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Arthur Sulzberger Jr, publisher of The New York Times, made headlines recently when he told an Israeli journalist that he did not know – or care – whether the 156-year-old paper would be distributed in its familiar print form five years from now.
While Mr Sulzberger’s comments were provocative – and potentially frightening to Times’ readers of a certain age – there was one problem: They seemed to contradict the man The New York Times is paying to predict the future.
“We think the paper’ll probably be around longer than many people expect,” says Michael Rogers, who joined the Times Company a year ago as its futurist-in-residence, a title emblazoned on his business card.
Mr Rogers’ recruitment is part of a broader effort at the Times to recapture a spirit of innovation that newspapers seemed to lose sometime after the invention of the printing press.
That weakness may not have been so apparent – or painful – in recent decades, when many US papers had lucrative regional monopolies. But it has never been more apparent than today, in an era of digital distribution.
Rather than accept a dusty fate, the tradition-bound New York Times Company is trying to adapt.
So 16 months ago, it hired Michael Zimbalist, former head of the Online Publishers Association, and asked him to establish its first-ever research and development group. “It was sort of in recognition of the fact that the media landscape was changing so quickly,” Mr Zimbalist said.
To fill out his team, he plucked seven technology and computer science hotshots from places like the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As he ticks off their qualifications – a maths whizz, a linguist, a newspaper design-er and a “business catalyst” – one imagines the early scenes of a Hollywood action film, in which superheroes with diverse talents are assembled for a big mission.
The star of the group, though, may be Mr Rogers, who is being asked to not only keep abreast of changing technology, but to help the Times think about the forces that will be shaping the world and its readers a decade from now.
“I became a futurist by calling myself one,” he jokes. Mr Rogers also prepared for the role with an eclectic career path. He studied physics and creative writing at Stanford and then spent a decade at Rolling Stone magazine. From there, he moved to Newsweek, where he covered Silicon Valley in the 1980s. Soon he was leading the Washington Post’s new media efforts.
The New York Times is not the only newspaper publisher to try to jumpstart innovation. Last year, The Los Angeles Times created a “Manhattan Project” staffed by investigative reporters and editors to search for ways to revive the paper.
Not everyone is convinced that such grand plans will work. A recent visitor to the Times R&D group, for example, said a “bunch of brainiacs from MIT” were no substitute for the start-up culture of the west coast, where Google was born.
Mr Rogers dismisses that criticism, noting that many of the group’s members have start-up experience from both coasts. “We’re not unfamiliar with how that culture works,” he says.
There are three trends that have caught the team’s attention: the increasing availability of low-cost broadband, the emergence of user-generated content and a proliferation of mobile phones and other devices.
Rather than replacing the paper, however, the Times believes that these digital gadgets could reinforce its role as a central roadmap.
Readers will use the paper as a jumping off point that guides them to richer features online, such as a new neighbourhood search guide the Times Company published for Boston.
One of the recent innovations they are most enthusiastic about is the Times Reader. Using Microsoft’s new Vista software, it reformats the paper automatically to fit a variety of screens – from traditional personal computers to mobile phones and even portable tablets.
For readers, the beauty of the product is that it makes the electronic Times look and feel more like the familiar printed product. For editors, its adaptability means they can publish a single electronic version of the paper for multiple screens rather than tailoring a new offering for each device.
“That’s profoundly important,” says Mr Rogers, who envisions the Times as a “digital foundry” spitting out content for a variety of devices and platforms. With a convenient link between the internet and the family television on the horizon, the Times could soon be beamed to readers’ living rooms. But if Mr Rogers is correct, it will also continued to be stamped onto old-fashioned newsprint.
“Paper is hard to compete with,” he says. “It’s low-cost, it’s extremely high-resolution and it’s disposable.”