Interview with New York Times lead tech writer Nick Bilton

Nick Bilton being interviewed by Blathnaid Healy at the Dublin Web Summit

I was reporting for RTE’s digital platforms at the recent Dublin Web Summit. One of the interviews I did was with lead technology writer for the New York Times Nick Bilton. A shorter version of the interview was put out across RTE News Now, RTE.ie etc, but I transcribed the full interview here.

Nick talks about a range of topics including why video games are good for you, what makes tablets so desirable and why big media organisations need to get their heads our of their asses.

Blathnaid Healy: Your book is called We Live in the Future and Here’s How it Works, so tell us how does it work?

Nick Bilton: It works in a lot of different ways but one of the things that I talk about in a very positive light is what the future looks like with technology and devices and how social media is going to create this world of hyper personalisation and all these devices we have are also going to do that. So you can imagine a world where you can watch television with your friends where they’re a thousand miles away and actually comment with them. Or an experience where news starts to follow you around so you have a tablet and an iPhone and a computer and the news is aware of what you’ve read on devices and then can actually distribute the news to you differently. So it’s really this look of having personalised experiences that are really catered to you.

BH: We’ve had a lot of conversation recently about tablets and the mobile market. Where, first of all, are tablets going? Is there a lot of hype around it? Is that hype deserved? And, second of all, we’re all going mobile, where’s it going next?

NB: Well I think one of the things that happened with the computer was that it didn’t really work for a lot of people. Computers were not really designed for most consumers. Even though there were all these analogies between a mouse, a trash can and a desktop it just doesn’t make sense, it’s not intuitive. So when Apple brought out apps and the iPad, and so on, it gave them an opportunity to reach an audience that was scared of computers and is not scared of these devices because there is nothing they can really mess up with them. So that’s why you’ve seen this huge rise in people that have purchased these things and are using them the way they are. They’re replacing their newspapers, they’re replacing their televisions, they’re replacing their radio players. A big part of it is the simplicity. I think when you look at the numbers and the patterns and the research these things are not going anywhere. They are here to stay. And another aspect of that with the mobile side of things, is that companies like Facebook and Twitter they don’t consider themselves services or companies they’ve said in the next couple of years they’ll consider themselves mobile companies.

BH: The web has been blamed recently for people’s lack of concentration, but you disagree with this, you think it’s something that we’ve had for a long time. Can you explain your theory on this?

NB: Well there’s a couple of things. One is when we say kids who play video games – it’s bad for them. I think it comes down to the amount of time people spend on these kind of things. If I literally read just print books every day and didn’t go outside, that would be bad for me too. But if I read books for a couple of hours a day that’s fine and if I play video games for a couple of hours a day that’s fine too. A lot of the neuroscience research show video games are very very good for kids and for their brains and for adults too. A perfect example is around research that was done for the game Tetris, where you drop these cubes and you have to line them up. Researchers in the US actually followed people who had played Tetris before and after. And after playing for a couple of months their brains re-wired themselves in completely different ways where they had better hand-eye coordination, better long-term and short-term memory, a whole list of things. Another really fascinating research project that happened at NYU was the students who were studying to be surgeons, they found that half the students were 60% faster and 40% more accurate than the other half and they couldn’t figure out why. After months and months of research they finally realised that the group that was better had played video games as kids. So video games are actually very very good for us and not bad for us and you can see that all this research that applies to every different type of technology that we use.

BH: So if you’re a kid and you want to be a doctor, what type of video game should you be playing?

NB: Believe it or not, two different types. One is Wii video games like golf and things like that, but the other is first person shooter video games because the reflexes and the way you learn to use your hands and your fingers wire your brain in a way that other experiences can’t. So we assume that they are bad for us, but in reality they’re not. The other thing that I found too with my research, was that we have these fears of technology and we’ve had them forever. We were scared of the telephone, we said people would never leave their homes again. We were scared of trains, we said that people who travelled on trains at over 20 miles an hour, that their brains could explode and we’re now going through this with technology and the internet and I think it’s about finding a balance.

BH: You’ve spoken a lot about the area of newspapers and newspapers being more of an experience, people paying for the experience and not for the paper itself. What do you think it’s going to take for people to pay for that experience online. What type of an experience do news organisations need to give people?

NB: I can go online and find news. Lets just say that Yahoo’s stock crashes tomorrow, I could go read that at the New York Times or I could also read that on a blog or I could read that anywhere. I don’t have to pay for it on the blog. So I can’t say to someone, ‘hey you have to pay for this content’ because it’s available anywhere. I have to create an experience that is better than that. Whether it’s creating a community where I talk to the readers or creating interactivity. Whatever it is I have to be able to say to them ‘this is something worth paying for’.  When you look at the analogy with paper, we pay for that because we know it arrives on our doorstep at six in the morning, we know that the photos are going to look beautiful and that the headlines and the typography, all these things that are going to be there ,that are worth paying for and it’s not just the words on the page it’s the entire package and I don’t think we’ve solved that problem online yet.

BH: What do you think a news organisation can do, to give them that similar experience. Something that you can feel it, you can see it. What do you think they can offer?

