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Tagged #nytimes

Stacking the Deck

A photo by Ben McCarthy of Matt presenting a slideshow onstage

PowerPoint presentations get a bad reputation. That’s because most of them are terrible—they’re boring, they’re too long, and they’re full of tiny text and awkward animations.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are the highly-produced Keynotes from Apple that have been agonized over by legions of designers to sell you the company’s latest products. These decks are so intricate that they seem impossible for mere mortals to put together.

So it’s no wonder I don’t see many slide decks working on small software teams. The few I do are usually delivered by professional hypesters pitching startups, to cringes from the designers and developers in the room (or the Zoom, as the case may be). But earlier in my career, I used decks to great effect, and you know what? I miss them. In 2022, I’m bringing decks(y) back.


When my longtime friend and collaborator Brian Capps and I worked as iOS engineers at The New York Times, we noticed something concerning. There were a lot of intractable technical problems in the organization that seemed unsolvable due to politics and inter-team communication roadblocks. Everything from bug reports, to performance issues, to new features that needed newsroom buy-in got backed up this way.

So, as people who cared deeply about the quality of the products we were building, we searched for any way to get product people, designers, and business folks all on the same page about what we wanted to fix in the iOS app. The best tool we found (after trying many) was the humble slide deck.

Here’s what we did when we really wanted something to get fixed:

Brian and I would book a conference room together in the middle of the day, write an outline of what we wanted, and then develop a well-designed and straightforward slide presentation to make our argument. (By the way, we never told our bosses we were doing any of this.) We’d rehearse our spiel and then, we’d presell the idea by showing the deck to just a few people we knew would be critical decision-makers and solicit feedback, editing the deck as we heard their objections. Finally, we’d book a meeting with everyone in the organization who would need to be on board if we were going to make the change.

For example, once, we wanted to make sure that the NYTimes iOS app rendered all advertisements at the proper resolution on the new iPhone 4. We knew we’d need to convince a designer, the head of sales, an ad trafficker, a product manager, and our engineering manager. So we invited all of those folks to a meeting, dimmed the lights, and pitched our hearts out. For the first time, everyone in that room saw the blurry non-Retina ads for what they were—ugly and unbecoming of The Times. Everyone came out of that meeting jazzed to solve the problem, and together, we did!

This technique worked so well that we used it repeatedly, improving the app along the way. Our little slideshow sideshow became so familiar that it earned us a nickname: “the twins”. In fairness, we did have a bit of a Ringling Brothers vibe going on at the time.


Presentations are perfect for persuasion. Solid slides make information digestible; they show that you’ve thought deeply about the problem. And putting effort into them shows that you’re serious and that you care. Anyone can write an email, post a Slack message, or toss a meeting on the books. But few people will take the time to prepare a thoughtful, well-reasoned, and persuasive deck.

The next time you want to convince your coworkers, despite their differing priorities, to commit to working on something you care about: open your slideshow app of choice and make your argument in big type, one slide at a time. I bet your slides will change more minds than you expect.

#keynote #nytimes #slides #talks

At the Times, a Hesitance to Hyperlink 

The next day, he said, “We are looking at a way to link. Noting Motherboard explicitly—and I understand why [sic] would want this—is more complicated, however. Are we then obliged to note that The Guardian had some of the documents, too? If half a dozen other publications got a piece of the Facebook material, as well—for ‘internal’ documents, they do seem to get around—would we need note them, too? Where does it end?” The Times never added a link.

Thinking about a journalist in the NYT newsroom in not being able to figure out how to make a hyperlink cracks me up and I’m not the only one.

#hyperlinks #internet #journalism #nytimes

The Website Isn’t Your Problem

Inside The New York Times Building next week, it’s going to get harder to do your job. Clifford Levy, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist, and former coworker tweeted that the way to get this company thinking mobile first, is to block the website. Wait, what?

Just like Cliff and the others, I believe very strongly that if The Times is to survive, it needs to think about its apps and mobile website a hell of a lot more than www.nytimes.com, or “triple dub” as it’s known inside the company. But is blocking the site for its own employees really the right way to do that?

It feels like a punishment. Your dad is turning off the TV and making you eat your vegetables. This kind of paternalistic attitude is not what will spur the brilliant engineers and journalists at the Times to improve their pocket-sized offerings and consider the report from a mobile angle.

