News.me

Getting the News — Martin Nisenholtz

(This post is part of News.me’s ongoing series, “Getting the News.” In our efforts to understand everything about social news, we’re reaching out to writers and thinkers we like to ask them how they get their daily news. Read the first post here. See all of the posts, from writers and thinkers like Chris DixonZach Seward, and danah boydhere.)

This week we sat down with Martin Nisenholtz, former senior vice president, digital at the New York Times. The Times was one of the first print publications to really embrace what the Internet could offer journalism, and has proven itself able to both adapt to the changing web environment and grow into a very different kind of media company. Martin was with the Times from the very beginning of their digital strategy. He led the teams that created and developed the website, the Times emails, the mobile apps, the Twitter accounts, the paywall… the list goes on. He also was behind the decision to adopt Dave Winer’s RSS standard for news, which quickly made RSS the only standard for news syndication for many years. Martin saw the future of news years before the rest of us did. He was kind enough to come by our offices and tell us a little of what he knows — which includes not just an exhaustive understanding of user experience of news, but also what makes some news products work, while others fail.

How do you get your news throughout the day?

Of course, I’m obsessed with the Times website. I’m on it at least a dozen times on an average day, maybe more. That’s my central hub of news. We’ve really studied very hard how people use the Times website, and I tend to be one of these people who uses it almost as a traditional publication — in that the home page, to me, is a guide for what’s important.

Human-mediated content is important to me because it both introduces a hierarchy of importance as well as a kind of serendipity. On any given day, on the Times homepage, there will be things I expect to see there, and things I have totally no awareness of. Serendipity is really important, not because it’s necessarily signaling the most important stuff throughout the day, but because it gives you a breadth you don’t get if you’re tailoring your news to narrower and narrower categories.

A lot of people throughout the years have said to me, “Why don’t you focus more on personalization?” We do have personalization tactics — the most obvious one is our recommendation engine. But the thing about personalization is that if you take it to the extreme, it narrows your worldview in such a way as to be to me unhealthy. And so if all I was seeing was the stuff I could conceive of, I think I’d be a much narrower person.

I’m also a big fan of Twitter, so I get a lot of news from the people I follow on Twitter. And I really do like the visual impact of television, so I still watch Jim Lehrer on the PBS Newshour. Not every night, but when I’m home, and when I can, I check in on that. I feel a little bit guilty about News.me, because it was incubated at the Times. I look at it, but don’t look at it every day.

That just means we need to improve.

A lot of these young services are in that category. You need to tip it over. Like Twitter at the outset. Twitter is a network effects company — if there are no other people on the network, it’s going to be pretty useless. But the more people that join the network, the richer it gets. Maybe News.me has some of that as well.

Part of the problem is that there are just so many ways of experiencing information now. The barriers to creating services are pretty low. As a professional in this area, I use every service because I need to see every service, but that’s different from having something really turn me on. Flipboard is gorgeous. I mean, it’s one of the best and most interesting UIs that has been invented, to my eye, in the last ten years. And yet I still haven’t for whatever reason totally insinuated it into my life. And I don’t quite know why. It’s a gorgeous, accessible, wonderful service, but it just hasn’t tipped for me into a daily thing.

So what do you think it requires to make something tip?

At this point, for me, it has to be undeniably must-read. It has to be, “If I don’t have this, I’m at some serious disadvantage in my life.” Because the cacophony of sources has just become so great, you could just spend all day surfing around news websites and news apps and not get anything done. It just has to tip into something, as Steve Jobs coined the phrase, “insanely great.”

Is there something that has tipped for you recently?

Obviously, a lot of stuff outside news. Tumblr. Instagram. A bunch of other apps. But I have to be honest with you — no. Probably the last thing that flipped for me was Twitter. And that was a few years ago.

It’s hard. If you’re in the business of creating news and information, and I am, and I have been for many years — you get these kind of blinders, where you think everybody is into it. But the fact is, when you go out and you talk to people who are not in the business, they’re leading their lives and doing what they do, and for them everything is just totally optional. So it just has to be must-have in order for it to work.

Is there something in your consumption habits that you think is missing? Some tool?

