There once was a time (cue the piano music, sepia tones, and Ken Burns effect) when one of the major components of newsrooms was the Teletype machine, a novel technology that delivered dispatches from the tiniest reaches of the United States and the farthest corners of the globe.
Newsrooms outgrew the technology, or at least grew into newer, faster technologies, like Twitter. Which could explain why the Boston Globe newsroom now has a funky bank of monitors that displays Tweets throughout the day, as well as headlines from their websites (more on that in second).
They’re calling it the Information Radiator. The name may sound a little super-villain-y, but it’s accurate: Goal One of the experimental installation is to increase the dissemination of information. Goal Two is to increase familiarity with the new world order at the Globe, which this fall will split into two online entities, the free Boston.com and the subscriber-focused BostonGlobe.com. Goal Three is to encourage more Globe staffers to get active on Twitter.
A big task for six monitors, three mini-PC’s, a pole, and some Velcro.
“Really what drove the concept was the need to show the newsroom the new reality of all these digital tendrils that the Globe newsroom is publishing to,” Chris Marstall, the Globe’s creative technologist, told me. “It’s not just print and Boston.com anymore. It’s print, Boston.com, BostonGlobe.com, and Twitter.”
The idea originated with the Globe’s Media Lab team as well as Managing Editor Caleb Solomon and Deputy Managing Editor for Multimedia Bennie DiNardo. Ideally, the radiator will be a raw wire of what the Globe’s staff is reporting and following, showing others what stories are developing (or at least letting editors know what reporters are trying to put together). The displays could find different applications in different scenarios — following what competing news organizations are up to, or following sources within select beats (say @Ochocinco for the sports desk and @RaytheonCompany for business).
The radiator itself is a fairly inexpensive and simple kit: All told, the setup cost about $2,000. It works by pulling the feed from the @BostonUpdate Twitter list of Globe staffers, a list with 173 accounts at the moment. (The radiator, as it turns out, may have an analog antecedent come from the Globe’s own past. Thanks to The Atlantic’s Jared Keller for finding this!)
Some inspiration, Marstall told me, came from their friends at the New York Times Research and Development Lab, who you may recall from Megan’s post, developed quite the shiny story visualization tool. Their effort, Project Cascade, showed how stories from the Times spread across Twitter. While the Information Radiator is not as ambitious, it serves a similar purpose of demonstrating the new reach Twitter allows the Globe and its journalists.
“The newsroom is this nexus of information, this big group of people all about gathering information, cohering it and publishing it,” Marstall said. “And we have the ability now to draw together and follow all these newsmakers, much more easily and quickly than in the past.”
The project also has the benefit of giving an early glimpse of BostonGlobe.com, which promises subscription-supported premium content, a break from Boston.com, which will become more focused on breaking news and local events. Since BostonGlobe.com has largely been under wraps and away from the eyes of all but a small team of developers, the Information Radiator is an opportunity for the staff to see how the new site is sorted out in terms of layout and design. All together the three screens show a new kind of workflow, as information works its way from reporters on Twitter to either (or both) site.
It’s also more than a little Gawker-esque. The radiator, much like Nick Denton’s infamous display, could have a notable side effect of encouraging a little friendly competition among the staff. It may not be a pageview bounty, but Marstall hopes it inspires more of Globe journalists to get on Twitter. Even with more than 170 Twitter accounts, there’s still plenty of progress to be made. Even as Marty Baron, the Globe’s editor joined Twitter last week, Dan Shaughnessy, one of the Globe’s most celebrated sports columnists, recently got a little twitchy on the subject, writing: “Pardon me if I sound like Larry King, but what’s up with this Twitter madness? It strikes me as trendy, immature, and entirely unnecessary.”
Clearly there is work to be done, and Marstall said the project is only in its first iteration. By showing what people are Tweeting, who they are connecting with on Twitter and what stories are developing, the Information Radiator is a valuable new information feed that also happens to suggest “Hey, give this Twitter thing a try.” One of the biggest obstacles may be trying to make the display itself as unobtrusive, but useful, as possible. “We want to try and find a way to make this ambient in the newsroom,” Marstall said, alluding to something like a muted TV turned to CNN. Or something else altogether: “Basically like the NORAD screen, where it’s just essential information, it’s there, and you can’t ignore it.”
Ah yes, the big board. Always have to be careful giving people a peek at the Big Board.