So what’s a better way to get a company as large and old as The New York Times to care more deeply about its report on phones, tablets, and watches? There’s no magic bullet, but in my years there I saw incredible ideas, people, and talent wasted on a website with declining traffic while the iOS app suffered a lack of attention from the newsroom. I saw initiative after initiative to make mobile more important flounder while many of the reporters still aimed to be on the front page of a gray piece of paper.

It may be that the way to make sure that employees of the Times care more about mobile is to point out when these failures happen, to be critical of the web first mindset, and to remind people every time they try to perfect a web layout, that they’re doing so for a rapidly declining number of readers. Along with that, the Grey Lady should be celebrating the teams and people who are getting this right, without putting people who still rely on the website in time out.

The newsroom brass at the Times are trying to solve a social problem with a technical solution and I can’t imagine anyone there that’s too happy about it. It feels robotic, oppressive, and downright annoying. Honest conversation and critique of the attitudes and norms of a century old organization will almost certainly be received better than playing with the valve of information flow inside the Times. I hope they reconsider.

#mobile #nytimes #website

Lowering the Gates

The New York Times Building at night
Photo courtesy of Jason Kuffer

A year ago, I sat in a glass-walled conference room at The New York Times in a routine meeting. I listened as a business-schooled product manager spoke about yet another monetization strategy when he broke character and whispered, “now is the time to lower the gates”. He was referring to The Times’s crackdown on website users who read articles for free by googling headlines, installing NYT Clean, and clearing their cookies. Now, that defensive mindset is creeping into The Times’s mobile products.


Late last month, The New York Times quietly slashed the number of free articles in its mobile applications from 3 per day to 10 per month. It’s not hard math, each reader can access 80 fewer articles this month than they could have last month, a decrease of 89%.

While great free apps like Circa, Yahoo News Digest.1, and now Paper from Facebook, fight to take over mobile news, The Times scrambles to persuade mobile users to pay top dollar for its coverage by limiting what they get for free.

Since the NYTimes iOS application was released in 2008, the number of articles that users can read for free has changed multiple times. The app has gone from everything being free, to the dozen rotating “Top News” stories, to three articles daily, to only ten per month. The last change occurred just months after the previous. If it had to be adjusted this quickly and drastically, the meter strategy on mobile just isn’t working.

Since The Times’s mobile products are partially supported by advertising, it’s counterintuitive to drive down the number of ad impressions by cutting off enthusiastic users just as they’re getting excited about the content. Ten articles per month just aren’t enough to justify keeping the apps installed; it’s almost insulting. The proof is in the plummeting App Store ratings as well as in the company’s usage statistics, which I suspect show readers returning less frequently since the change.

From the outside, it looks as if the company is desperate to drive up subscription numbers on its confusing digital subscription packages, which are still more expensive than having the newspaper dropped on your doorstep every weekend. But I think there may be something deeper going on.

The Times plans to roll out even more digital packages this year, and people I’ve spoken to at the company are starting to worry that few will want them. Why not make its current offerings less appealing in the short term, so that they can save the day with their newer, better apps in a few months? If this is what NYT is doing, it’s downright irresponsible and counter to The Times’s commitment to integrity. There’s no integrity in misleading readers.

I asked Times spokesperson Linda Zebian about the changes and she defended the move, writing, “We continue to believe that our strategy of balancing free and accessible content with revenue from paid usages is the right one.” When asked whether the company was attempting to make the mobile applications behave identically to the website she added, “The intention is to align the meter experience on mobile apps with the website and our mobile website…”. I got no real answers to the questions of whether this change is expected to decrease advertising revenue or intended to bolster the planned new digital products.

When I raised this issue on Twitter, Jordan Kay asked me what I would do differently if I were in charge of The Times’s digital subscription strategy. If The Times wants to be the place that most Americans read their news, then it must adopt a freemium model that’s much freer than this in order to compete.

But I don’t think that’s what The Times is or should be. It’s a premium news source, and it would be much better to make that clear from the start. Everyone knows how good the journalism is. Charge for it up front with an optional free trial. As it stands, the meter devalues both the product and the brand, and any new products the Times plans to add later this year run the same risk — creating confusion and muddling the message.

