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September 15 2011

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.”

August 02 2011

18:27

Boston Globe creates a Twitter board for the newsroom

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.

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 peak at the Big Board.

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