By JOSIAH TAKANG (@jtakang22_7)
Photo credit goes to politico.com.
A bastion of applied, impossibly creative technology in journalism that helped the world’s preeminent newspaper thrive amidst a changing media ecosystem is no more.
As of May 2, the New York Times Research and Development Lab is rebranding itself as "Story X" and will integrate itself more with the Times’ newsroom and advertising groups.
Kinsey Wilson, former NPR executive and current Times editor for innovation and strategy, will head up Story X.
"With the pace of change accelerating and with a number of vacancies on that team, we thought it was an opportune time to rethink the lab’s work and bring it closer to the work of our product, news and advertising teams," Wilson said in an internal document to staff.
The move comes following 11 years of the R&D Lab’s innovative integration of digital technology into a struggling print industry. It was convened to work on new problems, technologies and opportunities that the rest of the organization would face in the near future (i.e. four to six years out).
As suggested by the “Lab” moniker, it created research through some wickedly epic prototypes that helped the Times adapt to a news-media landscape in rapid flux. It served as a beacon, of sorts -- to shine light on a dazzling future of technology integrated into a brand new reader-consumer experience.
The R&D team brought together designers, reporters and software engineers to portray a future where technology did not sound a death knell for the Times but instead became a close bedfellow.
The R&D Lab also served as, essentially, a startup incubator in the Venture for America or Y-Combinator mold. In 2010, it partnered with New York incubator Betaworks to create News.me (now known as Digg), a social news reader showing the stories your friends were sharing.
Herein lies an example of how prototyping became an experiment in how The Times could test its ideas the same way that startups could. In just 11 short years, they also redefined the word “lab” in a modern context.
NYT R&D didn’t do “pure research” like Los Alamos or Google Labs; it did something different. It tried to help its parent company figure out how it could combine its core journalistic principles with technology and design in an interactive, inclusive way. “Research” was part of it, but so was securing a future for the Times.
"It created research through some wickedly epic prototypes that helped the Times adapt to a news-media landscape in rapid flux."
Photo credit goes to nytlabs.com.
Eventually, the R&D Lab’s goals shifted slightly, from being about showing off the multitudinous ways of how the New York Times could be experienced and read to creating new possibilities for newsroom and reporting tools.
The interactive news and graphics teams became closely integrated. They pioneered crowdsourced tools and apps to mine data from their readers, in addition to forging a new frontier in journalistic data visualization.
In addition, R&D alums have gone on to start wonderfully innovative organizations like DataKind, lead The Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia University and Stanford and head the aforementioned Digg. Many continue to take advantage of the remarkable intersection between computer science, engineering design and art.
They say, however, all good things must come to an end, and the New York Times R&D Lab was no exception. In a sense the Lab was becoming an obsolete relic from an era passed by (as odd as it might sound). The Times began to realize it could still be vaguely optimistic about technology in public institutions, as well as increasing operational efficiencies and finding new ways to analyze and draw in users/readers.
Among its lasting legacies and benefits, The New York Times employs several times the amount of technologists, engineers and designers it did when the lab was created, a statistic previously unimaginable for any journalistic outfit.
And this, I believe, is where the ’labs movement' was successful: it re-discovered that even a large corporation can still actively pursue innovations in technology and consumer experiences. The lab might be closing, but increased amount of in-house experts working within the organization itself sounds basically like what R&D departments strive for: a great knowledge and technology transfer from the lab to the rest of the organization.
Ironically enough, the legacy of R&B Labs is already visible in the press release announcing its disbanding. The release trumpeted the Times’ Facebook live video coverage showcasing Times journalism on the ground around the world, as well as NYT VR, The Times’ groundbreaking virtual reality initiative. The VR initiative includes six new signature video series’, each of which visually take on topics such as music, sports, business, science and travel.
The future's still bright for the New York Times, and by extension, the melding of print and digital media -- thanks in no small part to the New York Times Research and Development Lab.