No. The thing that’s so great about our business. Every time you think you’ve got it done, some new wonderful thing comes along that just tips for you. It always comes serendipitously. If I knew what that app was going to be, I’d probably try and go build it. But sometime in the next 2-5 years something will fill a need I didn’t even know I had.

Twitter is a great example of that. Who would have thought — I mean, I don’t think the guys that built Twitter thought this — that this thing that was limited to 140 characters would become such a central part of the news and information ecosystem?

What did you see as the potential for online news when you started at the Times? How does that related to what you see as the future of news now?

There were a lot of proprietary services before the web. One that people think of today as the most prominent was America Online. AOL was founded in 1983 and grew to be a very robust proprietary service. And then the web came along and disrupted it. Before the web disrupted traditional media, actually, it disrupted AOL, which is sort of ironic.

When I came to my original interview with Arthur Sulzberger, it was with a lot of bias about how information is managed online. You had these two poles, and I think they still exist. One is essentially the Internet as a pure distribution medium for news and entertainment created in a multi-platform context, including for print and television. A distribution medium, basically. A great example is watching TV through IP, or reading articles that are in the Times newspaper, except online. Think of that as one side of the spectrum. The total opposite side of the spectrum is web as platform. And that’s where all the engineers live. You don’t need many engineers to just port traditional content onto the web, but you do need engineers to build application value.The classic example is Google News. It is pretty much a pure application.

So that tension has existed in my mind from the moment we started the website. And I’ve always pushed really hard to broaden what the Times can be. Sometimes I’ve succeeded and sometimes I’ve failed, but I really think it’s important for traditional news sources to embrace the technology side of our business — and really understand what the application side can do for content. Not just publishing content from one source and porting it into a bunch of templates.

I think the Times was the first publication in my experience that actually used the application side. What do you think was your greatest success at the times, in developing this web platform?

In a funny irony, the thing that we did right — and it’s not me, believe me, I’m very humble when it comes to the New York Times because it’s a collective, collaborative creation every day, and the people who lead the business always need to be aware of that. But I think the thing we really got right — and we got it right pretty much at the outset — was taking the Times' essence, what the Times stands for as a brand, and making it easy to use and very accessible online.

Very few people are in the digerati, right? If you engineer products purely for those people, you will always fail. You need to understand that 99 percent of the people really don’t care about what you do. They care about how what you do affects their lives. Unless you touch them, in a very meaningful way, you will fail. If you focus on the technology, or focus on what will be cool about it to a very small group of people, it’s just not going to work.

I think we created something that people see as exciting and useful and, at the same time, an expression of what the heritage of this thing had been. That’s hard to do. It’s not so much about science — you can’t measure that — as it is about the art of it. That I think is what I am most proud of in terms of what this team accomplished.

One of the ways the Times managed to seamlessly transition the brand from print publication with so much weight and dignity to an online platform with still the same dignity was design.

That’s precisely what I meant when I said what our greatest achievement was. You just said it more succinctly! But the reason I didn’t use the D-word is because design is one aspect of that. And it’s a very, very important aspect. But there’s more to it. There’s UI, user experience, architecture. Design is certainly a major component of what you’re calling dignity and gravitas, but the way you move through the content is also very important. We were, in those early days, criticized for making the interactive design too basic. But in 1995 or 1996, pretty much everyone was using narrowband at home, so there were on very slow dialup connections, often through a service like AOL. And at work, the quick connections were obviously much faster, but still very limited. You had to engineer something that would work for the user in that environment. It had to be fairly bare bones.

The other thing that people criticized was our homepage design. We obviously built the homepage as a gif. It had a lot of design elements in it, and it was hand-tailored for a couple of years in a way that a lot of people thought was kind of retro. But it had the effect of bringing along a lot of people who were familiar with and understood the Times design language. So it wasn’t just about trying to recreate something, it was about — you used the word “dignity,” and I think that is the right word. If we had not done it that way, we would have never differentiated ourselves. Because the content is really important and it’s central, but the expression and the organization of that content is also important. Maybe not quite as important, but certainly important.

(Interview conducted by Sonia Saraiya.)