The Boston Globe’s Digital Initiatives Lunch

The Boston Globe’s digital initiatives folks are speaking at MIT’s Center for Civic Media about, well, digital efforts at the Globe.

There’s a good mix of folks in the room, including lots of students (surprise!), people from local media outlets, a few tech folks, and some visitors associated with other areas of campus. We’re being filmed, but I’m not sure why or for what. Perhaps an archive of the presentation will be available later.

The Boston Globe’s website is one of the biggest regional sites, with 6 million visitors per month. Three months ago, they launched a new website effort to increase digital subscribers—and they claim they’re off to a great start. One of the things they learned is a bunch of people regularly visited boston.com, but didn’t realize The Boston Globe owned and maintained that site. About 80% of the newsroom content is now exclusive to bostonglobe.com. They started with some free trials, then closed the gates in the fall. They still occasionally unlock articles to attract a larger audience. Sports content is still free on boston.com.

News websites are always evolving. They see what they’re doing as shifts instead of massive changes. And, of course, there are blogs: “Wine, beer, crime …” Jeff Moriarty listed. “I was wondering how those go together …” mused center director Ethan Zuckerman.

They went through or have 6 different versions of the site in 6 months: regular computer, Kindle, iPad, Android/iPhone … Jeff demonstrates the different versions by resizing the browser window, illustrating how customizable reading this online edition is. They brought in supplemental design and web building firms to assist with the transition. Its basically one site with 6 style sheets that does some device detection to present you automatically with what it thinks will work for what you have. They wanted an app-like set of functions in the browser. They also wanted “one code base to rule them all.” It also makes search engines happy because there’s one site. They immediately saw 1-1.2 million unique visitors per month and good search engine traffic. People often ask why other sites can’t be as flexible as theirs.

Ads reconfigure with the rest of the site. They’re no longer locked in by advertising constraints. They can move ads around and resize them based on page size, location on the page/screen, etc.

HTML 5 allows lots of flexibility. They allow content queuing, like a playlist. Offline availability is also a feature, so you can pull things together to read on a plane or the subway. It looks like there are 60,000 articles saved for later reading across the system. Erlang, which Jeff describes as old and obscure, is the language used for some of these features. They want more offline capabilities and more of an “app-like feel” in the future.

Jeff is showing how the site allows the journalism to shine with some selected articles: a diagram of the new Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum’s addition, gorgeous photo spreads, interactive graphics, Census data, panoramas, an interactive portion of an article about spelling … The new technical abilities have changed how they think about presenting stories.

In the last year, the number of their Twitter followers has expanded considerably. They have about 30 Twitter accounts (at least I think that’s what he said).

He showed the story about the perils of parking that includes an interactive map they base on some open government data. Ethan asked how they acquired the data: FOIA, API … They aren’t sure. Ethan made a joke about crowdsourcing the data: having people park illegally in different places and reporting back when their cars get towed. One of the Globe fellows said reporters did do some stakeouts: observed various streets and took notes about what happened.

Ethan jokingly offered small mammal sacrifices for some Boston Globe data about how people use their tools. As one of the smaller mammals in the room, I feel nervous.

There’s an animation about people commuting to school.

Ethan asks about the responsibilities around some of the data the Globe presents. When is it something the city should be doing versus a news outlet? Are there situations when they work with the city? Jeff mentions an upcoming hack event in April or May. An audience member talks about some app projects he’s worked on with governments and how there are lingering questions about who’s going to maintain the information and the tool. He also said he never thought to check if local media might be interested in some of his projects or collaborating. Jeff says they often think about what kinds of things people want to know as they live in Boston. What’s essential to life here? What helps people live?

 beta.boston.com, Globe Lab, Hack Day Challenge (planned with folks at iLab at Harvard, Mozilla, etc., & they’re looking for more partners), providing space for early, small startups. That space equates to 10-15 desks in their building. They’re hoping the startups will complement what The Globe is doing and take advantage of or benefit from the open floor plan and other folks working in that space.

The Globe’s Grace Wu and Chris Marstall explained the project Snap that highlights real-time interaction in Boston based on an Intergram feed. With giant screens, people can watch what’s happening in detail sometimes. It looks like a giant map with pictures people are posting popping up. Jeff adds that it’s neat to watch how it evolves during the day. Grace says you can see huge differences between parts of the area, like the neighborhood Roxbury (parts of which are very poor and house mostly minorities) and Davis Square (a hip square in the city of Somerville where mostly 20-30-something-year-old whites go for food and movies).

Information Radiators: screens displaying tweets from the Globe newsroom account, people tweeting about the Globe, and competitors. Sadly, this stack of screens is only internal at the moment. They’re considering how to productize it. The screen showing Globe tweets changes when someone tweets with an animation like someone is typing in a way that’s eye catching. One of the driving forces behind this project is trying to get more people in the newsroom to adopt Twitter. Benny explains, “These are things we’ve been doing for hundreds of years, but just in a different format.” Imagine someone holding up the newspaper headline declaring the Red Sox win their first World Series.

