All the News That’s Fit to Digitize
Michael Young B.S. ’97 works in the vanguard of the digital revolution, developing technologies that will shape how we consume news in the future.
By Romel Hernandez
Photography by Paul Fetters
Working at the New York Times, Michael Young B.S. ’97 was paid to “look around corners” in the rapidly transforming media landscape. He explored the emerging technologies that are transforming not just how we read the news, but how we live and interact with the world.
As newspaper circulation and revenues plummet, new ways of accessing news and information via computers and mobile technology are proliferating. Young spent five years as the lead creative technologist at the Times, spearheading strategies aimed at ensuring the iconic newspaper’s survival in the digital age.
As an undergraduate at Lewis & Clark, Young majored in math and computer science and played varsity football. Today, he lives in New York with his young family and heads a promising new start-up called News.me, funded by tech company incubator Betaworks and the Times, News.me is an application designed to personalize and socialize the day’s news using Twitter. The software launched this spring on the iPad and is expected to be available on other platforms soon.
Working on the forefront of the digital revolution, Young is developing the technologies that will shape news and communications in the future.
What were your earliest experiences with computers and newspapers?
My mom was a teacher, and I remember her bringing home the Apple IIs. I’d tinker with the early word processing or drawing programs. I didn’t write any software until I went to college. While growing up, my interests were more sports-related; I was definitely more of a jock than a nerd. As far as newspapers go, my dad read the Oregonian and the local newspaper (the McMinnville News-Register) cover to cover every day at breakfast. I stuck to the sports section.
You were a student at Lewis & Clark from 1993 to 1997, a period when the World Wide Web really exploded into public consciousness. What was that like?
By the mid-1990s, the Web was starting to become a big deal. I remember using some early browsers to surf the Web in Lewis & Clark’s computer lab—I thought the experience was amazing. Around that same time, the computer science curriculum started changing, and we were learning things like Java and Perl, which were taking shape to become the era’s dominant programming languages for the Web. It was all still very rough, but it was that early feeling of excitement that got me hooked on technology and media.
After graduating in 1997, Young, like many other recent college grads, felt the pull of Silicon Valley. He moved to the Bay Area to work for a start-up company called Wink Communications, which was developing interactive television. He worked intense hours and recalls many times leaving the office after midnight or pulling an all-nighter to meet a deadline. In the late 1990s, Silicon Valley felt like the center of the universe. “It was an amazing time, and so many people were moving down there to be a part of it,” he says. “It felt like another gold rush.”
When did you realize the dot-com boom wasn’t going to last forever?
When Wink went public in late 1999, its stock went from $18 a share to $36. A few months later, it was up to $75. Some of my coworkers became paper millionaires overnight. Six months later, the stock was down to just a few dollars a share. That was the trend with so many of the technology companies—they just fell off a cliff. By the end of 2001, things were in bad shape, but by that time I’d moved to New York, so I was pretty far from the gloom and doom of Silicon Valley.
Young convinced Wink to let him work remotely from New York, a place where he had long dreamed to work. It didn’t hurt that his girlfriend at the time (and now wife) was also living in Manhattan. Young survived the buyout of Wink by OpenTV in 2002, continuing to work for the interactive media company as a developer until he read something about the New York Times starting a technology research and development lab. He made inquires and soon became the new venture’s first hire in a job titled “creative technologist.”
“Those words describe him perfectly,” says Michael Zimbalist, the Times’ vice president for research and development. “Some technologists rigidly follow scripts. Others use technology like artists use paint and canvas. Mike loves to create, and his medium is software.”
But it was Young’s work ethic, coupled with his lack of attention-seeking ego—a relative rarity in both the journalism and tech worlds—that made him successful, says Nick Bilton, who worked closely with Young during the early days of the lab and now is the lead technology writer for the Times’ Bits Blog. “Michael has never cared about getting his name out there,” Bilton says. “He’s always just been about putting out the best product, and that’s something rare and refreshing.”
What was it like going to work for a company with so much history and tradition that it’s known as the “Old Gray Lady”?
