Saturday, September 15, 2007

'Times' Are Changing

What is the future of the newspaper? The New York Times sponsored a luncheon at Kansas State University on Thursday to discuss this, or so I thought. The luncheon was a part of a series for the JMC Mentoring Program at K-State. Susan Edgerley, assistant managing editor for the New York Times, and Steve Wolgast, news design editor for the New York Times, both K-State alum, were the speakers.

First, they showed a YouTube video of "Web 2.0 ... The Machine is Us/ing Us", done by Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State, Michael Wesch. Not only does he make an incredibly accurate video, Wesch is also a great teacher. I have not yet had the privilege to be in any of his classes, but I hear nothing but high praise from current and past students. My friend, who is currently in his Intro to Cultural Anthropology course, is required to learn 20 student's names in the class; they have to get to know each other via Facebook. Some don't have Facebook (crazy, I know), so they have to register just for the project/quiz.

The Web is changing, obviously. The New York Times pointed out that it's changing their job and their readers. Susan and Steve poignantly used an allegory of the farmer and the lily pad. The farmer goes out to his pond and sees a lily. He thinks nothing of it. A few days pass, and he comes back to the pond. Now there are a few more lily pads. He decides that he needs to get something to remove the lily pads. But he doesn't get around to it. A week goes by, and he comes back to the pond. It's completely filled with lily pads. He didn't act quickly, so now his pond is covered with lily pads. They said we need to recognize the pace of how quickly things are changing. Not only do we need to recognize this, but we need to react.

Next, they showed a video of a young woman (probably in her twenties) who was very connected to her laptop computer and cell phone. During the interview, she was on the couch with her computer, and the cell phone was on the armrest. She's so physically dependant on technology that she adamantly expressed how it's her life, she couldn't live without it. The young woman looked as if she were going to burst into tears at the thought. The New York Times' job, they say, is to find out how to get someone who doesn't read traditional newspaper to read it. But they didn't say how they're going about it.

The speakers often referred to what the New York Times is doing to keep up with technology. "The Lede", a popular blog from the Times' sources, is "something you wouldn't have seen on even a year ago", said Susan Edgerley. She and Steve told us about when most of the subway flooded -- they (the New York Times) were there. The radio didn't have anything yet, not even the MTA site had any information on alternatives or information of what exactly was going on. This is when the readers became reporters, with their comments on the blog(s). With the blogs come links to other sites unaffiliated with the New York Times, linking to sites they can't edit. The Times expects the average person to understand their inability to moderate the Internet. It's common sense.

"We have to do it all. We can do it all" said Susan. They showed a user photograph from of lightning striking at the perfect time during a thunderstorm. Other pictures and video they have to be careful with. They verify the user's credibility by talking to them and getting the story. It can be through a thirty-minute conversation on the phone if need be. The blog comments are also moderated by the staff, though never edited. It either stays or goes.

When it was time for Q & A, Tom Palmer, Jr., reporter for the Boston Globe, asked about what the New York Times is doing to show various viewpoints, as it is widely know as a liberal paper. Susan and Steve said that their online editorials give a concentrated effort that all sides are represented. A student asked how the Web is affecting advertising. Susan said, "Web advertising is growing huge, but it's only this big [small percentage]". There is exponential potential, but tiny revenue.

For the most part, we learned what the New York Times is doing to keep up with a rapidly changing business. During discussion at the table with the people I met and during the presentation, there were hints of how print will remain. The tactile importance and simple ingenuity of escaping from the world until you release your captivated eyes from it keeps us wanting more.

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