Old Media Interview: Aron Pilhofer, interactive guru, editor at The New York Times

December 1st, 2008

Aron Pilhofer

For our last Old Media Interview, we spoke with Stephanie Romanski of The Grand Island Independent in Nebraska.

We’re now going from the smallest of the small — perhaps Grand Island isn’t the smallest place ever — to the biggest of the big.

You know all of the data that goes into, well, everything you see from The New York Times? Aron Pilhofer is the guy responsible. We asked him a few questions.

Please give us a short bio/official title:

I am the editor of Interactive Newsroom Technologies at The Times, which means I run a small team of developer/journalists here in the newsroom. I’ve been involved with managing the group since we started it a little over a year ago, but it’s been my official day job since January. Prior to that I was a reporter on the computer-assisted reporting team at The Times. Before that I was database editor at the Center for Public Integrity; a statehouse, municipal and projects reporter for Gannett and on the training staff of Investigative Reporters and Editors.

What are your unofficial duties?
We’re a small team, and relatively self-sufficient in terms of the technologies we use (Ruby on Rails, Flash, Amazon EC2 and, soon, a spot of Django). So we all have to do whatever needs to get done, in order to get things done. Sometimes that’s glamorous tasks like data entry, or managing servers. Sometimes that’s waking up at 3 a.m. to fix a misbehaving application (which happened often during the Olympics). And on good days, I get to code! My official duties include a lot of meetings and managerial nonsense I tolerate because the rest of my job is so darn much fun.

The Times is well known for its visualizations. What are some key ingredients for a powerful interactive graphic? What kinds of responses have you received from readers?
Last bit first: The responses from readers run the gamut as you can imagine. One thing I will say about New York Times readers is they really, really pay attention to what we have out there, and when you have something wrong, they let you know about it. Fast. In no uncertain terms. Of course, they’re equally responsive when you do something right.

After Super Tuesday, we got gobs and gobs of email from readers praising our coverage, which was extraordinarily gratifying since it was for us maybe the scariest project we’ve worked on, including election night. That was the first big test of my group, whether we could pull off a major, clutch project, so it was pretty scary.

In terms of what makes a powerful interactive, I think it depends on the story, obviously, but the best ones I believe are the ones that are truly … interactive. That term is widely used to describe a lot of web features whose level of interactivity is limited to the user clicking on a button and watching things move around the screen. That’s absolutely a form of online story telling, but it’s not interactive in any way, shape or form.

So, the ones that work are the ones that call to action (like Word Train or the one we launched Tuesday, If You Were President), or the ones that provide readers a way to probe and investigate on their own. One of the first (and still very best) examples of this is our Casualties of War interactive. Using a very simple slider interface, users can see trends that otherwise would be hidden or obscured in a sea of data. It’s still one of the best examples of the form. Our election night maps, of course, are also tremendous. Both of those projects were collaborations with the graphics desk, which I can say is easily the best in the business.

Actually, come to think of it, collaboration is maybe THE key ingredient to what makes a powerful interactive. One of the great things about our newsroom is that it is unusually collaborative, and most of the projects you’ll see involve multiple desks: us, the web newsroom, computer-assisted reporting, our multimedia group and our graphics team. We all bring something different to the table, and that’s how good ideas become great interactives.

Which three NYT interactive graphics are your favorites?

I’m in an election mood, so:

- The house maps from election night [are] something close to magic.

- I also thought the pop-up dashboard was a huge hit. (Click the image link just to the right of the photo)

- And I liked [the] word train, which was very un-NYTimes-ish.

How much do things like that cost generally, and what’s the ROI?

Gotta punt on this: I have no idea on either score. We are a news desk, so what we do is motivated by journalistic goals. That isn’t to say that our stuff doesn’t draw significant numbers, and doesn’t “sell.” It absolutely does. It’s just that I don’t have a whole lot to do with that beyond letting our product people know what’s coming up. And that’s the way it should be.

Are there any free or open-source products out there that small-town newspapers can use?

Everything we use is free and open-source. Our platform is Ruby on Rails backed by Mysql databases running on Ubuntu servers. The cost here isn’t software, or even hardware, which is relatively cheap these days through hosting companies like Amazon EC2 (on the high end) or Slicehost (on the low end). The price most news organizations (and it’s not just small ones) seem reluctant to pay is for people — developers like the ones in my group who can build the infrastructure to support the rich, deeply engaging web features that so many people love about our site.

It seems that some pretty major news organizations have built on-site social networks: There’s TimesPeople, the Journal Community and the NPR Community. What are your thoughts on news organizations in this space? Are on-site social networks the future for news?

Well, the person to pose this question to is Derek Gottfrid, the absolutely spooky smart developer/renaissance man behind TimesPeople and TimesMachine. He will give you an earful on the subject.