The Times’s new mobile strategy forces casual readers to look for other options, and there are many out there. I hope The Grey Lady will realize her mistake and change course quickly, but knowing how things work inside an organization founded over a century ago, I’m not holding my breath. By dropping the pay gates on mobile users, the Times is ensuring its irrelevance in an increasingly mobile world.


1. Disclosure: Yahoo owns Tumblr, where I work.

#nytimes #paywall #strategy #tech

Software Criticism

Critica

Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.

Winston Churchill

Last week, I wrote a short blog post on my Tumblr commenting on the news that my former employer had released a new web application and critiquing the product strategy, calling it “pointless”. Apparently this struck a chord because minutes after I had shared my brief thoughts about the new Today’s Paper web app, I started receiving tweets, direct messages, and emails from former colleagues, friends, and followers. From what I’ve heard, it’s also generated several internal emails and conversations. Many of the messages I received raised the same question: why would I write this post?

The answer is simple: I care a lot. Software needs to be criticized to get better. 90% of it is crap, and very few people are willing to explain why. My blog is a place where I can express my opinion, and I have a strong opinion about this “new” product. I share my thoughts with the hope that they’ll make people think and encourage discussion, which is exactly what happened.

There are several arguments that people made about why I shouldn’t have written the post. These deserve to be addressed one by one:

Didn’t You Work For Them?

Yes, I did. I don’t any more and lack of a sane product strategy is one of the reasons why. A lot of the most amazing things we learn about how companies work are from people that used to work at them. Books like Hatching Twitter, articles from former Apple employees, and a lot of the best answers on Quora wouldn’t be possible without ex-employees speaking up. Learning requires opening up.

The people that worked inside an organization are the ones that can explain and critique it with the most insight. They also tend to be more emotionally invested in the company’s success. I plan to continue criticizing (and praising) the organizations I’ve worked for, and I hope others do the same.

Why You Gotta be So Mean?

Whenever someone accuses me of being mean, I stop to consider to whom I’m being mean. In this case, there are two groups of people I mentioned in the post.

The creators of the web app (designers, developers, editors, and product managers) The (potential) users of the web app

The only thing I say about the creators of the web app is that they are “truly great” at what they do and that their time should not have been wasted on something so silly. Doesn’t sound mean to me.

Can people’s feelings get hurt when something they work on is criticized? Absolutely, but that’s no fault of the critic. We don’t worry about Guy Fieri’s feelings before giving his restaurant a scathing review in The Times, and we shouldn’t be afraid to criticize software for this reason either.

Was I mean to the users? Well, I did say that many of them will likely die soon, but only as a way to cheekily explain the demographics demanding this product. Not mean, exactly, but a little heavy handed and likely unnecessary.

I’ve been criticized for lacking empathy towards members of this generation of people that are uncomfortable with The Times’s current offerings and prefer the simplicity of print. To the contrary, I think that generation is right. Many of the Times’s current products, especially the website, are confusing, outdated, and just plain hard to use. However, the solution is not to make yet another product. It’s to make the existing products great for everyone, just like Google and the iPhone are great for everyone. Good design is universal. No dumbing down necessary.

What’s Wrong With Skeuomorphism?

Nothing, except that’s not what this product is. It’s not just using skeuomorphic techniques to improve NYTimes.com, it’s literally another way to view the exact same content on the exact same platform. By my count there are at least 13 ways to read the Times: Paper, iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, Kindle, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, Web, Mobile Web, Replica, Times Skimmer, Time Wire, and now Today’s Paper. We don’t need more ways to read the same content that better imitate the past. We need the existing applications and websites to be much much better and focused on the future of news consumption.

The Team Had Fun

It’s fine for a couple of people to make a terrible product for fun or to learn, especially because it’s difficult to know if something will be good before it exists. But for a company that’s as large and well respected as the Times, it’s embarrassing to use the team’s enjoyment as a reason to release a product to the public. Plenty of products have been killed before release at The New York Times and this should have been one of them.

People Asked for It

Of course they did, but just because people ask for something doesn’t mean we should build it. Often, the way users phrase questions and requests is very direct: “You should do this”, but they really want us to do the thinking for them. No one asked for an iPhone before the iPhone was released, and yet hundreds of millions of people of all skill levels use and love these devices every single day.

It’s our skill and responsibility as creators and experts to understand and synthesize user feedback into great products, and not slavishly do what our users say, producing one more pointless product after another.

