Why The New York Times Doesn't Call Its Readers 'Readers'

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In a world of near-ubiquitous computing, where an ever-expanding collection of devices turns readers into an army of co-creators and news distributors, The New York Times is trying to figure out its place. And the venerable Gray Lady's place in this world, increasingly, rests squarely with turning its readers into, well, something more.

CAT: Derek Gottfrid and Nick Bilton
CAT: Derek Gottfrid and Nick Bilton
Speaking at the CaT: Creativity and Technology conference today, Derek Gottfrid, senior software architect and product technologist at The New York Times, said the company has quit calling online readers "readers," instead referring to them as users. The conference is hosted by Advertising Age and Creativity.

"When we think traditionally about creation [at The New York Times] it was limited to people within the Times," he said. "We created for readers ... [for whom] it was a passive experience. But as we moved online, we wanted to move people from readers to users."

To do so, the company has opened up its application programming interfaces, which Mr. Gottfrid described for the layperson as "programmer building blocks." The Times has taken content and data -- both internally created material, such as movie reviews and best-seller lists, and external data, such as campaign-finance and legislative information -- and opened up the APIs so that outside developers can create tools for its consumers.

Among the results: Instantwatcher mashes up the "Watch Instantly" program from online movie-rental service Netflix with Times movie critics' top choices. Another app, called NYTExplorer, provides an alternative article-search function to the one that exists on NYTimes.com. The Times is counting on such applications to drive traffic to its site and, when they do, there is no charge for tapping into the APIs. If the developers' products don't drive traffic, "we'll have to collect a few dollars," Mr. Gottfrid said.

Content companies are also battling an influx of devices, all with varying screen sizes and formats, and links. Nick Bilton, New York Times design-integration editor and user-interface specialist, said on a normal day he sees 162,000 links to content. "That's too much content, and we're trying to figure out how we can help," he said. He cited a product still being tested called Shiftd that will let users peruse content across platforms in a more seamless way, picking up on their PCs where they might have left off on their mobile phones. But the platforms themselves present another challenge. "One pattern we've started to see happen is [that across] all the netbooks and mini-computers and super-large computers ... our content looks different on all of them," Mr. Bilton said. "Within this room alone there are probably 50 different size displays and devices."

Some of the research and data-visualization programs the company has come up with indicate who is accessing Times content throughout the day around the world. He showed a snapshot of around noon EST: On the West Coast, people just making their way to work were heavy users of mobile content, while the major metropolitan hubs on the East Coast and in the Midwest had more PC users. The Times has created an application, built on the Adobe Air platform, that automatically resizes and optimizes a page view based on screen size. He also showed off a prototype of an iPhone app that would allow users to sort New York Times real-estate listings on the go, based on a variety of parameters, including location.
Photo by Gary He
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