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As the media world is trying to feel its way through the digital space, there are a lot of ideas and experiments that aren't going to work. Tech giants as big as Google realize this fact. And now The New York Times is catching onto the idea of iteration.
This weekend, Times writer Ben Zimmer the magazine's On Language column on the word iterate. And now the company has announced a new iterative approach to digital: Beta620.
Safire quoted CNET reporter Caroline McCarthy to prove his point about tech iteration. She wrote:
“In the tech industry, a company like Facebook likes to say that it iterates.' Old products are killed. New ones are rolled out one at a time, rather than bundled together in a huge annual relaunch. Experimental features emerge and disappear.”
And now that's the approach The Times is taking online as well. According to AdAge, this summer the paper will start a public beta testing site called Beta620 to try out new applications and ideas. 620 is the paper's street address in Manhattan. The site will launch this summer. According to Marc Frons, The Times' CTO for digital operations:
"Our hope is that we will be able to bring new ideas from concept to prototype to launch much faster with a public beta site than we could using NYTimes.com alone — and that we may do so without the risk of disrupting NYTimes.com or conflicting with other development projects."
Considering that the company is already in a sort of beta with its the metered model launch, it's nice to see The Times take ownership of the iterative process of developing technology. The company announced it would launch a paywall next January nearly a year before the plan would go live. Subsequently, details of the site's new features have been announced, leaked and commented on. But no matter what Times executives say about their new pay model, there's no way of knowing how things will go until they take the plunge and launch their paid content attempt.
Beta620 is a forum that will take some pressure off of the Times' tech staff when it comes to developing new products. The group has already won accolades for impressive graphics and data visualizations. New additions like The Times Skimmer have been lauded by many. But not every new trick is going to go as planned. The paper has gotten a lot of flack for its attempted paywall known as Times Select. The effort to put oped columnists behind a paywall actually brought in a good deal of revenue, but it choked off traffic and was discontinued in 2007. As AdAge points out, other tech initiatives have failed to find a footing at The Times. The Times Extra function introduced in December 2008, for instance, was discontinued a year later, as readers didn't particularly care to see links to other news outlets on the Times' website.
Currently, consumers are particularly open to new technologies and strategies coming from media organizations. It's obvious that the media industry cannot continue along as it has for the last few decades. The New York Times in particular has developed a lot of goodwill among its readers. And acknowledging that it is testing out digital strategies both taps into that mindset and allows for additional experimenting.
Consumers realize that quality reporting costs money. And considering the current climate, they are more open to paying for digital content than ever before. If The Times can find new ways of delivering content that users respond to, it can find out before potentially alienating all of the 32.5 million unique visitors that ComScore tracks at their site every month.
Google famously kept Gmail in beta from its launch in April of 2004 until last summer. That didn't stop 176 million people from using it monthly. It also establishes the New York Times brand as one that is trying to test the boundaries of new technologies. When The Times gets things right, it's business as usual. But when new initiatives fail, the paper gets skewered by readers and critics.
Considering that internet advertising is set to take over newspaper revenue soon, investing in digital experiments until it gets them right will likely pay off in the end.