This year will be the 10-year anniversary of The New York Times Interactive News team, the rotating cast of characters charged with pushing the frontiers of the Gray Lady's digital storytelling.
Once hailed as a team of "renegade cybergeeks" responsible for "saving" the newspaper, the team has undergone a metamorphosis — many of the founders have since departed The Times, climbed the masthead or settled into new roles.
But Interactive News, now the responsibility of three sub-groups, hasn't gone anywhere. And it's changing — the newspaper just posted a new position that will help The Times improve newsgathering through technology ("Sometimes you will craft bots. Other times you will construct open-source libraries. Often, you will deploy web-based admins for reporters to enter and clean data.")
Jeremy Bowers, a senior editor at The New York Times, is leading the retooled news applications team at the newspaper. We caught up with him about the new position, and what it means for The New York Times, as he made his way to the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting conference in Jacksonville.
First thing first: What’s new here?
It’s new for our software developers to be heavily invested in newsgathering and reporting rather than on presentation. Much technology innovation, even at The Times, focuses outward on things that face our readers. My team will do some of that as stories warrant. But we’re mostly concerned with facing inwards — extending the news gathering capability of our reporters.
One other thing that’s relatively new is our mandate to chase stories that might cross desks. When we sink our teeth into something, we’ll be able to call on The Times’s storied graphics desk to help on the reader-facing parts. Of course, we’ll be tightly tied to individual beats and reporters. It will be our job to find stories lurking in the stuff that a beat reporter might not think is useful because it doesn’t fit in the standard stories we tend to write or produce.
So is the team itself new? Is its mission different? Or is it just being called something different?
Interactive News definitely isn’t new. We’re one of the oldest teams of this type that I know of. We reorganized into three sub-teams: tools and templates, newsroom products, and news and live events. My new team is built from the news and live events team, but we have a different mandate. The only thing we’ll have in common with that team is elections data. Otherwise, we’re much more focused on building exoskeletons for our reporters to make them faster, smarter and better at their existing beats.
In another way, it’s an extension of the news applications we built in the late 2000s like Toxic Waters or the Guantanamo Docket. Those projects have a reporter-facing side that make our newsgathering better and lead to better stories. But they also have a reader-facing side that tells its own story and required interaction with design and Graphics. What’s old is new again.
I see. So what’s changing here is you’re rebuilding a sub-section of the Interactive News team to focus on building tools to enhance reporting?
That’s right. Previously, we’d done some of this, but it conflicted with our mission of supporting live events. As the live events stuff moved over to tools and templates almost entirely, we started rethinking what our team should be doing.
Additionally, we’ll be doing more than just tool building. A good example: A reporter and a video editor recently found out they were both chasing a story that was based in a small but complex data set. The reporter needed both a high-level summary of the data — trends and such — but also needed to know where to go looking for anecdotes.
And the video editor had similar needs — telling a visual story required a quantitative understanding of the data. This is a great example of the kind of project we’ll be doing. We negotiated to get the data in the shape our reporter / video editor needed and we’re in the process of extracting trends that will make their reporting better. And we’ll likely find a good visual story in there as well, which means we’ll need to go to our Graphics desk to pitch that story.
Will you be adding to your team to accomplish this? If so, by how much?
Well, we have one position we’re hiring for now. And I hope we can expand even more because we’re seeing a lot of interest from reporters and editors across the building for our services. We’re working pretty hard right now to get some early projects into circulation because it’s the easiest way for us to explain to the newsroom how we work. Demos not memos, etc.
So, can you talk about the strategic thinking that went into remaking this team? Why did you guys decide to remake the interactive news team? Whose idea was it?
We’re a pretty flexible group, generally. After the election, we had a natural opportunity to move folks around and make sure that the teams we had matched up with our mission. Our other two teams were already pointing in the right direction; it was the news & live events team that wanted for a new mission. INT’s editor, Chase Davis, and the head of graphics, Steve Duenes, and I agreed that moving to a more reporter-focused mission where our team was responsible for structured data efforts would be the the best for the paper.
Last question: You're at NICAR right now. What's new and interesting in the world of computer-assisted reporting? Do you see that reflected in your own team?
There is great interaction between development teams and traditional reporters and beats. It’s so exciting to see programmers and reporters working together to report stories — big, impactful stories. And that’s what my team aims to do. We’re formalizing that relationship and giving our reporters an outlet for their questions and ideas.