Alexis Lloyd sits at a white table with a hardly recognizable white bar in the middle. Next to her stands a monitor, live transcribing what she says. If she pushes the bar, the text is highlighted. The whole setup aims at getting interviews on paper easier.
It’s one exhibit at a place, the whole media world looks up to: The New York Times Research and Development Lab. Executive Director Matt Boggie and Creative Director Alexis Lloyd lead this Lab of innovation. With Digtator they talk new opportunities in Cooking apps, the benefits of Improv theatre attitude in business and why the search for one single solution to save journalism is a hopeless endavour.
In Germany, there’s this intense longing for the one-size-fits-all solution to save journalism – be it Buzzfeed headlines, tablets or crowdfunding. At your place, everything glitters and shines: Why aren’t German media people more relaxed with the future?
Boggie: It’s not a German phenomenom. It exists in the US, too. And it’s not a sole media thing, that those discussions about the future exist. Watch any of those corporate future videos, that many companies publish: Everything is brand new, everything works seamlessly together. But that’s not the way things work in real life. You might have a dining room table that’s 120 years old and on top of it is your brand new iPhone. The future and the past coexist. It’s never as easy as to say: “This is the new thing, we can throw everything away.” It’s never a question of “either/or”. The shiny new thing is not gonna be the new thing that’ll kill all the things that existed before. It’s always a question of “Yes, and…”.
OK, but if not for finding at least one partial solution for your own future: Why are you running a Research & Development team in the first place?
Boggie: Some of what we develop will be really important, some might just start the conversation and some of what we develop might be wrong – and I think, that’s OK. If we look at the way the NYT works, we are actually the most bullish in terms of believing how long we will be around. I think, there’s a definite need for us, sort of transcending from whatever technology will be used.
“Some things work, some things don’t.” – How do you get the people who pay the bills on board for that attitude?
Boggie: It helps to sometimes be a little wrong – as opposed to be a lot wrong. A good example happened a few years ago: As part of our exhibits, we spent a little time on building a 3D animation. In working with our Graphics desk on how to do that, they were able to adapt their existing workflows and they were able to produce something we could show on a TV. As it turned out, 3D – at least in terms of a living room technology – is probably not going to happen anytime soon. But investigating, seeing how hard it was, and also allowing the technology to grow a little bit saved us from launching a product, or putting a lot of effort behind something that wasn’t going to occur. Sometimes it’s a better answer to look into something and then say: This isn’t important for us, we shouldn’t be spending anymore time here.
Lloyd: I’d just add to that: If you’re too focused on always having everything figured out in order to be successful, then you’ll end up doing the same things everybody else is trying, too. Real experimentation is not going to happen like that.
Let’s talk new business opportunities for traditional brands: I hear many people talking about the success of the Times’ Cooking verticle. Will the company go all soft now – or are certain beats just better suited for innovation?
Boggie: Different topics provide different markets. Cooking, Arts, Dining, Film or TV Reviews all fall under this area of service, where we can help a person try to solve a particular problem at a particular moment. There you have a lot of flexibility about how you might apply that concept to an app or an experience. Giving you a recipe or recommendations for a weekend trip is very different from recapping the Pope’s visit. They are two very different journalistic goals. So the information behind the goal makes us think how to present it to the person who needs it.
Lloyd: Media organizations are starting to do things that would’ve been unthinkable a few years ago. Building a cooking app is something where we are finding new ways to take our journalistic content to and create new experiences around it. There’s also a lot of potential going more deeply for a topic like International Politics. Finding new ways of creating knowledge and understanding of a particular topic together, creating new ways for readers of engaging with us or with each other around the news.
So we are seeing new ways of interacting with media and brands everywhere. But we are also experiencing the rise of tech players in the media landscape like Facebook Instant Articles or Apple News. If you’d have to guess: What will be considered a media company in ten years time, the New York Times or Facebook?
Lloyd: I think that’ll go both ways. You have things like social platforms that are now doing publishing in ways that we start to consider them media companies or media platforms. But then you also have media companies doing things that were formerly not in the wheelhouse of a media company: building apps, running conferences, providing data services of various sorts. That gives us new ways to build businesses on top of the journalistic work that we are already doing. We are already seeing this new role of what a media organization might be.
It’s not all roses, though. There are huge discussions about the disruption of the newsroom, about automatization and the likelihood of reporters being laid-off. What’s an R&D take on this?
Boggie: The machines keep getting smarter and smarter. They know how to do more and more things. They aren’t yet truly creative and I don’t think they will be in a reasonable amount of time. That requires a human and humans do that very, very well. We are looking at different ways about how technology can support that creativity. How do we get raw information to the right person at the right time? Or: How do we let a computer do a thing where he’s really good at and then let him support others?
Lloyd: We’re definitely continuing to look at how to apply machine learning and other kinds of computational intelligence into the processes of a organization whose greatest asset is many times the people in the newsroom, the reporters and editors. So I’m thinking about rather than “How are machines going to automate our jobs?”, we’d be thinking about “How are machines augmenting people’s abilties?”
Let’s take one step back: How would you describe your job in general?
Boggie: We focus on problems or issues that might be affecting lots of different parts of the company at once. What are the issues that we think will be affecting both the New York Times and our competitors, the way that we raise money and the way that we gather news? This job isn’t as close to the journalism aspect as you may think, but we are very closely aligned to the media business in general. We discuss issues of privacy, issues of access, issues of how people receive information and how they collaborate with a reporter.
Lloyd: The prototyping that we do is research through making. It’s about understanding new technologies, new behaviours and what the potential implications of those new things are, for both the production and consumption of media. Pieces of those end up in New York Times products, but it’s not a beta product that you would pick up.
What kind of people work in your team? What are their backgrounds?
Boggie: We are seven people. Each person comes with a slightly different approach to the work, but all of us speak code to a certain extent. If you have an idea, then you have the capability to get going with that and to show people what you mean by it. We all bring very different perspectives to these projects, everything from Product Management to Art, to Game Design, to traditional Digital Design Practices.
Your Lab has been around for nine years now. The Times and the industry have changed immensely. What were the biggest changes in your work during these nine years?
Lloyd: Our own work is now much less about how you present news on a new platform or what the big new platform is going to be. It’s more about how you navigate the media organization and publishing processes in this very complex ecosystem of platforms and devices. Organizationally, the number of people doing technologically innovative work within the Times increased exponentionally. We in R&D have to stay ahead of that.
Text and Translation: Christian FahrenbachFoto: