By: Joe Strupp The phrase "research and development" usually conjures images of computer or pharmaceutical companies, or even automakers, not newspapers. But in a corner of the 28th floor of The New York Times building, one group of staffers is busy on R&D. The company's Research and Development Group, a team of 13 full-timers, has spent nearly four years reviewing the newest technologies and gadgets for use in spreading news ? and advertising ? while also digging deep into audience and reader data, habits and trends.
Since launching in January 2006, the R&D group has sought to get its hands on every new way information and images can get to consumers, and find the best use by the Times to get its content ? and sponsor messages ? to them. Since the Times is seen as a leading news brand and boasts ample resources and a popular and innovative Web site, whatever it comes up with should impact or inspire others.
"The mission is to look around corners," says Michael Zimbalist, vice president/research and development operations, who started the group after joining the Times in 2006. He also is a founder and former president of the Online Publishers Association. "As the [Times Co.] becomes digitally focused and multi-platform focused, it is changing faster than we can," he adds.
The R&D group is split into four units: The Core Team seeks to create prototypes of programs and services for use with Times content. The Mobile team looks at ways to utilize applications for wireless devices. A data mining and analytics team researches audience use of these and other devices with deep reviews of data. And one "semantics technologist" is formatting the Gray Lady's archives into digital use, with metadata included.
"We are trying to create interesting news products and services that we can eventually charge for or attract interested new advertising," says Michael Young, a creative technician in the Core group. Young, beside a counter covered with gadgets ranging from a Kindle to an iPhone to various pieces of some unidentified electronic machinery, adds, "It is extremely important to have people keeping an eye on these trends and changes."
While an R&D unit at Pfizer or Merck might be testing chemical reactions to a new drug, the Times team is brainstorming how a new wireless device might deliver photos, video or the latest sports scores. Others are measuring potential interest among readers, and still more are focused on the practicality and cost. "We try to understand and get some insight into how individuals use our content on different platforms," says Zimbalist, who stresses that newspapers need to get beyond the print and even basic Web to reach all users. "We are trying to understand at a macro level how news is being consumed, and relate it to our site." He won't reveal the unit's annual budget, but hints that with 13 employees out of the company's 4,000, it's not a major expenditure.
One of the first moves by the R&D unit was to see the potential for Facebook back in 2007. The team launched an application to push content onto the social networking site, and launched a daily quiz. Today, the Times has the most followers of any news-paper on both Facebook and Twitter. The researchers helped forge a partnership with Google in which Times content is linked to Google Earth maps to show locations mentioned in stories. The team also helped develop many of the Blackberry applications that led to the Times' current mobile news and sports alerts.
"We spend a lot of time trend-watching," says Zimbalist. "It is not a product-development group. It is much more focused on monitoring trends and identifying opportunities. The idea is to help access our entry into new platforms."
R&D also brought forth what is now TimesReader 2.0, the newspaper's downloadable version, with a print-type layout but electronic page-turning and size-changing.
The group's newest efforts, which are still in the works, include new ways to connect the various devices consumers use to get news and information, known as CustomTimes. Young says that in the future, readers will be able to enjoy the newspaper's content across multiple platforms that will all be connected. "There is a huge explosion of connected devices," he says.
To demonstrate this approach, Young shows a visitor the R&D Group's "Living Room," where a 52-inch flat-screen TV offers content that also is found on the Times' Web site, mobile phone applications, and a laptop. He envisions a future in which a reader might be reading or watching something on the Times' site via a desktop computer, but seek to go elsewhere and continue on a laptop. Later, he or she would be in a car and eventually at home watching TV. An article, podcast or video could follow that person, he explains, through all of these devices with relative ease on the reader's part.
"Cars coming out now have advanced navigation systems that leverage the cellular network to get data," Young says. "That could automatically bring a feed to your car. We could stream a podcast, or a voice-recognition system could know what you were reading or looking for, and bring it up and read it to you."
He cites advertising applications that can follow consumers across those same devices. Users could see an ad online or via a mobile device, for a TV show or film. "Say you are on your phone and you see a movie ad. You can click and it will go to your TV, where you can watch the movie trailer in high-def," he says. Ads are also being improved to look more like they do in print, where they can share space with text online and in mobile devices without being as cumbersome and annoying as pop-ups are now. "It gives the advertiser a little bit more to be creative with," he says.
Such connected applications could be in use by Times readers within a year, Young says.
Zimbalist stresses the need for all newspapers, and media outlets in general, to look beyond not just print but the current Web sites and even initial mobile offerings. "I think more and more newspapers are beginning to redefine themselves not just by the paper medium, but by their role as content providers," he contends. "We are going to find there are hundreds of objects capable of bringing us headlines and news and other information that will astonish us."