Applications: Martin Nisenholtz

For this week’s Applications class, we had two really good student presentations.  One was a hilarious version of The Dating Game, involving wigs and moustaches and corny jokes and a soundboard for laughtrack.  Well done.  The other presentation involved a video showing the presenters in Times Square and in the subway, giving free directions and free subway trip swipes, respectively.  The thing I found interesting about the free directions vignette was that most people just wanted the person to hold their camera so he could take their photo.

Which makes me think: one of the most desired gadgets we’ll have in the future is some sort of android, preferably hovering, tasked to you, which floats around you and takes photos and video of you constantly.  The desire to record one’s own life is very powerful, and most of all it is limited by the requirement of having an “other” there to take the footage of you, away from yourself, when you’re not paying attention, when it’s not just a camera at arm’s length or set up on a timer in a staged scene.  Imagine if you have a tasked bot taking minutes of footage and hundreds of photos of you, having been given a routine to find the best footage of you possible.

Our guest speaker for this week was Martin Nisenholtz, who back in the day was part of the founding faculty for my NYU ITP program.  He’s now Senior Vice President for digital operations at the New York Times.

The guy is very savvy and pretty tuned in to how things play on the web — as he should, seeing how the NYT web site is one of the most trafficked online.  He did seem pretty defensive about the company’s “porous paywall” and about decisions to avoid celebrity journalists and more local blogging or curation.

I’ve been pretty happy with the quality of questions my classmates ask…the Q&A sessions are never boring, which is a divergence from many of the talks I went to at Georgetown, where the Q&A was usually someone pimping his or her thinktank in the guise of a “question”.

But I hate waiting my turn to ask questions in front of the whole group so I don’t often participate in that way.  I wish there were a backchannel or at least an alternate channel of comms during classes and presentations.

What I wanted to say was that I found some of Nisenholtz’s decisions puzzling.  He rightly identifies that the NYT’s core strength lies in the unsurpassed quality of its editors and their abilities to pick important stories for the reader.  So why does the NYT devote much of its front page to links recommended on Facebook by one’s friends?  This is too Huffington Post-ish.  Why do I care about what my friends are reading, unless I have pretty awesome newsie friends?  To be honest, I could just go to Facebook and see what my friends are posting — however it’ll often be at least a day or two late, and more often than not something fluffy I don’t care too much about.

I’m at the NYT site, I want to see more prominent display of what the NYT editors and journalists are reading.  I see the “backchannel” for them on Twitter, which I love — but I wish it happened more on the front page.

I also think the NYT (and most of the internet) undervalues the strength of its comments.  The NYT actually has mods who pick the best comments and highlight them.  This alone makes NYT comments worth reading more than some other sites, where you would have to sift through the garbage and hate.  I know most people don’t read comments, but go visit the editors’ picks for comments on a story.  They do actually add a lot to a story.  I wish the NYT would highlight these more, considering almost every other site on the internet has totally given up moderating comments.

If the NYT is a newsroom of the most skilled and wired journalists and editors and curators, then it should also be curating comments to find added facts and nuggets of gold from visitors.  This is one area where the NYT and most traditional media are getting killed by other sites.  reddit for example is not so much about what stories it aggregates (which it’s mighty good at), but at the thousands of comments posted on the story afterwards.  Some of the comments are from people who are in the article topic’s trade field, or who have direct knowledge of the incident.  This kind of insider info is invaluable.

So what you will often see is a very well-written NYT story linked from reddit, where reddit has 1k+ comments and over 2k upvotes.  So the whole conversation is happened outside of NYT’s site.  This would be unforgivable to me, if I were SVP of digital operations.

The usual complaint is that you can’t let a community moderate itself, or you can’t hire too many people to moderate.  Sorry?  Why not?  You could let people up/down- vote, you can let them tag and classify comments like slashdot did (as interesting, relevant, 1st hand source, funny, etc.) as some preliminary filtering, then use a curator to manage the rest.  You can have tabs to select between all comments, editors’ picks, user picks, etc.

Nisenholtz seemed to suggest he thinks curators don’t exist because they don’t have a business model to support them yet.  That’s funny since there are some EXCELLENT curators online doing the job for free.  They are gifted at sifting through tons of data every day and know which stories are actually changing the operating environment (for when you know something well enough, you essentially only look at what’s changed from what was the norm before).  They have high mental bandwidth and are supremely flexible.  This is a skill that editors and writers and researchers don’t really have.  I wish that they were employed better.

He also gave lip service to identity.  Now, I hate when people use this term because they usually mean it to say that we should be using Facebook to log in for comments, because people believe anonymous comments are what lead to garbage comments.  Well, when you make someone post under their actual names, it gets POLITICAL.  Then when you mod their comments down, they see it as an affront to their free speech rights and bullshit like that.

Whereas when I talk about identity, what I really want is that people who post under a certain handle (pseudonymous or under real name) can build up a reputation of posting good content, or finding good content.  This is what Twitter does, not by design but by virtue of following individual accounts.  I can choose to only follow the top journalists and the people like Jason Kottke or Andy Baio or Laughing Squid, who always find the best links out there before they go super-viral.  I don’t want the dumbass Huffington Post badges that just reward people for posting a lot, and in particular posting a lot towards the site’s agenda (e.g. the top users are all super wacko far-lefties).

At my previous job, our core group of analysts all agreed that there’s so much that can be done with a team of talented and well-trained curators.  I’ve considered guerrilla journalist teams, using several field reporters cross-trained in curation, being backed up at homebase by other curators, somewhat similar to Special Forces ODAs and ODBs.  Curators just aren’t used enough, and meanwhile, everyone else complains about not having enough time to find out what’s going on.

A final puzzling thing Nisenholtz brought up were these somewhat static overview pages on certain topics.  They made me think of Wikipedia immediately.  Like, why would you even devote company resources to having info pages on different topics?  Especially after being so keen on maintaining competitive advantage and not going the way of other news sites’ models?  The other aspect of that was, when he brought up the main topic page, the lede was the Amanda Knox timeline.  Pretty CNNish.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love the NYT brand.  It has proven itself to consistently write some of the best news out there, and to both find and drive the news.  No other company does news editing better.  My former bosses loved the NYT as “proof” that things had occurred, backing up the social media stuff my team was finding.  But my team knew not to even check the NYT until later, after an event.  We would check Twitter and local cable news sites first.  Then we’d expect Associated Press and Reuters.  Then we’d expect NYT to flash something brief later.  Then maybe a full report later.  And then, of course, friends would post it on Facebook a day or more later.  News definitely trickles down and while I will cut the NYT tons of slack to do fact-finding and heavy editing (and Nisenholtz shouldn’t be so defensive about that), but I can see behind the lines on Twitter and on the NYT blogs that the writers and bloggers and journos are sitting on tons of info in the interim until it floats into the main stories.

The backchannels are still killing traditional press in terms of execution, speed, and the “process” of news developments.