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Feb. 24, 2009, 11:51 a.m.

Times Open: New assumptions for newspapers and their audience

Times Open, the conference for software developers hosted by The New York Times on Friday, suspended the typical gloom about the future of newspapers in favor of a mandate best captured by the keynote speaker, web entrepreneur Tim O’Reilly. “If there’s some feature you want” on NYTimes.com, he said, “don’t wait for the Times to do it. Hack it.” On the laptops perched atop nearly everyone’s knees, the hacks were already underway: new ways to search the paper, visualizations of political covearge, the real estate section plotted on a map. It was The People’s New York Times.

Nobody would have predicted this scene in 1995, amid the heyday of the newspaper business, but the person it might have surprised most would have been the Times’ new publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. In May of that year, he attended a very different kind of conference, hosted by the Nieman Foundation, on “Public Interest Journalism: Winner or Loser in the On-Line Era?” Mmhm, “On-Line.” The transcript of that event, dug up by Nieman’s Stefanie Friedhoff and highlighted by my boss Josh Benton in a talk last year, is a fascinating artifact. Sulzberger, chatting with Esther Dyson, reacts to one of her questions with an incredulous response: “Are you making the assumption that we’re going to put all of our reporters online?”

The assumptions at Times Open included: “when users innovate, support their behavior in your platform” (O’Reilly); data and interaction are as important to journalism as the story (Jacob Harris, Times developer); and “the goal is still widest distribution of our content” (Marc Frons, chief technology officer). Janet Robinson, the Times Co.’s CEO, made an even bolder assumption when she said her 158-year-old newspaper would “use every communications vehicle possible for the next 158 years.” She was later seen taking notes on O’Reilly’s speech.

The Times web guys (all guys) who ran the show on Friday spent much of their time touting and explaining the APIs they’ve been releasing since October. In the biggest news to emerge from the conference, Andrzej Lawn and Michael Donohoe previewed the Times Newswire API, scheduled for release this week, which will provide an “up-to-the-actual-second” feed of the entire newspaper’s content.

Developers in the audience were generally impressed by the flexibility of the APIs, which support faceted searches for filtering Times content by people, locations, subjects, sections, and more. NYT Explorer, created by Taylor Barstow, is an excellent example of that ability. It also speaks to a broader potential: NYTimes.com has a weak search functionality, but just 16 days after the necessary API was released, the audience built a superior solution. Just think what might emerge after 16 weeks.

There was disappointment that API “calls,” or requests, are limited by the Times to 5,000 per day, which will preclude heavily interactive applications. That could relate to what Frons, the CTO, acknowledged at the end of the day when I asked him about their plans to sell licenses for commercial use of the APIs. “We are working on language now,” he said, putting the timeframe between two and three weeks.

Other attendees have already posted their own Times Open wrap-ups, focusing on O’Reilly’s speech (including slides), future plans for the article search API, other news applications, audience engagement with the Times, the conference’s backchannel conversation, and an interview with Derek Gottfrid, the Times’ senior software architect. Diehards can review all of the action on Twitter or just peruse my tweets from the event. And there are plenty of photos on Flickr, including one of your correspondent attempting a “double-fisted blog interview.” (I did it for science.)

Later today and this week, I’ll be posting some interviews and tidbits I collected at Times Open, with the hope of applying some of these insights and innovations to the broader news business beyond The New York Times.

Photo at top by Nerd Merit Badges on TwitPic. Photo of Tim O’Reilly by Times Open on Flickr. Photo of crowd by Erin Sparling on Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 24, 2009, 11:51 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Times Open at the NYT
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