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September 15 2011

20:43

Inside the Globe Lab: how to make the Boston Globe’s two-site strategy work

Niemanlab :: Why exactly does The Boston Globe need a lab? Most newspapers aren’t known for spending a lot of resources on R&D. In an era where money is tight and newsrooms have shrunk, why exactly does The Boston Globe need a lab? Of course, that question answers itself — it’s precisely because the traditional business model is in such disarray that it makes sense to invest in ideas that could turn into something bigger. In order for BostonGlobe.com and Boston.com to grow and thrive as online properties, the Globe is counting on its lab to create the kind of products and ideas that will help each site succeed.

What are they working on? 

Continue to read Justin Ellis, www.niemanlab.org

16:00

Inside the Globe Lab: Building the tools to make the Boston Globe’s two-site strategy work

Why exactly does The Boston Globe need a lab? I ask not out of Lab sensitivity (in that “we had one before labs were cool” way), but in the practical sense. Most newspapers aren’t known for spending a lot of resources on R&D. In an era where money is tight and newsrooms have shrunk, why carve out room for experiments that may not turn into anything?

Of course, that question answers itself — it’s precisely because the traditional business model is in such disarray that it makes sense to invest in ideas that could turn into something bigger. In order for BostonGlobe.com and Boston.com to grow and thrive as online properties, the Globe is counting on its lab to create the kind of products and ideas that will help each site succeed. The mission of the Globe Lab is less decades-away dreams and more like producing near-future products.

“We want to experiment in platforms and technologies that could become real Boston Globe or Boston.com products that are offered to our customers in a year or so,” said Chris Marstall, a creative technologist for the Globe. “That doesn’t mean we can’t do stuff that isn’t clearly not product-izable.”

The Globe Lab is both a physical space and a collection of people working not too far from the Globe newsroom, where they’ll work on things that could be used to help produce better journalism, entice advertisers, and reach more readers. Or, as Marstall told me when I went for a visit, just make cool stuff. Things like the Information Radiator, or the other things percolating at Beta.Boston. Because sometimes building weird, obscure things leads to creating something that could be useful in the near future. “We want to expand, but expand in platforms that could become real Boston.com products for consumers in a year from now,” Marstall said.

So what are they working on? One idea is deploying the New York Times R&D Lab’s Project Cascade, both to see the reach of Globe stories and what possible “>forward-facing uses there are for the visualization. Another early experiment is what Marstall calls a “gestural reader” that uses the hack for Microsoft Kinect to make motion sensitive newspaper displays. (Imagine a digital version of the Globe you could place in public that people could flip through with a wave of their hand.)

“It’s all about: What is the user experience? We’re not really talking about technology.”

One tool they’ve already rolled out is Shim, a tool that allowed the development team at BostonGlobe.com to browser test that snazzy new responsive design across multiple devices. Using Shim, they could see how the site renders on an iPad or netbook, and it would mirror itself (in the format fitting the device) in a Windows Phone or Kindle at the same time. Though Shim was developed for testing the new site, it could also easily be used by designers or the advertising staff to see how their work unfolds on different devices. Marstall said Shim is a good example of the type of thing they want to do at the Globe Lab, something that helps them test their products and hopefully gain new knowledge to put to work. “It’s all about: What is the user experience?” he said. “We’re not really talking about technology. A printed newspaper is one user experience. A website is a completely different user experience. Twitter is another user experience. What do people like? What do people want? We just don’t know.”

Which, again, points to another reason to have a lab. It’s a more consumer-oriented stance for a newspaper, trying to devine what readers want. Sure, Kraft has plenty of snack scientists working around the clock to figure out the next Ritz or a Wheat Thin. But it also makes sure those experiments get put in front of actual users…er, snackers. The Globe Lab (the space) will be well suited for consumer testing, an open space that screams out for things to be touched. When completed the lab’s set-up will be not unlike an Apple Store, with desks, chairs, and tables where people can fiddle with the latest creations. They’ll also have what Marstall is calling an app wall, which will consist of three pairs of 40-inch displays. This is where they’ll shake down new ideas, like Google Maps overlays for Boston that see the city through Instagram photos, Marstall said.

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The Globe Lab’s work could end up in use in a variety of homes. Most new consumer-facing products will likely find themselves headed to the free-and-open Boston.com; more subtle tweaks to design and presentation will find a home on the paywalled BostonGlobe.com. That lines up with the Globe’s idea of making Boston.com a hub for breaking news, sports, and culture and BostonGlobe.com a premium site offering exclusive content and elegant reading experience. And that’s why the Globe put resources towards having a tinkerer’s workshop of their own, because the fastest way to get from idea to market is to cut out the consultants and try to do it yourself.

“I think in many ways it’s perfectly legitimate for an organization like a newspaper to rely on outside vendors and outside companies to track innovation,” Marstall said. “But I think it’s probably better for us to have some inquiry we do on our own.”

October 25 2010

14:00

Building a university sandbox for news orgs: UNC’s new digital newsroom nearing Nov. 1 launch

A journalism school launching an outward-facing online news outlet is nothing new these days, as more schools are creating in-house laboratories for students to learn online skills. Next Monday, though, there will be a new and interesting entrant to the field: The University of North Carolina’s Reese Felts Digital News Project is launching a news site Nov. 1 that will cover the campus and region with a 21-student staff. What makes the project different is its secondary purpose: It wants to be an R&D lab for the news industry, using its students as testing grounds for new ideas while sharing the results with the rest of us. Essentially, the students are taking requests.

Monty Cook, the project’s executive producer who had been senior vice president and editor of The Baltimore Sun and baltimoresun.com, describes a dual imperative to both give students needed skills while pushing the industry forward. The editorial focus will be on long-form journalism, particularly investigative journalism in many formats, including documentary videos and data visualization. To create and present that content, the students will be cooperating with outside companies that need a sandbox. There’s space set aside so that a browser plug-in, news application, or emerging social media platform could test a product on the site for 30 to 60 days, using the staff in a trial run.

“We’re not here to make anyone money,” Cook said. “But if we can help provide greater understanding not only for ourselves and our students but for the companies that are working hard to make the transition, then we should do that.”

That industry-aiding focus means openness. Cook said they will open-source the WordPress theme they built for the site’s back end, and iPhone and Android apps will also be available. And unlike news organizations that play stingy with their internal metrics, Cook said they will be willing to share the site’s Omniture numbers. That could come in handy as the students experiment with alternate forms of storytelling or reporting, as those lessons would be shared through a research component of the site. Cook said students will be reflecting on their successes and failures, while other UNC faculty members will contribute their thoughts and research. Some news organizations have already asked if Reese Felts students could eventually train their journalists.

As with any startup, the initial version will lack many of the features Cook visualizes down the road. The staff — 19 undergraduates and two graduate students, all paid a stipend, plus freelancers and volunteers — still needs to learn some of the skills they’ll need to produce ambitious content, Cook said. And as of now, don’t expect any revolutionary business ideas. The site will not have advertising, and is paid for by a major gift from late UNC alumnus Reese Felts.

The largest news organizations can afford their own R&D efforts and can try fresh ideas on their own. But a radio station without the resources to build a mobile app could watch as the students fine-tune theirs, or a mid-sized newspaper can observe what Cook says are exciting ideas on how to moderate discussions. The key, Cook said, is that the program is considered an audience research lab first, news organization second. And, incidentally, the students will get to learn some new skills, too. “We’re looking to do experimental digital news, and that means getting them to think differently about their approach to both newsgathering and news dissemination,” Cook said.

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