“There’s this fashion for media companies to call themselves technology companies,” says Jake Silverstein, editor of The New York Times Magazine. “Our job isn’t to make technology. Our job is to figure out how to use technologies.” Or, as Sam Dolnick puts it: “We’re not going to create augmented reality. We’re going to figure out how to use that in a journalistic way.”
Which is to say, a “Timesian” way, a shorthand you frequently hear for what the Times can and cannot do in the interest of protecting its exalted status (and nowhere is it more exalted than within the Times itself). What Timesian means or doesn’t mean often depends on who’s defining it, but it’s typically in the same general neighborhood as authoritative, or maybe stuffy. Editors are infamous for their lengthy divinations on whether new headline styles are sufficiently Timesian, and, per the Innovation Report, nothing slowed down a new initiative more than when management deliberated on just how Timesian it was or wasn’t.
It’s been Dolnick’s mission to drum up enthusiasm in the newsroom for testing out new applications, from VR to livestreaming, without worrying too much about the Timesian thing. After stints at the Staten Island Advance and the Associated Press, Dolnick started at the Times in 2009 as a metro reporter—the same year as his cousin A.G.—and wrote a prizewinning series on halfway houses before becoming a senior editor for mobile and then an associate editor. Inside the Times these days, he is known for the regular companywide email newsletter “Digital Highlights.”
One such highlight: At the Olympics last summer, deputy sports editor Sam Manchester sent short, frequently humorous text messages to the 20,000 readers who had signed up for the service. One, which sparked a viral meme, was a photo of a lifeguard watching swimmers practice, with a caption: “You know who has the most useless job in Rio? She does. That’s right, they have lifeguards in case Olympic swimmers need saving.”
“A generation ago, or even five years ago,” says Dolnick, “there’d be a lot of this Timesian stuff, ‘Oh, The New York Times doesn’t do that. We don’t make jokes in text messages.’ ” The audience responded, though, and Manchester buckled under the thousands of questions that readers texted him. That explains why, for its next engagement experiment with readers, the Times turned to artificial intelligence. Running up to the election, they created a Facebook Messenger chatbot that offered daily updates on the race in the voice of political reporter Nick Confessore. Running the backend was a tool created by Chatfuel that combined natural language parsing (so it could understand the questions posed to Confessore) with a conversation tree (so that the bot could respond to readers’ queries using prewritten answers).
One of the biggest initiatives Dolnick has been involved in is virtual reality. He says it started with an email he sent to Silverstein last year: “Hey man, want to see something cool?” Dolnick had just visited a VR production company called Vrse (since renamed Within) and brought one of their films, Clouds Over Sidra, into his office. The Times has since jumped into VR, partnering with Google to send its Cardboard VR viewers to all of its 1.1 million Sunday print-edition subscribers, creating an NYT VR app that’s been downloaded more than 1 million times, and producing 16 (and counting) original films about topics as varied as displaced refugees (The Displaced), floating movie stars (Take Flight), and battling ISIS in Iraq (The Fight for Falluja). It remains a working experiment. The floating movie stars, for example: “People liked it, it got pretty good views,” Silverstein says. “But it didn’t feel like we were advancing the ball. It had a little whiff of ‘Look at us. We have VR.’”
Even as Sulzberger boasts, “We employ more journalists who can write code than any other news organization,” there are some at the Times—usually those who can’t write code—who chafe at these endless waves of experimentation. “When we’re told this is the new best practice, everyone marches in lockstep,” says one editor who asked to remain anonymous. “Facebook Live? Yep! Video? On it! The New York Times isn’t a place where people say no, and we’re flat-out exhausted.”
In March of 2016, Alex MacCallum, the Times’ senior vice president for video (and at the beginning of her career, one of the first three hires at the Huffington Post), went to Baquet with a proposition from Facebook: If the Times would commit to producing dozens of livestreams a month for Facebook Live, its new video platform, the social media giant would pay the Times $3 million a year. Like most major media companies, the Times has a complicated relationship with Facebook—a 2015 deal to publish Times journalism directly on Facebook Instant led some in the newsroom to worry about cannibalizing subscriptions and losing control of their content—but following the Innovation Report, the pull of a new social platform was hard to resist. Baquet gave the green light. “We spun up a team and started producing within two weeks, which is like a land speed record in this organization,” MacCallum says.
Over the next few months, the Live team recruited more than 300 Times journalists to livestream anything and everything: press conferences, protests, political conventions. It was too much for some, and the public editor of the Times, Liz Spayd, said as much in a column headlined “Facebook Live: Too Much, Too Soon.” Spayd complained that some of the videos were “plagued by technical malfunctions, feel contrived, drone on too long … or are simply boring.” She urged editors to slow down, regroup, and wait until the Times could stay true to its past model of “innovating at a thoughtful, measured pace, but with quality worthy of its name.” (Timesian!)
MacCallum concedes that some of the early efforts may have fallen short, but today she puts them in the perspective more common in tech circles than media organizations. “I disagree that it’s possible to have every single thing be up to the standard. Otherwise you can’t take any risks.” What’s more, Baquet says, the project helped train hundreds in his newsroom in how to frame a shot, speak on camera, and all the other skills necessary to produce journalism in the years to come. “If you buy that our future is the phone, and you buy that that means our future is going to be more visual than it’s been in the past, then New York Times journalists have to be comfortable with video.”
The alternative is stark. For most of the last year, the Times offered buyouts to employees, in part to make room for new, digitally focused journalists. As one editor (fearful of being quoted by name) put it: “The dinosaurs are being culled.”