EPIC 2014: The Future is Now

The New York Times has gone offline. The Fourth Estate's fortunes have waned. What happened to the news? And what is EPIC?

It was a bright, cold day in late January 2004, and Robin and I were on a visit to Miami.

Robin was a producer for Poynter's News University, and I was a reporter for Poynter Online, a job he'd occupied the year before. As the two youngest people in the building, we hung out a lot, often riffing on media, culture, policy and politics in marathon conversations that eventually migrated into our joint blog, Snarkmarket.

Robin had never been to Miami before, so I got permission from my best friend Rocky, then a law student at the University of Miami, for us to crash at his place on a Friday night. That afternoon we relaxed in Rocky's living room, preparing for a night out sampling the bars of South Beach.

The day before, Robin had written a post on Poynter's Convergence Chaser blog about a speech by Martin Nisenholtz, CEO of The New York Times Digital, given to the Software & Information Industry Association. Robin brought the transcript of the speech with him to Miami to delve into during any downtime we had on our trip. I spied it lying on Rocky's coffee table, picked it up and started reading.

It was a dense, meandering speech, and when I was done with it, I told Robin that my interpretation of it differed from the one he'd published in his Convergence Chaser item. We grappled back and forth with our readings of the article, especially about what Nisenholtz meant when he mentioned the game Ultima Online in the context of journalism. After a few minutes, we hit upon a facet of the game we agreed was salient to Nisenholtz's point -- it is the most advanced example of a medium people create by merely participating in it.

Ultima Online is a massively multiplayer role-playing game. As people play, they add to all the other players' experiences of the game, altering the whole fabric of the medium through their interactions with it.

"What if you could apply that model to journalism?" Robin and I wondered together. What if people could create and affect news stories by simply reading, viewing or listening to them?

News stories, we reasoned, are collections of related facts and quotes, strung together into pre-fab narratives each designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience. What if those narratives were assembled dynamically, pulling together facts chosen for their unique relevance to every reader?

As we cruised along Ocean Drive, Robin and I weren't paying much attention to the lights of Miami or the buffed, bronzed people out to see and be seen in their designer clothes. Of the tens of thousands of conversations going on around us, I'm sure ours was -- hands-down -- the geekiest.

A persistent trickle of rain chased us from bar to bar, our discussion never letting up for a moment. We envisioned reporters hunting down facts not to meet their quota of inches in a news hole or fill a few minutes in a broadcast, but to add to an ever-expanding database of information. All of it would be marked up automatically with copious metadata describing where the facts came from, and when, and what they related to.

The information in the database wouldn't just come from reporters, but from the users of this media product.

We hammered out the details of our vision as we sat on plush chairs shaped like high-heeled shoes in a quiet corner of one of Miami's mellower nightspots. Sipping at my beer, I wondered how ridiculous these conversations would seem the next morning, after the effect of the alcohol had worn off.

Robin: Fast forward a year. EPIC 2014, a Flash movie based on the ideas conceived on South Beach, has been seen by upwards of a million people on the Web. It's been screened at big conferences -- of journalists, marketers, librarians -- and even on TV in a few places. Rupert Murdoch watched it.

How do you go from speculating in stiletto chairs to getting your stuff in front of media moguls?

When Matt and I got back to Poynter, we were anxious to share our new model for news. We tossed together a PowerPoint deck, titled it The Miami Project, and invited two colleagues -- NewsU's Paige West and my boss and mentor, Howard Finberg -- to a mid-morning unveiling.

It would be the first of several presentations of The Miami Project. Our colleagues at Poynter were both encouraging and skeptical; their questions and challenges helped us refine the idea and our articulation of it.

The first groups of journalists we shared it with were interested, but unmoved: Most were confident their news products would always offer a credibility and serendipity that The Miami Project couldn't match.

In early spring of 2004, Poynter was gearing up for the annual Online Leaders seminar. Howard asked us to do the presentation again, but to amp it up: They're not getting it, he said. We have to jolt them. We have to show them this isn't just going to happen -- it already is happening.

And so Matt and I hit upon the idea of presenting it as if it had already happened.

We were sitting at my desk, up on Poynter's second floor under the vaulted glass ceiling, when the the name "Googlezon" was first spoken. After that, there was no turning back. Up sprang Newsbotster, the Google Grid, New York Times vs. Googlezon, and EPIC itself: the Evolving Personalized Information Construct.

Slowly, we dropped the gory details of our ultimate news product -- the vision of a flexible, associative, meta-tagged world of facts and notes and media assets all mixed and re-mixed for every reader (whew).

Our presentation was becoming something new: a story.

We assembled the first version of EPIC 2014 late one night in Poynter's visual journalism lab, on a G4-running Final Cut Pro. It was, frankly, pretty bad. You know that default Mac OS X screen saver, the one with the swirling tendrils of colors? Yeah -- that was our big visual effect.

But our narrative went over well with the online leaders, and their enthusiasm spurred us on. We revised the script, worked up a more polished version of the movie (in Flash this time), and kept presenting it.

At Poynter, we introduced the movie pretty dramatically (and dorkily) -- gliding into darkened seminar rooms wearing tinfoil headbands. (They denoted our status as strange visitors from the future. Clearly.)

And we always followed the movie with a question: If this is what the year 2014 looks like, what are you going to do today to make sure your news organization doesn't get sidelined? How do you make sure you can play in this environment?

As the summer of 2004 wore on, we started to dream about making a whole EPIC 2014 website. There'd be an interactive timeline! A blog! We'd add to it as companies merged and technology advanced!

Buuut we never really got around to that. And then we both got new jobs: Matt at the Fresno Bee, me at Current. Months ticked past, and EPIC fell by the wayside.

Finally, as winter approached, we decided to just go ahead and post it -- no big site, no blog. Not really any context or explanation, either. 2004 was almost gone and already, the edges of our scenario were starting to fray.

So in the third week of November, almost a year after our trip to Miami, we posted the first public links to EPIC on just three blogs: Convergence Chaser, Snarkmarket and Jason Kottke's popular blog.

Traffic poured in. We got Slashdotted in December. The months that followed brought links on blogs, in forums, in e-mails. A few hundred here, a few hundred there: It all adds up. Just look.

Matt: Visions of the future tend to age poorly. Over a year old now, EPIC's been patched up once, but time keeps pecking at it. Still, people from all over the world contact Robin and me to say how much they dig our little vision. And there's a common thread in all of their messages.

The prophesies aren't, by and large, what interests them. They don't focus on what's going to happen. They talk about what's happening. They connect our narrative to theirs -– what's going on in their lives, countries and hard drives. And they remix EPIC as well, translating it into different languages, weaving it into their own stories, drawing connections we never imagined.

And while we watch all of this metatagging, remixing, creating and associating, Robin and I know 2014 won't resemble the future EPIC describes.

Because 2005 already does.

  • Matt Thompson

    I serve as an Editorial Product Manager at NPR, where I work with member stations to develop niche websites. Before coming to NPR, I worked with the Knight Foundation and the Reynolds Journalism Institute.


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