How The New York Times’ beta620 can move from evolution to news revolution

The New York Times made a big splash Monday with the public unveiling of beta620, a sort of Skunk Works for online news where experimental features for NYTimes.com will be proposed and tested.

As Jay Rosen put it on Twitter, “Not to overstate it, but I’d call this a crossing point for The New York Times. It is now an openly experimental newsroom.”

It is that, and it could be more. I’d like to see beta620 reach beyond helping readers find and discuss its journalism to transform how the Times presents journalism.

The current beta projects

The beta projects so far stay within certain boundaries: They help you find, share or comment on Times content, but they don’t touch what that content actually is.

The Community Hub dashboard enables a reader to browse comments.

One of the beta620 projects, Community Hub, is a dashboard for browsing reader comments from NYTimes.com stories. “There are commenting stats, a comment feed, and recent articles and comments. Features coming soon include: Facebook friends’ comments and a graphical representation of commenting history.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because just last week I wrote about some forthcoming social networking and commenting features for the site, and perhaps this project will become part of that.

The Buzz is another social project (unrelated to Google Buzz), which overlays each section front headline with data about how many people have shared it on Facebook or Twitter.

Smart Search suggests content as you type. In this example, typing in “New York” instantly shows weather, movie reviews and news for the city.

Other beta projects improve ways to search for or discover Times content. Google-inspired search projects like TimesInstant and Smart Search Bar suggest relevant keywords and show results instantly as the user types in a query. Longitude uses a slightly different method of discovery. It enables a user to browse a world map and see recent Times reports by location.

The three projects that graduated from beta testing to become standard features — the recommendation engine, the “coming up next” slide-in article teaser, and Times Skimmer — also fall into this category of discovery tools.

What should come next

Search and social are important innovation areas for the Times, and I’m impressed by their willingness to experiment publicly in the hopes of getting the best results.

But since they’re asking for other suggestions, I have a few.

The Times might experiment with design changes as beta projects. There has been some discussion recently of how to redesign news websites, focusing on NYTimes.com. The arguments quickly turn to subjective claims about taste and user experience.

It would be great if the Times enabled beta620 users to try alternative templates for the homepage, section fronts or articles. Do some testing to see if a design changes reader behavior, or if different designs work for different people.

Eventually I want to see the Times try innovation in the news product itself.

Some people think that the traditional article format is, at times, no longer necessary or insufficient online. The article is an information vessel shaped by the needs and constraints of printed mass media. Yet it has been imported to online media with almost no substantial changes, except the addition of hyperlinked text.

The Times could experiment with alternative models for conveying information as a beta project and see what works.

Is this long block of narrative still the ideal way to present an average news update online?

One example: Stop seeing the 1,200-word article as a narrative monolith. Break it into a dozen 100-word nuggets of news, explanation and context. Experiment with ways for readers to consume them individually or reorganize them. An avid reader could even subscribe to notifications for new nuggets that may be added later.

Most news organizations already take this approach when live-blogging developing news. They post a series of short, timestamped paragraphs instead of one narrative article. Now consider reporting a normal news story the same way, but with pieces that could be organized by importance, urgency or other factors.

Reinventing the news story this way also helps solve the problem of context. Some nuggets containing background context could be hidden from an article for users who already understand the subject, enabling them to get the newest information more directly.

There is no good reason every online reader should have to see the same version of a news report. Homogeneity is a print media constraint, not something we should have to live with online. Some readers know more about a subject than others. Some of them care more than others. Those ought to be factors in how they view the latest news report. (The Times Companion beta620 project takes a stab at rethinking context in news stories, by linking key things in a story to popup bubbles with more information about them.)

This makes room to rethink how comments work as well. Imagine if a reader could highlight each section of the article and attach a comment to it. Reader comments could become a markup layer on top of the article, rather that a self-contained bucket of opinions. (After this post was published, Times developer Derek Willis reminded me that the site has allowed readers to link to and highlight specific paragraphs since last November. But it’s a largely hidden feature, not obvious from any given article page.)

Other people will suggest other ideas, and I’m sure the folks at the Times have more of their own. The important thing is that the Times should be willing to try beta projects that may shake up the news process.

Think of The New York Times like a car, and the tech team behind beta620 as mechanics. Right now they’re trying out new paint jobs, stereos and navigation systems. Neat stuff. But when they start tinkering with the engine, things will get even more interesting.

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