And while this isn’t an obituary, it is a eulogy for a small group within a tremendous organization that I believe had an outsize impact on how The New York Times has evolved during the past seven years. I’ve always thought that without the NY Times R&D Lab, the labs of other cultural institutions in New York simply wouldn’t exist.
The work done by NY Times R&D was somehow always ahead of the time, in that they would make vivid prototypes and experimental services and then most of them would simply become how we consumed and created the news. It was convened to work on new problems, technologies, and opportunities that the rest of the organization would start to seriously face 3–5 years out. It wasn’t their place to “solve and scale” outright, but to create research — made manifest by incredible interactive prototypes — that would help the organization think through, and adapt to these changes, and to show where The Times could go.
The R+D Lab was born in an era when “Will the New York Times survive?” was being asked with increasing frequency, and with an increasing certainty that it would not.
In early 2009, Carlos Slim loaned The New York Times Corporation $250 million and sold off part its new headquarters. It was against this backdrop that The New York Times R&D Lab was brought to the public’s attention, an internal team to The NY Times bringing together designers, reporters, software engineers to show a future where technology wasn’t killing The Times, but was one of its strengths helping it thrive.
Their first public project was Custom Times, which showed how a personalized NY Times would be experienced by its readers. It went beyond digital being “the web” but adapted Times content across phones, tablets (a year before the iPad), televisions and cars. And it worked, making moving between these drastically different forms seamless.
Unlike many prototypes, rough around the edges, designed to quickly prove to management a thing could be done, Custom Times was a prototype made for the world to see, like a concept car for what a news organization might produce in a few years time. It was a prototype made for a particular world: advertisers. The Times had to convince their advertisers that it was a brand worth continuing to invest in, as it would continue to capture the attention of audiences and not blink out of existence. Advertisers bit.
They wanted to show other visions. Software was cool to see, but new hardware was something that could be experienced. When they built a mirror that showed how intelligent displays could become a part of our homes, providing briefings on news, personal schedules, and social updates. It captured the imagination of where ubiquitous technology could go and lived up to its name: Magic Mirror.