August 8, 2012

The New York Times has built an impressive online home for its Olympics coverage, with instantly-updated results, medal counts, athlete bios, and of course stories and photos. And because the Times has joined with Reuters to syndicate that data and content, you can see it on about a dozen websites, including the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Australia’s Ten News.

The partnership combines the Times’ deep, feature-oriented approach to the Games with Reuters’ extensive reporting and photography. Clients can pay for just a medal count widget or they can opt for a hosted microsite that blends in with the rest of their site.

This isn’t the first syndication deal between two news outlets, but it represents a new step for the Times’ team of newsroom-based developers that built the system underlying it all. Not only is this the largest and most complicated project they’ve undertaken, it’s the first one created to fulfill a business goal as well as an editorial one.

“Entrepreneurial journalism” is normally associated with startups; the Times’ approach to the Olympics shows how a news organization can take an editorial product and extend it into a business proposition.

“We’re here to do news, so that’s our focus,” said Aron Pilhofer, the Times’ interactive news editor, “but where we can think of things where there’s a business model that we can layer on top of what we’re already doing, that seems like a pretty good idea.”

From Beijing to London

For the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the Times used the Associated Press’ hosted package and data feed for event results and medal counts. But it didn’t look exactly like the rest of, and it didn’t offer specialized data feeds that the Times needed to create complex, data-based presentations.

STATS, jointly owned by the AP and News Corp., offers a feed of results this year. And about 250 clients are using the AP’s white-label site for the Olympics, which is based on a new platform that is more customizable than before.

As the Times was preparing for the 2010 Games, Pilhofer said, they wondered, “Could we just take the data directly from the IOC … which was expensive, but not break-the-bank expensive, and in effect pay for the time that we put into it by creating a hosted product?”

They started small in Vancouver, offering their data feed to two news organizations, the CBC and The Boston Globe. There were a few tense moments, like when Pilhofer and developer Tyson Evans were watching curling and realized that they didn’t know how their system would handle a tie-breaker. “Every night was like Election Night,” Pilhofer said, when the Times publishes an electoral map with the latest vote counts around the country.

They took what they learned and basically started from scratch for London. Not only are there more events this year, the IOC now offers more real-time results as events are ongoing. “If we hadn’t done Vancouver, we wouldn’t dare do London,” Pilhofer said.

This year, clients can buy one of three products:

  • A basic medal count widget that can be embedded on a site
  • A hosted package that allows some customization so that it looks like the client’s own website
  • A more extensive package that allows even more customization in appearance and content

The Times’ Olympics microsite operates on the same platform as the other clients.

“One reason we made it so customizable is that we didn’t want to create something that looked like The New York Times,” Pilhofer said. “We wanted The New York Times to look like The New York Times, and CBC to look like the CBC. To the reader, you wouldn’t even know there was a connection between the two sites.”

The business model behind the project

News applications developers have debated whether infrastructure projects like this pull them away from news-oriented apps. Pilhofer acknowledged that it was a serious commitment and that the project was more complicated than originally envisioned.

But he doesn’t think it took away from any other high-priority editorial projects, largely because the team would’ve done something extensive for the Olympics anyway. “The Olympics is always a big deal for us,” Pilhofer said.

“When you add up the cost of doing what we’re doing, it is a substantial investment, and we were going to do that for the newsroom no matter what,” he said. “You have to look at the cost of what we would’ve done anyway, plus the incremental cost of doing this as a syndicated product. It’s hard to know what that total cost is.”

Pilhofer said the Times wouldn’t say whether the venture was profitable. (He said he doesn’t know himself.)

What, if anything, could a smaller organization take away from this? Most news outlets aren’t covering the Olympics, and they can’t deploy a team of developers to work on a yearlong project.

Pilhofer doesn’t believe this is about resources. “In fact, we were modeling what we were doing after PolitiFact in a way,” he said.

PolitiFact, a project of the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times, has franchised its brand and technology to other news organizations so they can check facts in their own states. The arrangement generates some revenue for the national operation, which had just three developers when it started franchising.

“PolitiFact is basically doing exactly this,” Pilhofer said, “taking something that started as an editorial product and putting a business model behind it. And that’s smart. And it’s working for them.”

Pilhofer wasn’t sure what, if anything would follow this project. “Too soon,” he said. “But I think there is probably more opportunity there.”

“There are enough things we do on the editorial side where you can essentially share code with the business side — which is essentially what we’re doing — and not not in any way cannibalize from what we’re doing on the Times.”

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Steve Myers was the managing editor of until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens,…
Steve Myers

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