Eulogy for The New York Times R&D Lab
The New York Times R&D Lab, a groundbreaking department of applied creative technology that helped one of the great institutions of journalism see how it could thrive amidst a changing media ecosystem, died Monday in New York City. It was eleven years old.
And while this isn’t an obituary, it is a eulogy for a small group within a tremendous organization that I believe had an outsize impact on how The New York Times has evolved during the past seven years. I’ve always thought that without the NY Times R&D Lab, the labs of other cultural institutions in New York simply wouldn’t exist.
The work done by NY Times R&D was somehow always ahead of the time, in that they would make vivid prototypes and experimental services and then most of them would simply become how we consumed and created the news. It was convened to work on new problems, technologies, and opportunities that the rest of the organization would start to seriously face 3–5 years out. It wasn’t their place to “solve and scale” outright, but to create research — made manifest by incredible interactive prototypes — that would help the organization think through, and adapt to these changes, and to show where The Times could go.
The R+D Lab was born in an era when “Will the New York Times survive?” was being asked with increasing frequency, and with an increasing certainty that it would not.
In early 2009, Carlos Slim loaned The New York Times Corporation $250 million and sold off part its new headquarters. It was against this backdrop that The New York Times R&D Lab was brought to the public’s attention, an internal team to The NY Times bringing together designers, reporters, software engineers to show a future where technology wasn’t killing The Times, but was one of its strengths helping it thrive.
Their first public project was Custom Times, which showed how a personalized NY Times would be experienced by its readers. It went beyond digital being “the web” but adapted Times content across phones, tablets (a year before the iPad), televisions and cars. And it worked, making moving between these drastically different forms seamless.
Unlike many prototypes, rough around the edges, designed to quickly prove to management a thing could be done, Custom Times was a prototype made for the world to see, like a concept car for what a news organization might produce in a few years time. It was a prototype made for a particular world: advertisers. The Times had to convince their advertisers that it was a brand worth continuing to invest in, as it would continue to capture the attention of audiences and not blink out of existence. Advertisers bit.
They wanted to show other visions. Software was cool to see, but new hardware was something that could be experienced. When they built a mirror that showed how intelligent displays could become a part of our homes, providing briefings on news, personal schedules, and social updates. It captured the imagination of where ubiquitous technology could go and lived up to its name: Magic Mirror.
The R&D Lab launched companies. They partnered with venerable New York startup studio Betaworks and created News.me: an early social news reader, showing the stories friends were sharing, and was (among) the first to send the now ubiquitous “Here’s what stories your friends are sharing” email briefing. What started as a concept soon became a prototype and then became an experiment in how The Times could test its ideas the same way that startups and VC’s would. News.me laid the groundwork for Betaworks’ acquisition of Digg and became the DNA of the new company.
In studying what people were sharing online, they created Cascade, one of the first interactive tools to analyze how stories spread on social media. It was incredibly useful, helping the Times identify what strategies worked getting pieces to “go viral” and identifying “influencers”, but it was also beautiful and hypnotizing to watch. Importantly for a visualization, it’s stood the test of much of a decade and still looks stunning.
They also collected people’s location information. After it broke that Apple was collecting users iPhone locations, The R&D Lab created OpenPaths, which inverted the rules for collecting users private data by putting the control over the data in its users hands. Rather than the company collecting the data having total control over how it was used, OpenPaths encrypted the data so that only the original user could decide who got access to it. That mean the New York Times couldn’t see where OpenPaths users were going, but that OpenPaths users could choose which researchers to share their location data with (if they so wished). Meanwhile Google’s Location History collects this information on hundreds of millions of users by default. It has a very pretty interface, but you don’t get to decide who gets to use the data and Google gets to know where you are.
I had the privilege of getting to know the team at the NY Times Labs starting in early 2012. A few months before, we had started NYPL Labs at The New York Public Library, an in-house team trying to fuse the practice of a great public institution undergoing much reinvention with some technology and new energy. Starting NYPL Labs required the confluence of a few things, including the luck of several grants and a strong internal politics, but it was made a lot easier when we could point 40th Street and say “The New York Times has an R&D Lab.” The Library was already in the midst of its greatest usage ever, but we still needed to do work that could resoundingly respond to the heckle of “Why do we need libraries anymore?” The R&D lab could be a part of the answer.
Soon, “Labs” were popping up across New York. We held a meetup. It was clear that we weren’t doing “pure research” like the “Labs” we tried to evoke like Xerox PARC or Bell Labs; what we were doing was something different. We determined that we we were trying to help our organizations figure out how they could combine their core competencies and first principles with technology and design in a holistic way. “Research” was part of it, but so was securing a future for the institutions which we were a part of. The various Labs started hanging out more, discussing strategies for organizational change as much as technical strategy. We still got jaws to drop at parties when people heard “The New York [Times | Public Library] has an R&D Lab?!”
