Times pundits make high-tech storytelling possible

Time initiate explains who we are and what we do, and offers a behind-the-scenes look at how our journalism comes together. At the top...


Time initiate explains who we are and what we do, and offers a behind-the-scenes look at how our journalism comes together.

At the top of a New York Times online article that provides explanations to frequently asked questions about Covid-19 vaccines, readers can type any query that comes to their mind. “Am I eligible? “Can I take Tylenol before I get the vaccine?” “How will we know when things get better?” A search tool returns the most relevant answer. It’s a bit like Google, except all results were reported by reporters from The Times.

The tool, which uses machine learning to most accurately infer what readers are asking for, is a project of the Times research and development group. An ever-evolving department of The Times that has been around in its current form since 2016, the group is continually researching ways in which technology can elevate journalism.

In June, the R&D team updated its website to facilitate the sharing of his experimental projects and his editorial collaborations with his fellow technologists, journalists and academics.

While “research and development” may conjure up images of locked desks filled with analysts and inventors secretly building futuristic prototypes, the reality is a little different. Members of the 35-person team of technologists, designers, producers and strategists work closely with the newsroom, involving technologies already in use for other media, such as games, or expected to be soon.

“We make calculated bets around these technologies,” and then we experiment with them, said Lana Porter, Creative Director of R&D.

The vaccine FAQ page was designed with a technology called natural language processing, which uses machine learning to analyze large amounts of text. The software that R&D has built was originally developed for the Coronavirus FAQ page, a predecessor where readers were looking for answers about the virus when it first spread around the world.

“We all realized that if the coronavirus was the story of 2020, vaccines were the story of 2021,” said Tara Parker-Pope, editor of Well and editor of the FAQ page. “And we really wanted to make sure that we were giving readers the same type of scientific answers to their questions.”

Photogrammetry, a technology that reconstructs 3D spaces from thousands of 2D photos and was recently used to create a model of a church shrine in Harlem, and software that uses 5G cellular technology to send photos and videos from cameras in the field to computers in the newsroom almost instantly.

“A lot of the work we do is trying to figure out how we adapt technology to the needs of journalism – or sometimes to the constraints of journalism,” said Marc Lavallee, executive director of R&D.

In photogrammetry, for example, which is often used to create 3D scenes for video games, producers have to take more than thousands of photos that accurately capture a large space. A game company can have months, or even years, to create a scene in a game, and if the designers don’t capture something correctly, they can artificially fix it later.

“We don’t do this in photojournalism,” Lavallee said. “So that creates a set of constraints that are somewhat unique to our needs.”

Once a technology has been deemed viable, part of the job is to determine how it can be used by journalists in the field. “How do you build the design models, the pipelines, the workflows to actually produce this type of work at a rate that we never would have envisioned in the past? Ms. Porter said, describing part of the challenge.

This efficiency can be critical. Using homography, a computer vision technique, the R&D and the Sports and Graphics desks published a multimedia article on Lamont Marcell Jacobs’ race for gold in the 100 meters at the Olympics – the day of his race. Photographs were taken every five hundredths of a second, and time stamps on the photos were used to track the positions of the runners.

Members of the R&D team will use the new website to connect with others doing similar work around emerging technologies, with the site serving as a space where team members can share the results of a large project, incremental experiences, and other questions the team is thinking about.

It is also a place where they can celebrate successes, such as the tool used for the vaccine FAQs. The litmus test for many of these technologies is whether they enhance journalism.

The ultimate goal of all of these experiments, Lavallee said, is that they “make sense to our readers.”

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