NB: The experience of paper that we paid for was the tangible aspect of it. That feeling of sitting there in the morning with your cup of coffee and your sandwich and having this newspaper and developing an experience that flowed around that. Online it is very different because we’re jumping into that experience on different devices throughout the day. But one of the things that I believe you can do is create community. So I know as a technology reporter for the New York Times, my stories have to be vetted and have to go through an editor and they sometimes take a little while to end up on the website. A blog that I compete with like Techcrunch or Mashable or something like that, they can literally post a press release and a headline and that’s breaking news. So what I try to do is create a community with my readers. I respond to them on Twitter, I go on to Facebook and discuss things with them and I also go on to the website nytimes.com and have a conversation. And so it drives people back because we have this kind of rapport with them where we engage with this type of experience together and that’s something that maybe someone will pay for. Creating interactivity and graphics and all these other things. Creating things that your competitors can’t do is creating an experience that people will be interested in.

BH: Do you think the New York Times sees itself now as a media organisation or a newspaper?

NB: It depends who you ask. I don’t tell people, necessarily, that i work for a newspaper. I tell people I work for the New York Times. I write for a blog, I do videos for the Times, I do stories for the paper that end up online. It’s definitely moving to being a fully multimedia organisation. You have multimedia graphics, you have a video department, you have a radio department that creates podcasts, you have writers, you have all these different things, interactive slide shows. So I don’t necessarily think it’s a newspaper anymore. I think it’s a full-fledged news organisation.

BH: It (New York Times) recently announced good results in terms of its digital subscriptions, following on from this metred paywall that it has. Is that a model that can be rolled out to other news organisations?

NB: I don’t know. I think the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and places like that are in a different league but at the same time there are other pathways for news organisations. I think the question other news organisations need to ask themselves is, if I were to start my company today, would I have a printing press? Would I deliver a newspaper every morning? Would I put my video out on broadcast television and have to pay the fees that go along with that? And when you look at blogs that set up they start with a couple of people sitting in their bedroom reporting stories or blogging or whatever it is that they’re doing. So that’s what these big news organisations have to compete with. And I think it’s about finding the balance between how much you should be paying for the content you’re creating and how much you create that is a much less investive experience than you’ve had to in the past. I mean if you think about the New York Times, for example, there’s printing presses there’s delivery trucks there’s literally millions and millions of dollars that go into creating this piece of paper that goes out into the world every day.

BH: Massive legacy costs make it difficult to compete with a start-up companies. Looking to the future for big media organisations, do you have much hope for them?

NB: No, I have a hope for them, but I think they kind of have to get their head out of their ass. Look at some of these organisations that refuse to put their content online still. Look at Simon and Schuster, for example, which is a book publishing company. They do this thing call windowing. When they get a big author that they know people are willing to … you know they really want the book, they will actually hold the book in digital form for three to four months because they want people to go to the store and buy the print copy. It’s ridiculous. It’s like telling somebody ‘here buy this digital camera but we won’t let you see the photos for three months later’. It doesn’t make any sense. I think that these organisations, rather than trying to push consumers in the opposite direction, have to embrace what the consumers want and figure out a way to work with them because they can’t control what they are going to do, they’re going to do it anyway.

The future flexible

Recently I’ve been thinking back to August 2005. I had just moved to Chicago to start a masters programme at the Medill School of Journalism in Northwestern University. It was the first time I had my own wifi network, which changed the way I used the internet and subsequently the amount of news I consumed. At the same time, my roommate suggested I join Facebook, which had just been made available to US universities. Then I started getting those ‘sent from my blackberry’ messages at the end of emails sent to me and I realised how many people were taking the web with them in their pockets. Every day and everywhere they went. And lets not forget the blogs. Tonnes of people were turning to simple content management systems like WordPress to communicate their news and views to the world one post at a time. Even prompting editors to say they wouldn’t hire new journalists who didn’t keep a blog. Wifi, social networks, smartphones/mobile internet, blogs and its relative microblogging are things we are all exposed to (some might say over-exposed to) these days. But just six years ago, at least in Ireland, they were not yet commonplace.

Now most people have a wifi network or a good broadband connection (heck, it’s so well established it doesn’t need a hyphen between wi and fi anymore), they are on at least one social network (2m people, that’s half the population, are on Facebook in Ireland and counting), smartphones are becoming universal and thousands of people microblog and read others’ microblogs in Ireland several times a day every day.

Sitting here taking stock, six years on from my own technological awakening, I realise how blinded we often are to the big developments. Six years ago, sitting in a newsroom who would have believed that some newspapers in the US would be serving their entire digital audience just through Facebook, or that businesses would be set up to curate those microblogs, or that thousands would use an app to watch presenters like Bryan Dobson read the news on their smartphones (the concept of an app economy hadn’t even struck).

It should be acknowledged, the underlying driver of all this change is digital distribution via the internet and how that facilitates peoples’ imaginations, their experiments and ultimately their innovations.

So what are we going to be doing six years from now. And how the hell do news organisations prepare for it?

The first thing to accept, and to become comfortable with, is that we don’t know what’s coming next. There are low barriers to entry for innovative ways to deliver news and news content. In the next six years at least one person will come up with a another novel way to deliver news in a way that people want it. Upsetting organisations’ strategies and plans.

The only way to prepare for something you can’t prepare for is to create and foster a culture that values flexibility and has a desire, even a hunger, to work on the cutting edge driven by its audience’s demands. It must be a culture supported by everyone not just driven by a few digital leaders.

The only future a news organisation can plan for is a future of flexibility.