To my way of seeing it, the answer is yes. But as a means, not an end. We’re not building FaceBook on the Times, and that’s not something people really want anyway. What it does show is how the Times‘s view of the web is changing, and how we’re starting to approaching the web on its terms, rather than trying to bend it to ours. So, viewed that way, it shouldn’t be surprising to see us embracing the web more fully than in the past: data, documents, multimedia, community, RSS feeds, blogs, APIs, etc.

TimesPeople itself is not the future of news, but as part of a larger transformation from “newspaper” website to just plain website, it is.

We’ve seen more and more New York Times reporters get on Twitter. What does it take to get them in the space? Have these reporters been able to develop a rapport with readers? Any success stories yet?

Honestly? I have no idea. I follow/am followed by a couple Times folks, but I really don’t know whether they are using it for work or not. I guess I have to come clean and admit that I only very recently discovered the appeal of Twitter, which I used to think was kind of silly. But I don’t know that I could go a day without it now. It’s like writing headlines to your friends in real time, so, what’s not to love for a newspaper guy like me? I’m probably the best success story I have for you there. Sorry.

What three things can newspapers do to be more like the Times — in a new-media sense, of course.

Wow, big questions. I’ll give you three high-falutin’ answers:

1. Invest in your website. This is the time to bring in as many talented coders as you possibly can and now is the time to let them experiment with new approaches and new models. Sadly, many news organizations seem to be doing just the opposite. You can’t outsource innovation or buy it off the shelf, but that’s what a lot of news organizations are trying to do. It’s puzzling really.

2. Change how you think of news. Jeff Jarvis wrote an amazingly on-point blog post recently in which he argued that the atomic unit of journalism is no longer the news story, and he’s absolutely right. I’m not ready to go as far as, say, Adrian Holovaty and call every data point… news by definition, but I do think that journalism will increasingly involve more than writing and reporting. It will be about the aggregation and curation of information, and news sites will be more and more centers of authoritative information. Authority is one of the rarest commodities on the web, and we have it is spades. We as an industry need understand that, and follow that idea to its logical conclusions.

3. Get the journalists thinking more like developers, and developers more like journalists. Ask any print journalist you know how a newspaper gets produced, and chances are they’ll be able to tell you in great detail how copy flows from the reporter’s fingers to your front stoop in the morning. Now, ask them how that same copy gets onto their website, and chances are quite good they won’t have the first clue. Is it any wonder so many news websites look, feel and read like print on the web?

If the web is our future, we either need to master the medium ourselves, or embrace those who have, or both. By no means am I suggesting The Times is anywhere near close to that point, but we have taken several important steps in that direction. Sadly, those baby steps place us far, far ahead of the pack. There is time to change, but, again, few media organizations seem willing or able.

What’s next for you guys? Where do you see the biggest growth potential for The Times?

I can’t speak for the entire organization — there’s just way way too much going on. But for my little group, 2009 is going to be about community and about enabling the journalist to be more of an aggregator and curator as I mentioned above. In part, that was the motivation behind the DocumentCloud, which is a joint grant proposal I wrote with Scott Klein and Eric Umansky of ProPublica for the Knight News Challenge. That project, if we’re lucky enough to get funding, will enable everyone to treat documents like structured data. It’s a project I’m pretty excited about.

The other big focus for us this year is on community. We have a couple of projects (which I can’t really talk about) that will build on TimesPeople in some new and interesting ways.

Thanks, Aron.

Aron has also agreed to answer a couple of YOUR questions. If you’re one of the first few to post your questions as comments on this story, he’ll (most likely) respond.

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Entry Filed under: Old Media Interview

  • Stuartfoster

    Great to see the New York Times looking for and acquiring people to help run their social media geared products. Awesome interview Dan, I'd never even heard of this guy…and I find out that he's responsible for the visualizations at NYTimes.com? Crazy.

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  • Aron Pilhofer

    That's probably why you never heard of me… There was a little bit of confusion there on the visualization thing. I probably should have been a little more precise in my answer above, so:

    I'm responsible for a group of developers in the newsroom and we work on a range of projects, almost all of them collaborative. So, we worked with Graphics on those incredible election night maps — they did the Flash; we made them go. We worked with multimedia in a similar capacity on Word Train, and so on. But we also do our own projects, such as our database of Gitmo detainees.

    The point is, virtually nothing interactive on nytimes.com is exclusively the result of any one person's work. It is, as I said above, a very collaborative newsroom. The most collaborative I've ever been in.

  • http://www.newtonashville.net mattbigelow

    Hey Aron (and Dan),

    Great interview.

    Questions: How do you get journalists to think like developers?

    For example, I've been asked to give mini-seminars at work on everything from Social Media to basic HTML (which shows a pretty great willingness on the part of the editors, in my opinion, to learn) but nothing seems to stick. We (editorial, with a strong history in print) remain in a silo and our processes remain oriented around print.

