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Times Extra: The NYT votes for automated aggregation

The New York Times today launched its much-anticipated Times Extra homepage with links to other news sources and blog posts. Just head to nytimes.com as usual and click on “Try Our Extra Homepage” to experience the magic.

This is one of those where-have-you-been moments that’s nonetheless significant because it’s happening at the nation’s most widely read newspaper website. “The days when content sites were afraid to link to other sites are over,” says Marc Frons, chief technology officer of The New York Times Co., in a press release (reprinted below). Well, that day was over long ago, but now it is over for the Times, too, and its peers are likely to follow suit.

Times Extra is powered by Blogrunner, which NYT Co. purchased in 2005.* The automated service finds related content by analyzing links across blogs and news sites. (Reporter Saul Hansel offered a good explanation when the Times began running Blogrunner headlines on its technology page.) Blogrunner does offer Times editors the ability to manually bump a story they consider particularly worthy. But I checked this morning with Stacy Green in the Times’ PR office, who confirmed that Times Extra is indeed fully automated. There’s no one curating the links that appear. (“That said, our editors are closely monitoring for anything obscene,” Green added.)

The choice of automation — rather than employing a producer to select the links — is notable in light of yesterday’s announcement by Techmeme, a popular aggregator of technology news. In a post titled, “Guess what? Automated news doesn’t quite work,” Techmeme disclosed that it had hired a “news maestro” to curate the site:

Early on, when our system was less technically refined, the clearest path toward improvement involved simply iterating algorithmic development. Later, as the automation reached a certain degree of maturity, we recognized that direct editing could now improve news results by leaps and bounds. Though our roadmap contains a number of novel future algorithmic enhancements, introducing editing now appears to be a no-brainer.

The value of aggregator sites like the Drudge Report and Huffington Post is often the wisdom and work of their editors in finding and filtering quality links. Or as Tina Brown said of her new aggregator, The Daily Beat, “Sensibility, darling.” Fully automated sites like Google News and, until recently, Techmeme have shown that algorithms can do much of the work — and you don’t need to pay health insurance for computers. But at least for now, edited aggregators still seem more valuable. (Andrew Golis, deputy publisher of Talking Points Memo, critiques Times Extra and makes the case for TPM’s human-powered aggregation in a blog post this morning.)

On another note, many reactions to Times Extra are criticizing its ramshackle look, which adds a ton of uneven whitespace to the Times’ smartly designed homepage. Khoi Vinh, design director for the Times website, offered a preemptive response to those complaints on his personal blog this morning:

Sometimes though, design is a matter of trying to effect material changes to the experience at the expense of aesthetic purity — and opportunities for graphical showmanship. Times Extra is an experiment in modestly redesigning the user experience; whether it’s a success or not is up to you and all of our users. Hopefully enough people will find it useful for us to evolve it further; I don’t think any of us suppose that this is really the last word in how third-party links can be expressed on the site. My point is that, as designers, an aversion to flouting the rules of visual decorum often doesn’t serve us well. Nor for that matter does a fear of failure.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the Times sees this new feature as an advertising opportunity, which they note in the press release. Green told me that the Shell ads you see today on the Times homepage are part of a deal with the oil company to sponsor the launch of Times Extra.

Here’s the press release:

NYTIMES.COM ANNOUNCES TIMES EXTRA IN BETA

Alternative Home Page Provides Supplementary Headlines from Outside Sources

NEW YORK, Dec. 4, 2008 — NYTimes.com announced today the beta launch of Times Extra, an alternative view of the home page featuring news headlines with links from third-party sources. Times Extra aggregates headlines from other news organizations and blogs across the Web, and matches the most relevant of those sources with lead articles on the NYTimes.com home page.

In the Times Extra view, relevant headlines from around the Web appear beneath many of the articles in the upper half of the homepage. Source names are highlighted in green. Users can scroll within these boxes to view up to eight Extra headlines.

“The days when content sites were afraid to link to other sites are over,” said Marc Frons, chief technology officer for digital operations, The New York Times Company. “Times Extra is an important part of our strategy to become a destination for compelling journalism, not only by The New York Times, but by other content providers as well. We want to give our readers a comprehensive view of the news and opinion our editors think is important.”

“We are addressing a common desire for comprehensiveness, enabling people to find all the news and information they could want from all sorts of sources,” said Denise Warren, senior vice president and chief advertising officer, The New York Times Media Group. “Initiatives such as Times Extra and our other new products allow us to do an even better job of responding to our audiences’ demands for interactivity, community, multimedia and news and information on an increasingly wide range of topics. This makes Times Extra an appealing buy for advertisers.”

To view Times Extra, users click on the new “Times Extra” button at the top of the home page, above the search bar. After 24 hours, readers will need to click the button to reactivate Times Extra for another 24 hours. The “Switch Back” button at the top of the Times Extra view returns users to the standard home page.

The automated ranking of news stories is powered by Blogrunner, a news aggregator owned by The Times Company that continually crawls the Web and links to stories from more than10,000 sources; the ranking on Blogrunner is determined by its popularity on the Web.

For more information, view the Times Extra FAQ.

According to Nielsen Online, NYTimes.com had 20.3 million unique visitors in the United States in October 2008, and was the No. 1 newspaper Web site in United States, a position it has long held.

The New York Times Company (NYSE: NYT), a leading media company with 2007 revenues of $3.2 billion, includes The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, The Boston Globe, 16 other daily newspapers, WQXR-FM and more than 50 Web sites, including NYTimes.com, Boston.com and About.com. The Company’s core purpose is to enhance society by creating, collecting and distributing high-quality news, information and entertainment.

* We originally reported this as 2006, not 2005. Apologies.

                                   
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