RealTime IT News

Leading the 'Gray Lady' Into the Digital Era

Mediabistro Circus

NEW YORK -- "We are in the middle of a revolution in the distribution of information," said Jim Roberts, editor of digital news for The New York Times.

That dramatic shift saw the newspaper cut its first editorial staffers, but Roberts suggested it also may have left it poised to capitalize on new and innovative ways of presenting information.

Roberts and Aron Pilhofer, editor of interactive news technology for the paper, spoke here at the Mediabistro Circus conference today, discussing the New York Times Co.'s (NYSE: NYT) evolving online strategy at a critical period for the publishing business.

With online publishing staggeringly popular, many offline publications are trying to contend with newer, Web-based competition while making better use of the interactivity afforded by the Internet.

Although the New York Times Co.'s flagship site hasn't found a way to monetize Web content beyond advertising -- paying for its TimesSelect product proved short-lived -- Roberts said that new interactive communication tools recently made available to its reporters have "revitalized our profession."

Examples include the interactive electoral maps for the presidential campaign, which, according to Roberts, surpassed traffic for actual stories. Double-click on the maps, and readers can zoom in to see election results at the county level.

Another tool Roberts highlighted was an interactive page design for covering presidential debates.

These pages feature video on the left, a running transcript in the middle of the screen and a field on the right to search for excerpts. It took hours to set up the initial design, according to Roberts, but the paper plans to make lots of use of the technology.

He also reported that the Times just laid off newsroom employees for the first time in its history -- a move aimed at refashioning its organization around changing media trends, like the Web.

"We needed to be more reactive and start embracing the Web in different ways," Pilhofer said.

Added Roberts, "We're working hard to bring our reporters into the digital age, to make them comfortable with video."

Pilhofer also highlighted the search and organization features used in a special area of the site, "What's Happening With My Favorite Shows?", which fans were able to use during the recent Writers Guild of America strike to find out when their shows would return.

And when the Clinton Library released documents of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's itinerary as first lady, the Times posted all 17,000 pages online. Unlike some competitors, the Times's pages were searchable as TIFF images, Pilhofer said.

"We took text and images, put them together and employed an application and viewer in a matter of hours," he said. Readers also could bookmark key dates from the former first lady's history on the side of the screen.

Roberts said that although online is a focus for the Times, he's not concerned with day-to-day traffic numbers.

"I don't make news decisions based on how a story is performing," he said. "We care about traffic, we care about page views. If the increases we've seen start going in the other direction, maybe I'll start worrying more, but right now it's not a big preoccupation."

Don't throw away the paper

Not everything has changed in the publishing world, of course. Scandal and celebrity still dominate readers' attention: Roberts said that NYTimes.com's biggest days of traffic were for news events such as the Academy Awards and the Eliot Spitzer debacle.

When discussing the fate of the newspaper industry, Pilhofer showed a projector image of the sinking Titanic compared with how he really feels about the industry -- a second image of open fields.

"The New York Times is not going to be obsolete in print for a long time," Roberts said. "Eighty percent of our profit is still from print."

"We are very conscious about trying to maintain that franchise," he said, adding, "there are people here in Manhattan that will not give up their paper. Nobody is going to be encouraged to abandon print by any means."