NYT Digital News Editor: Web Represents ‘Golden Age of Storytelling’

From left: Moderator Manoush Zomorodi, Aron Pilhofer, editor of interactive news, and NYT editor of digital news Jim Roberts

At this morning’s Mediabistro Circus keynote, The New York Times’ editor of digital news, Jim Roberts, and Aron Pilhofer, editor of interactive news, took the stage to discuss their paper’s success on the Web and its coverage of the 2008 political campaign.

“We are in something of a golden age of storytelling,” Roberts (who namechecked mediabistro.com’s Daily Newsfeed) said. “It’s really clear that we are in the middle of a revolution in the distribution of information.”

The best thing to happen is “the harnessing of the Web, to enhance reporting, to provide data and give users the tools to use that data,” he continued.

The New York Times, in the midst of its first layoffs in history, is still struggling to make money from the Web. “We haven’t made money… It has helped revitalize the institution, it has helped revitalize the profession,” Roberts said, although he frequently referenced the need to monetize the Internet as the print paper still provides 80 percent of the company’s revenue.

But how has the New York Times harnessed the Web?

To answer this question, Roberts turned the mic over to Pilhofer, who seemed surprised by his new job title. “If you’d have told me two years ago after 15 years of being a beat reporter… I would have told you you were nuts,” he told the room.

His presentation, subtitled “Nerds in the newsroom,” detailed the Times’ forays into the digital world. “We’re not starting from scratch,” Pilhofer said. “What does every Web site out there want? Content. Great, great content. We have content a go-go.”

He called the I-W35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis “a final wake-up call,” because the Times’ Web site coverage paled in comparison to its competitors. After that, “everyone from Arthur [Salzberger] on down pretty much agreed that [the Web] is where we are headed,” he said.

A team of seven journalist/developers, led by Pilhofer, were tasked with creating “news-focused, data-driven apps,” such as the Election Guide 2008. The site had it’s second- and third-highest traffic days during Super Tuesday and Wednesday, drawing 35.9 million and 37.5 million uniques, respectively, proving that people are equally, if not more, interested in analyzing data the day after the primaries. (“There were headlines to write but I was sitting around playing with maps,” Roberts said of his use of these maps during Super Tuesday.) An NFL playoffs app the group threw together over “four or five days” during Christmas break earned $150,000. Recently, the group had all 17,000 pages of Hillary Clinton’s schedules online in an easily searchable, aesthetically pleasing database hours after their release.

And as for the responsibility of reporters to generate page views: “We don’t hold people responsible,” Roberts said. Nick Denton take note.