Behind the New York Times Interactive Team with Aron Pilhofer

Behind the New York Times Interactive Team with Aron Pilhofer

Today at the MIT Computer Science and AI Laboratory (CSAIL) Aron Pilhofer gave a talk about the New York Times Interactive team. Aron runs a newsroom team of journalists/developers at the New York Times. He's also the founder of DocumentCloud, who make technologies of use to organisations that work with data. Aron is introduced by Rob Miller, an associate professor at the MIT Computer Science and AI Laboratory who does work which is very complementary to many of the things we focus on at the Center for Civic Media.

Aron's background is in print journalism. He started at the New York Times doing political reporting on campaign finance and lobbying in 2005. He's always been on the nerd wing of the journalism world. In journalism, Nerd means that he can turn a computer on, knows a little bit about statistics, and can do some work on GIS. In 2007, Aron took a turn to the digital, running the Interactive team at the Times.

This shift started when Aron saw Adrian Holovaty's Chicagocrime.org, well before the Google Mapping API. Adrian's site created an opportunity for the reader to create narrative from data. Ideally, readers don't really want to ask about crime in general. They want to know about the crimes that happened near them. Adrian's work fundamentally changed how Aron looked at news. Next, Aron shows us great work Adrian did with Derek Willis at the Washington (Post?).

On the morning of August 1, 2007, a bridge in Minnesota collapsed. The Cleveland Plain Dealer and MSNBC started publishing a heat map of bridge deficiencies elsewhere-- states which had obsolete bridges. It took the New York Times a week to publish a story on it -- just a list of bridges.

Aron and others in the Times wanted the capacity to do this kind of work-- a combination of Graphics, Video, and Interactive News. They struggled to get their IT team to work on the timescale of news reporting, especially not for bespoke projects like this. That's why they started the Interactive News team.

The Interactive News team at the Times operates like a news desk, not a deli counter or service desk. They include a social media team (7), community team (10), and a dev team of 18 people, working together to find opportunities at the intersection of these three things. Aron's team doesn't make any of the cool interactive infographics -- that's the graphics desk. The interactive team focuses more on story forms and social.

How did the newsroom react? "As soon as you're sitting next to reporters and editors, they treat you like a peer, listen to your ideas, and treat you like part of the newsroom." Aron shows us some of his favorite projects, The Guantanamo Docket, Instagramming the Election, and the President Map, which is a flexible, reusable resource for the newsroom and the public.

Rob asks if the Times makes data available from an API. Adrian responds that news organisations get their election data from the Associated Press, who hires around 3,300 people who report numbers as they're reported to them. The data is not free and it is closely protected by the AP. The New York Times pays five figures for the data, and the networks pay seven figures. "If we could do an API, we would."

Aron shares some of the common lessons learned by his team at the New York Times:

The future of news lives outside the CMS. The Interactive team can build custom things that look a bit like the New York Times, but they can build new custom things. Aron shows us the game of asteroids they embedded in a New York Times story. For their Olympics hub, Aron's team insisted on building the entire experience. They focused on photos, interactives, and the live feed of social media. The site isn't sitting on a New York Times server at all, and so they were able to do things like dynamically pipe data into the page. They also took the 13,000 photos from wire services and the NYTimes photographers, moderated them, and pipe them onto the site.

Two years ago, the New York Times created School Book, a front page for the Times's coverage of New York City schools. The site offers news, conversation, and data. They created performances scores for schools, alongside qualitative information, to help parents shop for schools. It also doesn't look anything like the New York Times.

School Book also tried to make reader comments first class content. On the site, each comment is a question-answer pair, a piece of content that could be recontextualised across the page and displayed as news. Schoolbook was also an experiment in whether requiring real names could could solve the moderation problem-- allowing them to post-moderate content. Aron thinks it was successful.

"The New York Times has a department store problem," Aron says They offer almost anything, but it's very difficult to know what they offer. Why can't the New York Times education page be people's destination page? Aron responds that no one goes to section heading destination pages-- so many things could fall under politics or education, it becomes a mess-- it doesn't feel edited, it feels automated. "Sections are antiquated," he says. Very people navigate the site by section.

"If you're not building for mobile, you're building for the past," Aron tells us. He shows us screenshots and mock-ups of the election map in a variety of contexts. Building for mobile is a massive pain, and it has tripled the workload of his desk as they optimise for screen sizes, operating systems, and touch screens. Aron tells us about a massive increase in the percentage of New York Times traffic coming from mobiles. Handling this is especially challenging when making interactive pieces.

Readers expect interactivity, Aron says, and that goes beyond video. He tells us about Gabriel Dance's What One Word Describes Your Current State of Mind? in the 2008 election. Election day is a slow news day, but there's a collective pause, a breath of anticipation before results start coming in. This story is a timestamped, crowdsourced person-on-the-street story, asking people to offer timestamped feelings and their political affiliation.

The Interactive team likes to blow up an existing form of journalism and recreate it in a new way, inviting people to participate more broadly. Aron shows us the New York Times Thanksgiving Help Line. In the past, they ran it as a blog, but it was hard to find questions and answers. Their new interface makes questions easier to find -- even if you want to doublecheck the status of your Reagan-era turkey. Questions also offer a great moment to share specific content like how-to videos and recipes. "People will watch video, but only when it addresses what they want to know right now," he tells us.

Dashboards are another new direction for breaking news or event reporting. Aron shows us the Presidential Debate fact-check and updates page and explains a variety of events from Hurricane Sandy to the Oscars where they use the same technology. Newsrooms used to publish "lead-all" articles which accumulate more and more information. Over time, you end up with discrete news stories every day-- a very artificial, old-media way to cover an event. What you really want is a canonical url which points to everything you need to know about that particular event.

Someone asks what process the New York Times uses to answer questions from readers. Does it come from culture or software? The interactive team often uses Wordpress as an interface for journalists to use, since they're familiar with it. They then pull that information into their interactive pieces.

"Social is the second homepage," Aron tells us. He shows us the Times's Oscar Ballot. It's a huge event for the Times, "our Superbowl." The Oscar Ballot is like an Oscar party in a box. First, you create a ballot using their tool. Then you invite your friends to join you for the party, and the system shows your friends' ballot into the Oscar dashboard. That worked well in 2009. Then the team realised that the people who would be inviting friends to an Oscar party are probably friends already on Facebook. During the last Oscars, when you log into the Oscar party site, you could invite anyone in your social graph to join. Your Oscar Party team was automatically anyone in your social graph who signed up for a ballot. Then, when you make a pick, it doesn't share a link to the ballot, it shows your pick and invites people to participate. The old app got just over 25k ballots. After Facebook, they had almost 60,000. Aron tells us that anyone planning to do news and content online should plan to rely on people's social network to share content.

What's next for the Interactive team?

  • Building better Explainers
  • Breaking News
  • Better analytics
  • Smart automation and filtering for journalists