It’ll Make Readers Happy

Today’s Paper may very well make readers happy just like plenty of people are still happy with their dumbphones. That doesn’t make those phones good products. If the Times believes that Today’s Paper is really the right way to look at Times content, it should be the way the website and the native applications work, not a side effort that’s only available to subscribers and doesn’t even work on smartphones. This is simply a product that placates a vocal minority. These are the people that would still be asking for a faster horse years after the Model T was released. They will only drag the company and its products down.

John Gruber at Daring Fireball called Today’s Paper “utterly uncluttered”. He’s right but misses the larger economic point. This isn’t a sustainable way for the Times to publish content, even for only subscribers. It has no ads which means that if the website operated this way, the entire thing would be a money-losing operation. Gruber is presumably comparing it to the clutter of the NYTimes.com website, but guess what most of that clutter is: ads.

It’s Just an Experiment

This product is not an experiment. Experimentation is something you can do internally, via user testing, in private betas, or on whiteboards. Experiments don’t have revenue goals, and usually don’t require full-time engineers working for months. Experiments don’t have splashy launches and email campaigns to hundreds of thousands of users. Would I have criticized this publicly if it was just an experiment? Absolutely not.

“That sucks” is negativity. “That sucks, here’s why, and here’s how to fix it” is criticism, and it comes from a place of love. That’s the difference.

Alex Payne

In media like film, theater, television, and music, quality criticism is something that’s expected and encouraged. People looks to critics to tell them what’s good, what’s terrible, and why. In software, this same culture has failed to develop. Sure, there are review websites, but the main question they ask of software is: “does it work?” and not “should it exist?”.

We live in an environment where companies and individuals are constantly releasing new products, and the signal to noise ratio is incredibly low. We need to collectively grow a pair and become comfortable criticizing each other’s work. We need fewer products that are higher quality.

In order to produce better products, we must be willing to critique openly and honestly. We must accept that we will all fail. It’s not personal.

#criticism #nytimes

The Best of Times

The New York Times Building

A month ago, on September 4th, I finished my last day as a senior iOS engineer at The New York Times. Two years there taught me a lot about building software that is used by millions of people and about myself.

Why did I work at The New York Times in the first place. Isn’t that just a newspaper company?

Those of you who’ve been paying attention know that the Times is one of the leading forces in online journalism. Respected designers, technologists, and digital journalists work together to produce one of the world’s best news reports and they do it every single day. It’s truly an amazing place to be. If you’re interested in that, I’m sure they have an opening for you.

I found out about the job while I was still studying Human-Computer Interaction at NJIT. I saw the posting on Twitter because I was following Ben Jackson, who worked on the team, and decided to apply even though I thought I’d never get the job.

In the interview, I remember two of the senior engineers on the team asking me why I wanted to work at The New York Times.

I told them that my eventual goal was to run my own software company full-time, but that I wanted to learn how large organizations like the Times produce software so that I wasn’t just guessing. They asked me if I’d leave, and I told the truth: “eventually”.

I got the job. I dropped out of school. I started working on NYTimes for iPhone.

Being at The New York Times was one of the happiest periods in my life. I worked on tons of projects and features that millions of people use every day. I helped run an event, recruited interns, watched an election from the newsroom, won two innovation challenges, and helped make the apps something I’m proud of. Most importantly, I made so many incredible friends.

Here are some fun numbers from my time at the Times:

  • 56 two-week sprints
  • 227,202 Lines of Code Added
  • 163,119 Lines of Code Deleted
  • 2,414 Commits
  • 758 Days (Aug 8, 2011)
  • 554 Closed Issues

Finally, I sent out a farewell email on my last day to the company. One of the responses really got me:

Congratulations, Matthew. I never met you in person, but I remember when you started because I overheard someone in the elevator talking about you. It was something like: Wow. I just met this new hire, a whiz kid, who’s going to do incredible things here. And then some back and forth about who is it? What’s he working on, etc.

That’s been a while, but it’s not very often that you overhear something like that, and it stuck in my mind. Glad you were able to make your mark here at the Times. All the best in your new adventures!

I hope I made that mark after all.

Now it’s time to learn something new. It’s time to see how a smaller company makes great software. I couldn’t be more happy to be joining the 3 person iOS team at Tumblr. It’s going to be amazing.

#me #nytimes