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For The New York Times, the digital future is now

Despite its fiscal difficulties, the paper of record is experimenting with a series of initiatives aimed at forging boldly into the next era of storytelling.

By using semacodes, The New York Times could in the future make it possible for users with cell phone cameras to quickly and easily get access to the paper's latest video stories, as well as movie trailers and other video content, all by photographing the special digital symbols. Daniel Terdiman/CNET Networks

SAN JOSE, Calif.--By now, just about everyone who follows the media industry has heard of the deep fiscal troubles of The New York Times. But even as the paper does its best for all the news that's fit for newsprint, it is also conducting experiments aimed at moving itself into the forefront of digital journalism.

At the Emerging Technologies conference (ETech) on Tuesday, Nick Bilton, the design integration editor and user interface specialist at the Times' research and development lab, spoke about "sensors, smart content, and the future of news," essentially a recap of some of the most forward-thinking projects coming from the tech-savvy minds at the paper of record.

Bilton explained that the Times' R&D lab is divided into three main subject areas: emerging platforms, analytics, and core R&D. As a member of the latter team, Bilton said he and four colleagues are devoting their time to researching new technologies that are 5 to 10 years out, particularly at systems involving innovative digital advertising.

Among the projects he talked about, one done in conjunction with software maker Adobe Systems seemed particularly appropriate in a world where everyone has a different size display and uses windows of infinitely varied sizes within their browsers. Bilton explained that the project is aimed at automatically resizing and reformatting data onscreen for whatever sized window in which the user is reading the Times, or its sister publication, the International Herald Tribune.

"When I resize the screen, it re-lays out and reformats the (data)," Bilton said. "It's a really unique way to resize and reformat data for different sized displays.

And he said that the Times' R&D lab is also looking intently at touch-screen devices in an attempt to best understand how usage of such technology impacts how readers experience the news.

Another innovative concept he talked about is what he called "smart content," a system that would keep track of what users have read digitally across all devices. So, under this system, for example, if a reader has looked at a story on their computer and then loads the Times on their iPhone, that story would be grayed out on the assumption that the reader wants to be presented only with the most meaningful data.

Bilton then talked about a digital take on the traditional street newspaper box, those banal metal containers which take your quarters and (usually) give you a copy of the paper. In the lab, the Times is experimenting with a machine, called "CustomTimes," that looks like a newspaper box with a computer monitor on it. The idea is that those who find the boxes--most likely in controlled indoor settings so that they aren't stolen--will be able to peruse Times content in the manner that best suits their needs, allowing them to print the stories they want at the touch of a few buttons.

A member of The New York Times research and development lab looks at a CustomTimes machine, which is essentially a digital newspaper box that allows users to choose the precise Times content they want and print it. Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

And in a nod to the fact that newspaper printing deadlines often force publications like the Times to close their earliest editions before results from things like elections or sporting events are known, the paper is also experimenting with a system in which users reading stories with incomplete results can send text messages and have final tallies sent to their mobile devices.

Similarly, Bilton said the paper is trying out a semacode system in which users with cell phone cameras can take pictures of the special, digital codes embedded in, say, movie advertisements and their phones could auto-load trailers for the film. The same would be true of any kind of video content the Times might offer, including its latest video stories, all of which could be available to users with mobile phones with cameras.

And, leveraging mobile phones with built-in GPS, the Times is also thinking about serving up localized content to users, Bilton said, as well as technology that could determine that if a user travels between cell towers at high speeds--likely because they're in a car--stories could be served up in an audio format.

Another interesting system Bilton talked about was one that could integrates Times' content in readers' homes, and in particular, on their Internet-connected TVs. He explained that the Times may offer APIs and that an example of how they could be used would be to auto-detect how far a reader is from their TV. And depending on the distance, the system could automatically change the layout of the content to match the distance and the optimal size of text.

To be sure, much of these ideas are quite a ways off, but some might be in the near future. And for the Times, this is definitely an important time to be taking the lead on digital innovation given that the paper is in serious financial shape and there's been talk about it shutting down its print edition.

Bilton seemed to say that the end of printed newspapers was nowhere near, and that no matter what technology comes along, there will always be a printed edition of the Times. But that may be wishful thinking. Still, regardless of whether you can still pick up an actual paper New York Times or not, there is little doubt that digital is the direction that will dominate in the future. And it's fitting, and crucial, that the journalistic institution that just about everyone else looks to for leadership takes the lead in moving the profession forward.