Ethan mentioned a fall conference called Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt in conjunction with the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

Jeff mentioned The New York Times’ project called Cascade that visualizes how tweets spread. (The Times owns The Globe.)

Chris explains the Shim project, where multiple devices are connected through one access point to make it easy to view pages on different devices simultaneously. It’s open sourced via GitHub.

Papereye is a GlobeLab mobile app to connect print and digital editions. Someone can photograph a headline from the print edition with a smart phone, then use Papereye to map the paper headline to an article URL someone can use to tweet or email or … The New York Times is using this app, too. Grace says an unexpected benefit is learning how many people have the print edition and use the online edition. The app OCRs the headline, so, as you might imagine, sometimes there are issues.

Q: How do you get reporters to buy in?
A: The reporters are now writing their articles in the same system that’s powering the website. The first part of the story is like a blog post that goes immediately to the web. Reporters are also responsible for keywording their articles and adding appropriate geographic identifiers, like latitude and longitude. Reporters don’t always know where their stories will land. They may need to tweet while out covering an event, then write a blog post, then an article, then … But the Globe recognizes that people have a limited bandwidth and can be overwhelmed, so they’re working on dealing with those aspects, too.

Q: How do you handle AB testing? Do you ever get your readers involved in the development of your website?
A: Yes. We’re interested in doing more with these aspects, though, especially because it will help educate people about our entire online offerings.

Q: As someone who grew up in Boston reading the Globe and lives elsewhere now, I’m always excited to see the Globe in other places outside of Boston. What are you doing to increase your spread and brand?
A: We’re always looking for ways to get out there. We’ve very happy about our tradition of being a leading newspaper for decades and would like to continue that. We’re hoping to expand more internationally and through our digital offerings. People trust us and our curating abilities because of our legacy. For example, boston.com‘s 5 pm headline might be about a giant traffic jam, but bostonglobe.com‘s headline is still going to be the leading news story. There’s a difference between what people want from those sites and what’s important at any particular time of day.

Q: What are you learning about the different communities of the two sites?
A: Jeff responds by first talking about how the audiences have grown and how they’ve shifted specific content around. Bostonglobe.com traffic is actually a lot higher than what they expected this early on. They’re not seeing a lot of overlap among audiences. Bostonglobe.com attracts older readers. Boston.com gets mostly people in their 20s. Of course, when they launched a site 16 years ago, they attracted readers, some of whom are still with them and older and part of the Bostonglobe.com demographic. How can they make Bostonglobe.com more attractive to 20-something-year-olds. Bostonglobe.com gets a surge of traffic in the morning, then perhaps a bit of another increase in the evening. People check in with boston.com briefly throughout the day.

Q: What are the tensions in the newsroom?
A: During the day, updates go to both sites. At night, they decide which articles go where for the next day’s edition and any new stories. The “Make way for Gronklings” picture was really popular on boston.com, but not of great interest on bostonglobe.com.
[In the Boston Public Garden, there’s a bronze sculpture of the mother duck and her ducklings from the book “Make Way for Ducklings.” It is not unusual for people to decorate the statues, especially during certain times of year (warm clothes for the winter, for example). The other day, someone put shirts on the ducks related to an injured Patriots’ football player people are hoping will be healthy enough to play in the Super Bowl.]

Q: [I couldn’t hear this question.]
A: It depends on what the writer finds interesting and what we think is of value. Since the courts would not allow cameras in the Whitey Bulger court appearances, we had as many reporters as we could get in the room in there with instructions to tweet everything, so they’d talk about what shoes he was wearing, if he was looking at his brother, if he was exchanging glances with people … They noticed the TV reporters reading their tweets on the air because there was no other coverage inside and cameras weren’t allowed. What’s appropriate to tweet from funerals, like from that of former mayor Kevin White that was yesterday. Ethan mentions a TV station that does court reenactments with puppets. The station decided sketches weren’t going to be sufficient and wanted to try something new.

Q: Has anyone watched The Hour, the British news show about making news when it was illegal to cover anything happening in Parliament? Watch it in your news classes.

Q: Do they plan to increase the number of ads on bostonglobe.com? It has a clean look now. Is a lack of ads part of strategy to attract readers?
A: Yes, we plan to increase ads somehow, but we’re not sure how we’re doing that yet. Subscription fees are good right now. We want discrete ads that aren’t annoying. That’s also attractive to advertisers.

In January, they had 2 million visitors on bostonglobe.com from iPad users. That maps to about 5% of boston.com traffic.

Ethan related their recent changes to what the Christian Science Monitor has been going through, with their recent decision to stop a paper edition and focus on online content.

The digital edition allows more interaction with and exposure to the writers. There are links to writers’ biographies and photos. They now have events with writers, like going to an art museum with the art critic. These events are free to subscribers and are full already.

[Disclosure: I subscribe to The Boston Globe’s print edition (and didn’t think consciously about my decision to bring today’s paper with me in case I got to the talk early and had some time to read).]

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