The Gray Lady has thrown her petticoat up over her head and invited you in. When The New York Times Corp. held its bring-a-hacker-to-work day last month (more formally known as Times Open), it faced the digital future forward instead of backing into it as so many of its peers have been guilty of doing.
There was a time when newspapers were at the forefront of online content. That time was around 1981, unfortunately. Watching a news report from KRON-TV in San Francisco (it's on the YouTube), back from when going online meant holding a big old land-line receiver up to a transmitter, is akin to reading Flowers for Algernon and knowing Charlie will eventually come to the realization that he's doomed. The anchor intones, "Imagine, if you will, sitting down to your morning coffee and turning on your home computer to read the day's newspaper. Well, it's not as far-fetched as it may seem." About halfway through, the reporter talks to an eccentric crank who looks like he might be 70 years old, is identified only as "owns home computer," and may be the only one with any sort of prescience. He calls the interaction between online readers "the future of the type of interrogation an individual will give to the newspapers." Finally, proof that a 70-year-old man in San Francisco invented blogging in 1981.
A San Francisco Examiner editor says, "This is an experiment ... we aren't in it to make money. We're probably not going to lose a lot ..." Enter The New York Times, circa 2009, teetering under a mountain of debt, cutting sections and supplements, and hemorrhaging newsstand sales, subscribers and ad pages. The Times is attempting to take the interrogation one step further - to a place where the tech community can change and develop the way we all read, interpret and receive the news.
The event, sporting the tagline "Why just read the news when you can hack it," where the company invited a group of hackers to meet its Developer Network, was a step in the right direction. Keynote speaker Tim O'Reilly might not have been the most inspired choice, but the invited guests - outside tech teams, developers and hackers - were. The Times had already released apis (application programming interfaces) for anyone to do with what they pleased. The biggest news out of Open was the release of the Times Newswire API - the Dev team calls it the Times' firehose, and one attendee referred to as the paper's stream of consciousness (he also Twittered "Can haz XMPP?") - is an instantaneous feed of all article-related links and metadata on nytimes.com. The reasoning behind opening the pipes and letting thousands of plumbers crawl around is simple: Innovation may come once in a while from the inspired work of a few, but in an open-source world, the creativity of the many will feed on exponential innovation. Unfortunately for the company, it won't turn up another $250 million - only a Mexican billionaire can do that - but it will ensure that the paper will remain relevant, and the brand will live on even if the Sulzbergers need to hock their shiny new Eighth Ave. skyscraper.