  • http://www.cindyroyal.com Cindy Royal

    Hi Aron. Fantastic interview. Love the advice for newspapers. What do journalism schools need to do to help students think more like developers? What kinds of projects/technologies specifically do you think would help journalism students prepare?

  • http://booksublime.blogspot.com/ garance

    I love the documentcloud project. It is not well rated right now: it should be promoted more.You might like to contemplate or at least describe a phase one: it is so ambitious that I think people are afraid of it. And it should address the liens problem: most liens change all the time, so where is the bulk of that info going to be?

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  • Aron Pilhofer

    Thanks for the words of encouragement! And in our latest version of the application, we do set out a three-year plan for it that begins relatively modestly with only a handful of partners for precisely the reasons you say. There are a lot of details, and it could become quite a hairball if we're not careful (and if we're lucky enough to get funding for it).

    On liens in particular, I'm not sure I'm completely understanding the question. Are you getting at the problem of documents that constantly are revised? If so, that's definitely something we'll need to address — but I do think there are solutions so you can essentially version a document, much as you would source code.

    (That would be a really useful feature regardless, but it might be a bit of a down-the-road thing, however.)

  • http://danielhonigman.com dan360man

    I tweaked it a bit — it's still your data that goes into all sorts of cool things for the Times. ;-)

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  • Aron Pilhofer

    No, that's right. But it's also more than data, as in the case of Gitmo. That project is us soup-to-nuts. The closest analogy is the LA Times's “cool kids” unit, but with some significant differences (and without the awesome moniker). Maybe I'll write something up on my largely neglected, totally pathetic website one of these days.

  • http://www.pbs.org/newshour/ Anna

    Thanks for this interview and for giving a glimpse of the thinking behind the nytimes site. I know its one that many online journalists respect.

    One question, if you're still taking them Aron – How many developers work on nytimes.com? We have a running conversation about this in our newsroom whenever we look at the site.

    Thanks and great work!

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  • Aron Pilhofer

    Hey Cindy,

    Journalism schools have a real opportunity to lead here, which I am super glad to see many universities are realizing this.

    Rich Gordon's incredibly forward-thinking project at Medill and Alberto Cairo's visual journalism track at UNC are both good examples. My old boss Brant Houston has some interesting things in the works at Illinois, and the program you're trying to start… also great examples. And I am sure you could name many, many more.

    Though they all take different routes, what unites all these approaches is that they are teaching students to be both journalistically and technologically creative in the way they approach storytelling. A necessary step to that end is teaching reporters some fundamentals about how these technologies work under the hood, whether you're talking about data-driven web apps like the ones my group does, Flash interactives or other types of digital storytelling.

    We ought to be sending the message, to journalism students in particular, that it's not OK anymore to just assume they can walk into a newsroom, turn a clever phrase and leave the “web stuff” to someone else because they don't “get it” (or, worse, don't have any desire to “get it”). That isn't the way things are heading.

    On a practical level, I know a lot of schools are teaching these technologies in dribs and drabs (at least that's my perception based on my limited experience as an adjunct and interested outside observer — so correct me if I'm wrong here). And unless things have changed radically in the last few years, generally these classes are considered add-ons, or, they are considered part of a specialty degree, and are not usually part of the core curriculum. They ought to be.

    Teaching the fundamentals of traditional journalism is absolutely critical, but there should be equal emphasis given to ensure that all students understand the least the fundamentals of this new platform as well — from the production end all the way to presentation.

    Don't get me wrong: I'm not suggesting that every journalist needs to race out and buy a book on Python or ActionScript and become a cracker jack coder (not that it would hurt). But I do think all journalists should have some baseline understanding of these technologies, and classroom exposure to them — even if they themselves can't code a lick.

    I don't think this is a particularly radical suggestion. We've been teaching databases and spreadsheets in journalism schools for years now, and we're not doing it so students can balance their checkbooks. We're teaching them tools to do deeper, richer more engaging stories, and the same exact rationale applies to the web technologies I'm talking about.

    OK, this is turning into a rant… a side effect of too much coffee too early in the morning. I hope that answers your question, at least in part.

  • Aron Pilhofer

    Hey Anna,

    Thanks for the kind words. The answer to the question depends on whom you consider a developer, so I'll give a few answers:
    - The software group, which is responsible for the big, big infrastructure projects is around 90 I believe right now. These are the folks who are responsible for building and maintaining our verticals, APIs, CMS, registration, email, mobile, etc.
    - My group is 10, including me.
    - The incredibly talented multimedia group under Andrew DeVigal includes I believe five Flash developers right now.
    - The also incredibly talented graphics desk has about the same number of people doing primarily web-oriented work.

    There's also folks scattered about in other groups and departments, but that's pretty much the core group right there. It is a lot of people, but nytimes.com is massive, sprawling site, so even with all those folks it never seems like we have enough bodies to do all the things we want to do.

    There you go..

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