At Times ‘Hack Day,’ Geeks Are Invited to Make a Newspaper Work on the Web

On Feb. 20, New York Times Company president and chief executive Janet Robinson was standing on the 15th floor of the Times building speaking to a room packed with hackers. About 140 software developers, engineers and miscellaneous geeks were tip-tapping on their laptops and iPhones—some in blazers and jeans, others sporting bedhead and Converse sneakers—while she gave a short speech at Times Open, a “hack day” event which welcomed them to use the New York Times‘ internal data and brainstorm new ideas for online applications, interfaces and mashups for their Web site. “We are asking you to be part of our future,” Ms. Robinson said. “Readers across this country I think really have made it clear that they want to search for news, they want to blog it, they want to email it, they want to comment on it, they want to map it, and they certainly want to share it,” she continued. “And you certainly can help us make sure that we are doing that each and every day.”

Modeled after the Yahoo! Hack Days, Times Open was proposed by two of NYTimes.com’s developers, Derek Gottfrid and Jacob Harris a little over a year ago, according to Marc Frons, the Times‘ chief technology officer. “I thought it was a great idea, there was only one problem: we had nothing to hack,” he said. But now, the Times has plenty. Since October last year, Times has been releasing its “API”s. API stands for “application platform interface,” in geek terms, but it means they open clusters of data, and the technology that powers their databases, so developers can create new displays and interactive features. Developers have to agree to the TimesTerms of Use and register for a key before they can access the data. For example, their Campaign Finance API included detailed information about candidates donations and were searchable by state and ZIP code. On Feb. 17, they released their TimesPeople API, with which developers can play around with the data of each user who signed up for the newspaper’s social network, including their profile, activities, news feed and network, to make it more useful for them.

After keynote speeches, the Times‘ digital staff gave demonstrations on how to use the APIs and then there were “breakout sessions” so developers could discuss new ideas. Attendees got t-shirts, Times Open “merit badgets” and bagels, danish, coffee and tea were served for breakfast.

Freelance developer Aaron Quint and Erin McKean, chief executive officer of an upcoming online dictionary site Alphabeticall.com, said Times Open will help them learn how to use the APIs and get face time with NYTimes.com developers so maybe they will be more willing to answer their email questions about developing features for the Times in the future. Riding in “space age elevators” was an added bonus, too, Ms. McKean said.

One Yahoo! News employee said he was there to create applications and programs that might unify the top 10 news sites on the Web.

Derek Gottfrid, the Times‘ senior software architect, explained how developers can help the newspaper change their relationship with subscribers. “We’ve gone from just thinking about people as just readers to people that are users,” he said. By offering developers the chance to use their data and create applications with it, the New York Times is honing their image as a technologically advanced news entity that’s looking beyond print to the future of online news.

Tim O’Reilly, the founder and chief executive officer of O’Reilly Media, Inc., a top computer book publishing company, and the open Web activist who defined Web 2.0 for a generation of entrepreneurs and developers, said the Times, and other newspapers, need to upgrade their Web sites to better serve their “users.” In his keynote speech at Times Open, he challenged The New York Times to engage readers with social networking, use their data more effectively and get readers contributing and investing in online conversation.

He critiqued the Times for not utilizing Twitter, the popular micro-blogging platform, effectively. “There’s this immense opportunity for conversation and it’s not happening,” he said while displaying the Times‘ Twitter account on a giant screen in the conference room. “The New York Times is Twittering The New York Times, so it’s like an RSS feed.” He opened his own TimesPeople account and noted “it’s kind of a ghost town.” He hadn’t even uploaded a profile picture. The account is meant to display what other TimesPeople are reading and commenting on. But “what I’d like to see here is my Twitter crowd,” Mr. O’Reilly said. He considers the people he follows Twitter his “news correspondents”–telling him what to read and what they think about it in real time.

He also said the Times wasn’t giving enough “blog love” to the users who link to their stories or the commentors who frequently participate in conversations on their site.

“Anybody like The New York Times, and for that matter, somebody like me, like a publisher, has to ask, what assets do we have that get better with user participation?” he said. “What knowledge are we gaining about our readers? What knowledge are we gaining from our readers? How do we follow our brand? Is it spread by them?”

He wondered if the Times could come up with a way for users to “opt-in” to have their TimesPeople or maybe Facebook profile noted on the NYTimes.com page when they e-mail an article to a friend. And what about a way to filter intelligent comments to the top of a discussion section–since articles with hundreds of replies in chronological order isn’t so helpful to users? It’s all about giving their readers status, he said. “Who are these people who have all this time to write in to The New York Times, who care enough, who are passionate? And how do we actually get them out of being commenter number 945 on that story?” he asked.

Mr. O’Reilly charged the developers in the room to help newspapers engage readers with the Web.

“If there is some feature you want, don’t wait for the Times to do it. Hack it,” he said to the crowd. “Look for that data that has been thrown on the floor, the data that nobody cared about is actually the key to unlocking that new value,” he continued.

He said programmers should see the internet as a platform for journalism. “Part of the way that programmers can contribute to journalism is that they can create a context in which other people can share,” he said, and that includes creating space for users to upload their own pictures, blog posts, stories and Twitters to supplement hard-nosed journalism.

Mr. O’Reilly said all newspapers, and their readers, need to be paying more attention to the developer community and the online opportunities they can create for newspapers. “There’s a long way to go towards fully understanding the power of programmers to manage the massive amounts of data,” he said.

“You guys are out there inventing the future, and one day everybody is going to live in it.”