NYT Labs: Can a newspaper think like a startup?

After delaying the project while it launched a paywall, the New York Times(s nyt) has finally rolled out its version of Google Labs, the now-shuttered project that provided a home for the search company’s various web experiments. Called beta620 — a name derived from the newspaper’s address on Eighth Street Avenue in New York City — the site is designed to be an open forum for showcasing everything from web apps to new services and tools. But can a 150-year-old newspaper successfully adopt the kind of culture that drives startups, or is the new NYT site just a sideshow?

The newspaper had originally planned to go live with the experimental project last year, but it was shelved while the company developed its paywall plan, according to comments made by a senior NYT vice-president who is the general manager for the New York Times website. “We had a little thing called the digital subscription model that obviously wasn’t so little and really took a lot of energy and resources, not just from developers and engineers but our management team,” Denise Warren told Advertising Age magazine.

The new site has a distinctly startup-ish look to it, with the lower-case beta620 label, and a series of quirky images that identify the different projects underway at the NYT. In addition to tabs that describe the current projects, the site also highlights ones that have “graduated” to become permanent fixtures at the newspaper, including the “recommendation engine” that suggests stories to readers based on their reading history at the New York Times website, the “coming up next” widget that shows a new article link automatically as a reader scrolls to the bottom of the page, and the NYT Skimmer — an app that provides a different view of the paper’s articles designed for tablets.

Although they are interesting experiments, it’s not clear how many people actually take advantage of the Skimmer app (which competes to some extent with the NYT iPad app) or the suggestions from the NYT’s recommendation engine. But the “coming up” widget seems to have taken off, in the sense that a number of other websites and content publishers have adopted something virtually identical, including the Nieman Journalism Lab site. The company’s new projects, meanwhile, include the following:

  • The Buzz shows how much traction Times articles are getting on social media, like an in-house version of Newsbeat’s dashboard.
  • Times Companion lets readers pull up information on topics in the article they are reading without leaving the page, much like Apture.
  • Times Instant. A search page that shows results as you type, which is very similar to a search feature from a large web company you’ve probably heard of.
  • Community Hub. A dashboard that shows all your comments on the NYT site, as well as a feed of other people’s comments.
  • Longitude plots the articles from a given day of the newspaper on an interactive Google map.

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen said on Twitter that the launch of beta620 is a turning point for the newspaper company because it means the media giant now has an “openly experimental newsroom.” In an inaugural post on the new site, meanwhile, NYT staffer Joe Fiore said the company hopes it will become a place where Times developers “interact with readers to discuss projects, and incorporate community suggestions into their work.”

There’s no question that the New York Times has a history of experimentation online, one that includes its many interactive tools and online features. And it’s great to see a company adopting the kind of outlook that Anil Dash of Activate Media recommended in a recent presentation on how media companies need to think more like startups. Some of the NYT’s internal projects have even found a life outside the company as startups in their own right, such as News.me — the customized news-reading app that was a partnership between the NYT and Betaworks, the New York-based startup incubator run by John Borthwick.

But can a company whose financial status is still less than stellar really devote much time or resources to something like beta620? The New York Times may be a digital leader, but the reality is that the vast majority of its revenue comes from the printed product it has been manufacturing for a century and a half, because that contains the advertising that is its bread and butter — and even though many see the paywall as a success, its contribution to the bottom line remains relatively minuscule. Will the Skimmer or the NYT’s take on instant search make a difference? That seems unlikely.

It’s interesting to note that even Google — whose entire culture is based on experimentation in a way that the New York Times‘ isn’t — recently closed down its Google Labs venture, because CEO and co-founder Larry Page said it was diverting the company’s attention away from its core businesses. So while it’s great to see the NYT experimenting publicly, and getting feedback from readers, my optimism is tempered by the knowledge that the paper has much bigger problems on its hands than coming up with cool web apps.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user jphilipg