News for Digital Journalists

August 08, 2011

beta620: New York Times goes experimental

For the most part, traditional newsroom culture strenuously resists experimentation. But this week, the venerable “Gray Lady” herself has gone beta. The New York Times unveiled beta620, “a new home for experimental projects from Times developers—and a place for anyone to suggest and collaborate on new ideas and new products…”

Here Times developers are showing off working prototype features such as TimesInstant (which borrows heavily from the Google Instant search engine feature), Longitude (which leverages metadata to geographically map NYT news), and much more.

The site’s name is an homage to the Times’ headquarters: 620 8th Ave., New York, NY.

Think of beta620 as a kind of sandbox, test bed, and showcase for what Times digital media might offer in the future. In a blog post, NYT staffer Joe Fiore explained: “Many of these projects will live only on beta620. But a few, like the innovative Times Skimmer, which started out as an entry in one of our internal technology contests, will ‘graduate’ to become full-fledged products on our main site or our mobile apps.

Writing for Nieman Journalism Lab, Megan Garber observes: “The whole beta620 site has a distinctively Kickstarter-y feel to it: Not only are projects presented with a whimsy not entirely typical of the Gray Lady—quirky illustrations, friendly explanations, a design that employs an unapologetic amount of pink—but they’re also presented as, basically, pitches. Developers are selling their ideas to the public, hoping they’ll catch on. Instead of funding, though, they’re asking for something that can be much more valuable: plain old feedback. Beta620 is primarily a social space where developers and users can collaborate and experiment, without disrupting the consumption experiences on NYTimes.com proper.”

It makes sense to segregate experimental features from the Times’ core digital offerings. You don’t want to confuse or alienate the core NYT readership by putting out too many things that the news organization is not committed to, and that maybe don’t function well yet. (There’s a reason why Google Labs never appeared on the Google home page. Also, the Times might take note that in late July Google announced that it’s phasing out Google Labs, in order to hone the company’s focus.)

That said, there’s a pitfall with the totally segregated approach to experimentation with the news: Feedback is a big goal for beta620, but whose feedback will they attract?

Digital news insiders, developers, designers, data visualization and geodata professionals, and other “geeky” types will almost certainly pore over beta620 in great numbers and in great detail. No doubt they’ll kick the tires, push the envelope, and offer lots of suggestions. This kind of input is very useful.

But what about the more typical Times audience? What about the rank-and-file visitors to its web site, readers of its print products, and users of its mobile apps? Ultimately these are the people the Times must please. So what they think matters, even at the early experimental phase. Because if a new feature or service fails to engage a large part of the Times’ core audience, it will simply fail—no matter how much the technophiles adore it.

So far, the Times doesn’t seem to be doing much to encourage its core audience to check out its experimental side. A quick search of NYTtimes.com just now revealed just one result for the search term “beta620”—the introductory post on the beta620 site by Joe Fiore noted above.

I hope that over time, the Times begins to regularly season its main site with references and links to its beta620 experimental projects. This more balanced approach will provide even more useful feedback that can help a news organization reality-check its product development decisions, and also leverage the kind of creativity and insight that non-geeks can provide.

Beta620 is an intriguing, promising project. Hopefully it won’t remain a geeky ghetto.

The News for Digital Journalists blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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