When we at The Library built a project based on the 1940 US Census, they built us a custom feed so we could build a headline ticker of Times stories from that day in 1940 and link to it in Times Machine. Apparently the requirements for being on the R&D Lab staff required that you be generous and deeply collaborative in addition to being uniformly brilliant.
Their fascination and appreciation of their institution’s history, legacy, and archive ran deep. One of my favorite projects they did was Lazarus, which allowed them to reconnect images published in the paper (but only available in context on microfilm) with full size prints from their photo archives. They combined a remarkable self-digitization workstation with a beautiful graphical interface, and image recognition tools to show how even their analog materials and archival teams could benefit from well designed workflows with cutting edge tools.
At some point along the way, the R&D Lab’s orientation shifted slightly, from being about showing the world (and advertisers) how the New York Times would be experienced, to creating new possibilities for tools for its newsroom. Closer ties were built with the Interactive News and Graphics teams.
They built tools and experiments using crowdsourcing to extract data from their archives with their readers (and built a powerful platform, Madison in the process, which they later open sourced as Hive). They built tools that helped journalists deal with vast streams of data visually and an experimental text editor that allowed tagging of individual words and phrases in an article, not just for the article itself.
And for all the work they did that resulted in a full project, there were many more “fascinations” that helped The Times grapple with questions about how reporting could be done. I’d heard whispers that they were wrestling with the implications of “Drone Journalism” and after an errant Twitter exchange, several friends and I wound up spending a Saturday morning being taught how to fly drones in Prospect Park by Times R&D Lab staffers Matt Boggie and Mike Dewar (on their own time). While frequent parkgoers may note that you can’t walk 100 yards through Prospect Park without having to take cover from a wild quadcopter, back then all commercial use of unlicensed drones was prohibited in the United States. They’d been spending the past few months of spare time preparing The Times for the moment that regulations changed and their photojournalists would be legally film from above, robotically. It led to Times staff being trained on drone photography and has dramatically affected how The New York Times has been able to report some of its most impactful recent climate stories like the melting of Greenland or the disappearance of the Marshall Islands.
One of my last encounters with the whole Times R&D team was nearly a year ago, when they teamed up with Microsoft Research NYC to host a conference on the impact of “Listening Machines", the class of new things that constantly have a microphone on in our homes, like Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google Now. The Times R&D Lab had built a listening machine of their own: a table that could record and automatically transcribe an interview or conversation among colleagues, but built in a way to remember the most important moments. They wanted to explore how these always-on tools could become a part of the journalist’s workflow, but bring along a journalist’s sensibilities about privacy and informed consent. Notably the machine deleted all transcripts after 30 days (as I recall), and a very obvious OFF button. They were able to bring together legal experts in robotics, technology activists, an FTC commissioner, artists, technologists, not to mention several of the project leads of Siri, Cortana, and Google Now were together in the same room for the first time. The R&D Lab of The New York Times had beckoned.
Their alums have gone on to start organizations like DataKind, lead The Brown Institute for Media Innovation (where I now work), founded remarkable firms like The Office of Creative Research (where several NY Times Labs alum now work), lead Digg (which was infused with from the DNA and team of News.me), and many continue to make remarkable art imbued with technology, design, and care.
Last Friday the R&D Lab consisted of 3 staff: it was still headed by Creative Director Alexis Lloyd and Executive Director Matt Boggie, who had been recently been joined by Creative Technologist Mark McKeague. No one had been told in advance.
Some of the other Labs are still around, some have been shut down. Many succeeded in helping their organizations adapt, but that hasn’t really been a solid predictor of whether the Labs’ still survive. In a sense the Labs were becoming relics from a bygone era. We could be more optimistic and still vaguely Utopian about technology in public institutions and innovation produced more than operational efficiencies and new ways to track users.
It was an uphill battle for sure, but the possibilities were incredible if you just looked deep enough. Now these several of these organizations, including The New York Times, employ several times the number of technologists and designers they did when their labs were created.
These days, it’s no surprise that The New York Times has an Innovation Unit (or several). But until this past Monday you could still elicit a sense of surprise and delight by telling someone that The New York Times had its own R&D Lab. And all the while inspire hope that the New York Times’ future was bright.
An earlier version of this story attributed the organization of the Listening Machines conference to the Data and Society Research Institute, Microsoft Research, and The New York Times. It was organized by Microsoft Research NYC and The New York Times, but not the Data and Society Research Institute.