That was the title of a talk at the SxSW Interactive Festival here in Austin, Texas, that a few of us went to yesterday afternoon.
We were all looking forward to it. We’ve got some form with newspapers in the UK, having designed sites and blogging platforms for UK broadsheets and tabloid newspapers as well as creating a hugely successful blog-based community site for the UK’s leading quality broadsheet The Daily Telegraph. We’re also long-time fans of NYTimes.com. The site delivered 20 million unique users in October 2008 (okay, it was the election but even so…) and was the fifth-ranked news site on the Internet in terms of total visitors. Consistently brilliant interactive and information graphics, and restless experimentation with new technologies and new models led us all to expect a great deal from this talk. Like many in the packed conference room, I was sadly disappointed.
The talk was astonishingly boring and backwards-looking, as web-hating Design Director Tom Bodkin droned on and on about a glorious past that quite frankly no-one was there to hear about, starting with his college days which were a very long time ago (Tom seemed about 130 years old). Tom, the clue here was in the title of your talk – the “future” of The New York Times.
A full 20 mins of the hour were dedicated to Tom’s slides from the heyday of hot metal. He managed to dis Razorfish in passing – the agency charged with channeling his ‘genius’ during the website’s redesign a couple of year’s back. He then set about ripping up the Web medium in general for a ‘lack of innovation’ before claiming the NYTimes website didn’t support serendipitous discovery as much as the paper product: a claim so ridiculous that I checked my ears to see if they were working properly. I say ridiculous for the simple reason that the online experience provides billions of hyperlinks that allow one to move from today’s top stories through extensive archives and related content on a fairly joyous journey of discovery in a way that the paper product simply does not.
Next up, digital Design Director Khoi Vinh presented a series of haiku-like chunks of design philosophy – statements like “we are a platform” – and some slides of the website’s extravagantly over-designed style guides. Always suspicious of interaction designers who put so much effort into crafting linear style guides like this. There then ensued a kind of mumbling competition between the two men mainly involving the words “err” and “umm”. During this phase of the talk, delivered in a hypnotic monotone, neither man looked at the audience and Bodkin mainly looked at the table. People started leaving.
The most staggering stuff came towards the end of the session, when Bodkin started to talk about the commercial model: “The most staggering stuff came towards the end of the session, when Bodkin started to talk about the commercial model: “Big display ads is sort of what we’re good at”. Oh dear. Having read Clay Shirky’s brilliant description of newspapers’ broken economic model only hours before this NYTimes talk, I’m pretty sensitive to the fact that the future is *not* about big display ads. The fact that Bodkin and Vinh are still able to delude themselves to this degree speaks volumes about why some newspapers are in so much trouble. What a shame this includes the Old Grey Lady.
Until recently, the prevailing wisdom has been that newspapers still have a few years to transition into ‘something else’. Indeed, it must have looked pretty good until very recently, with online ad revenue rocketing throughout 2008. The recession changes all of that, and it now transpires that newspapers have very little time at all. It’s ten to midnight, and the style guides we were shown by Bodkin and Vinh are rather like a layout plan of deck-chairs on the Titanic’s decks made on the morning of the collision. The nostalgia is like the newspaper’s life flashing before its eyes as it lies dying, utterly surprised at the sudden worsening of its long-term illness.
Across the industry, we’re looking at a sudden collapse rather than a managed transition, but it’s noteworthy and encouraging for us Brits that our newspapers seem to ‘get it’ much more than our US cousins. It is utterly unthinkable that the Guardian or Telegraph would make the kind of presentation we saw yesterday, and it’s clear that both are gearing up very quickly for the next surge towards becoming Web-driven products.
I doubt you’ll find the NYTimes presentation on SlideShare. And if you did wouldn’t find much at all about the future. They can’t admit it to themselves, let alone tell anyone else about it.