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Martin Nisenholtz, RSS, and the power of standards

How the retiring New York Times executive played a role in setting a long-standing web standard.

When The New York Times announced the retirement of Martin Nisenholtz this morning, it was saying so long to someone who, in this Internet age, could pass for a Grand Old Man. Nisenholtz, senior vice president of digital operations, may only be 56 years old, but he’s been around the news-oriented web as long as anybody.

For proof, check out this Times story from January 1996: “The New York Times Introduces a Web Site.”

The electronic newspaper (address: http:/www.nytimes.com) is part of a strategy to extend the readership of The Times and to create opportunities for the company in the electronic media industry, said Martin Nisenholtz, president of The New York Times Electronic Media Company.

(The story got the website’s address wrong, by the way, with only one slash after the http: instead of the correct two. Today, browsers are more forgiving of that omission; in 1996, they weren’t. Pity the poor Times copy editor who had to be the first to figure out how to put a web address in the paper.)

It’s difficult to know how much of the Times’ digital path of the past 15 years is attributable directly to Nisenholtz; the Times is a place with many power centers, and plenty of push/pull both between print and digital and within each. But there’s no denying the leadership role the paper has taken in investing in digital distribution, in R&D, and in trying to align the best of traditional newspaper values with the wild world of the web, and Nisenholtz has been at the forefront of that effort.

The Times has always approached the web differently from most American newspapers. Most notably, it was one of the few for whom the Internet presented a real growth opportunity, less a threat and than a way to meet untapped demand. (There were, in 1996, many people who wanted to read The New York Times every day but couldn’t. There were many fewer who wanted to read The Houma Courier or the Austin American Statesman or The Toledo Blade but couldn’t.) Its scale has allowed it to invest in ways that smaller outlets couldn’t, and whatever one imagines about its future, it looks a lot stronger than that of any other general-interest newspaper in the country.

But Dave Winer points out one concrete way in which Nisenholtz helped form the Internet we know today. In 2002, Dave was running Radio UserLand, which among other things was an aggregator of news and other content from around the web. That aggregation was done using an early version of RSS, the now-ubiquitous architecture for distilling content into easily distributable parts.

As with any new technology developing in the open, RSS was constantly evolving, with competing flavors, and it was proving difficult to settle on one single standard. Until, that is, Dave approached Martin Nisenholtz about getting The New York Times content pulled into RSS. As Dave explained a week ago:

There was a constant adoption and refinement of ideas that were out there…And the arguing didn’t stop until we got the NY Times on board. Because what matters is not who invented a simple low-tech format, which RSS certainly is, what matters is who got the arguing to stop. And for that I look to the NY Times.

Today Dave added: “That was when the arguing stopped in the tech world, and we all got busy developing software. And the publishing world had a leader to follow, and that’s what they did. This was made possible by an act of faith by an exec at the Times. That person was Martin.”

Over email, Dave just noted to me the central lesson here:

I wish this story were better known because we tend to think these innovations spring from the mind of programmers. In fact, they can’t happen if they don’t get support from content providers.

Dave’s right. From websites to blogs to RSS to Twitter: They may not have been invented by news organizations — indeed, they likely couldn’t have been invented by news organizations — but that doesn’t mean news organizations didn’t play a real role in their evolution and adoption.

Here’s the memo to Times employees about the departure.

Sent: Monday, November 07, 2011 10:36 AM
To: ALL EMPLOYEES_11042011
Subject: On The Record…..from Arthur + Janet

On The Record…..from Arthur + Janet

Vol. 6 2011: Martin Nisenholtz to Retire

To Our Colleagues,

When Martin Nisenholtz joined The New York Times Company in 1995, we had zero Web page views. Indeed, we had zero Web users. Further, we had no Web revenue. Today, thanks in large measure to Martin’s vision and leadership, our digital numbers are dramatically different.

We note this and are writing to you because Martin has informed us that he plans to retire at the end of the year, after 16 years of service to The Company.

He leaves a lasting legacy that will be felt for a very long time. He developed a strong roster of executives and a deep bench of managers who are recognized leaders in our industry. Together, they will continue to execute on our digital strategy with teams comprised of the best and brightest experts on the Web, social media, design, digital devices, engineers and research and development.

Over the coming weeks, Martin will be meeting with his direct reports to ensure a smooth and seamless transition of his responsibilities.

While Martin will remain with us and engaged through the end of this year, we want to take this moment to thank him for his many years of service and dedication. Please join us in wishing Martin and his family a very healthy and happy future—in print, online and across multiple devices.

Sincerely,

Arthur + Janet

                                   
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  • Zack M.

    One of the wonderful things this post does is emphasize how adoption is as important as invention. But let’s not simply celebrate a company adopting something as the point at which success occurred. For it was also with (often creative) user adoption of RSS technology that it became ubiquitous and important. Users are the third estate of the tech world, as their wrath and love reminds us. 

  • Jodi

     On the web you ‘ve got to write for everybody, not just a few bored cows. That’s a whole lot of new readers who’ll never go near paper.