NYT or any other serious media company would do well to try to be a “professional editor-in-chief of a sprawling graph of writers and amateur editors.” There will be too much content. Much of it will be simply crummy stuff, but it will be impossible to discern what’s crummy and what’s simply part of a private conversation held in public. Either way, there’s little use in sifting through it manually, from a central place of authority.

To the extent that sites or service that present professional and amateur content together emerge and become successful, they will do so only after they figure out a way to give users simple, intuitive, and powerful filters. We will tolerate only the writing we love. And helping us do that is a job to distribute across very large groups of users empowered by tools far more subtle than the current state of search, acting mostly self-interestedly, sifting, sorting, sharing, choosing by facets, connected to one another asymmetrically, mostly pulling not pushing. The NYT might be just one of those users, or its writers and editors may all be users themselves. Some implementation of tunkrank will help, I’m sure.


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