I recently got to spend an hour talking to some representatives from the New York Times, and I was reminded how great some of the stuff they're doing online is. The basic format of nytimes.com isn't revolutionary (though it is well-designed and easily navigable, which in general is a revolution in news sites I could totally get behind), but if you keep an eye on those article sidebars and special section callouts, you will occasionally come across one of their understated yet ingenious "interactive features". The Times may be suffering lately, with their new building mortgaged and a first-quarter loss of $74 million, but stuff like this makes me believe they have a better shot of surviving in the digital age than any of their competitors. In their January article on the team responsible for these features, New York Magazine does a better job than I ever could of analyzing the philosophical impact this stuff will have on the future of journalism. As a regular old consumer of news, however, I can tell you how it impacts my view of an institution that's in serious danger of being brought down by its own authoritative reputation. The trouble is, "All the News That's Fit to Print" isn't nearly enough for the new online readers. Everywhere else online — in blogs, on Twitter, on Wikipedia — we can drill almost infinitely into the information stream to not only find the facts but where they came from and a multitude of other opinions on them. The old editorial model just isn't enough anymore. That said, I don't think we as information consumers have grown out of our need for an editorial voice. The further we paddle innocently into this information stream, the wider and more overwhelming it seems, and the more we need Crush the sea turtle to point us toward the right current. Whereas in the old model, the Times played the role of Marlin — sheltering its readers in its editorial anemone — they are now embracing the Crush approach. They're giving us a guided tour of the raw flow of news and data points. We're free to wander off from the tour and explore on our own, but if we get overwhelmed, we can always come back.
This insight on the Times' part into the minds of the new consumers of news media gives me a lot of confidence in them. There was a day where just owning a printing press meant having authority, and newspapers have grown accustomed to that authority. Many of them seem to assume that it will automatically transfer to the internet, but they're wrong. In order to hang onto it, they're going to have to work hard to beat out the other guys in creating innovative ways of dispersing information. I believe the Times is at least starting on the right track.
To illustrate, here are a few of my favorites from NYTimes.com's recent interactive features: