The New York Times, like all U.S. newspapers, will eventually need to figure out how to make enough money from the Internet to make up for its declining print business. Fair enough. But we think technology-wise, at least, the Times is a lot further along than its peers: We’ve been impressed with many of its recent digital projects, such as the simple TimesPeople social network, its variety of Twitter feeds, and the TimesMachine archive of really old papers.
So what’s coming up? We asked Marc Frons, who’s been chief technology officer of the Times’ digital operations for two years. What we found out: All sorts of stuff is in the works, ranging from new APIs for programmers to apps for Apple’s (AAPL) forthcoming iPhone store. (There’s also a lot of crucial, less-sexy, behind-the-scenes stuff they’re building, like a new content management system.) Some of the highlights:
Syndication: The NYT is working on a series of application programming interfaces, or APIs, that will let software applications — both at the Times and outside — suck raw Times data into their systems, like restaurant reviews, concert listings, recipes, whatever — and spit them how however they’d like. The Times could licence this data, swap it, etc. For example, this would make it easier for a company like OpenTable to put NYT restaurant reviews on its reservation pages.
At first, the APIs will be read-only — you could only republish what the Times gives you — but eventually, some APIs could be read/write — meaning trusted parties could potentially send information back to the Times, like… more recipes.
Widgets: The Times hasn’t shown this tool off before, or even named it yet, so we’ll save them the trouble and just call it TimesWidget. What is it? A lot like the photo slideshows you can make with Slide for your MySpace page. But instead, it’s a clean-looking, custom-built box of Times stories, videos, etc., that you can add to your Web site, blog, Tumblr, whatever. The paper has been using it internally on their Web pages for a while, and is working on a version to release to the public sometime this summer. Below, the TimesWidget creator, including a sample widget, left, and some of the controls, right.
Aggregation: The Times bought BlogRunner a few years ago, and only recently started incorporating it into the paper’s site. Specifically, right now it’s pulling technology headlines from around the Web and displaying them in a small bar on the Times’ Tech page — a mini-Techmeme. Frons says he has “bigger plans” for BlogRunner, but wouldn’t share details.
Social Overlay: TimesPeople is in its earliest stages — a plugin for Firefox. Eventually, it’ll be built into the Times’ Web site, and will have more features. But not too many: They’re not trying to be Facebook, Frons says. What else? More room on the site for user comments, perhaps.
personalisation: This is a tricky one. It’s a good idea to give readers some control of the way the site looks, but it’s also crucial for the Times’ editorial staff to keep control over the site’s news judgment and basic story layout. So far, they’ve created a standard “My Times” offering, which is a lot like My Yahoo, iGoogle, or other Web start pages. (Not many people are using it.) But it’s likely users will be able to customise at least some parts of the Times’ homepage in the future, like a box with their favourite stories in it, recommendations, stock tickers, etc.
We asked Frons if the Times is building all of this software for internal use only — or if it’d consider selling it to other papers or, frankly, to anyone. For the forseeable future, he says, it’s all his — they’re not trying to be a software company. (We hope not: There’s a paper to save!)
But in a sense, the Times’ digital division is like a small software company — working with the same philosophy as a lot of Silicon Valley: Build neat tools, get traction, and then figure out how to make money off them later. Unlike most Valley startups, Frons has real money to throw around: We estimate his 70 developers alone cost the company about $10 million a year — and they’re hiring 30 more.
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