Recently, I was giving a talk at a technology conference and the guy who introduced me made the comment that the Old Gray Lady is becoming the New Gray Hottie because of some of our work in the R&D lab. I thought that was kind of funny. The New York Times was probably the first newspaper—and one of the first media companies—to set up a research and development group. So there was some initial skepticism about what we were doing, as well as some high expectations.
Janet Robinson, the Times’ president and CEO, urged us to “look around corners.” As the media landscape was—and still is—changing, the company needed people to look one, two, three years out and start thinking about how media and technology were changing. Over the last few years, the Times has really transformed from a newspaper into a news and information company. It’s been fun to see people there become more knowledgeable and more involved in the technology side of news and storytelling.
What exactly is the role of a creative technologist?
I led the prototyping group. Our mission was to research and build prototypes of new applications to illustrate the trends we were seeing.
Each year, we’d study the companywide goals and identify a few specific areas to focus on, usually related to emerging technologies (mobile devices, e-readers, tablets, new video capabilities) or changes in consumer behavior. We would also research the new gadgets that were coming out—really anything related to media and technology—and we would put together a series of white papers and presentations for employees around the company.
Then we would actually build the prototypes to illustrate new product ideas around some of these emerging technologies. We often built applications for gadgets that were still a year or two out. Sometimes we would demo something, and it would sit on a shelf and never see the light of day. Other times, the company would take our ideas and work them into new products or services.
One of the Times products Young is most proud of is an app he and Bilton created called Shifd. Originally developed at a Yahoo-sponsored technology competition called Hack Day, where Young and Bilton won the top prize (“Best Overall Hack”), Shifd would automatically “shift” content that users were consuming from one device to another. For example, imagine a worker leaves his office around 6 p.m. but still hasn’t finished reading two important articles, which he left open in the Web browser on his laptop. With Shifd, the articles would automatically be sent to his phone, showing exactly were he left off, so he could finish reading them on the train ride home. And, if the software detected he was traveling in a car, it could convert the articles to audio files so he could listen to them on the drive home. Shifd was not a massive success, but it did attract wide media attention when it debuted in 2008, and there is a patent pending for the technology behind the idea.
Last year, Young conceived a new application that would allow users to customize and share the news based on their own interests as well as those of their Twitter followers. The application would license content from media companies, such as the Times, and present the news in a clean, easy-to-navigate interface accessible via the iPad and, eventually, other media platforms.
The Times agreed to lend Young and his team to Betaworks, a technology company in Manhattan, to incubate a start-up dubbed News.me. After his loan stint was up, Young stayed on. (The parting was amicable with the Times, which owns an equity stake in News.me.) “This project has been my baby for over a year,” Young says. “I couldn’t walk away with a launch scheduled for spring.”
News.me is billed as “a different kind of social news experience” in which users can customize and share the news based on their own interests as well as their Twitter followers.
Are you bullish or bearish on the future of print?
I don’t think print is going away overnight, especially for strong brands like the Times. There’s still a huge reader base interested in getting a printed newspaper. People love reading the paper—it’s mobile, high res, foldable, bendable, disposable. If you look at a lot of the new gadgets people use to consume media, they still don’t have some of the nice physical properties of paper.
That said, print may not be going away tomorrow, but it is going away. The devices we use to consume the news are only going to improve, and the experiences are going to get better and richer.
Newspapers and media companies need to transform to survive; they need to become technology companies. These companies are no longer competing with the newspaper or TV station across town; they’re competing with companies like Google and Craigslist. Over the past 10 years, technology companies have been the primary drivers of innovation in media consumption. To stay in the game, media companies need to create new experiences, whether their readers are using tablets or phones or browsers connected to 24-inch screens. They have to come up with ways to tell stories not just through plain text, but through images, multimedia, and interactive graphics. It’s starting to happen, but media companies have a long way to go. And, of course, there are numerous challenges on the business side as well.
What do you see on the horizon in terms of emerging technologies that will shape how we live?
One of the biggest trends has been the incredible growth of “mobile.” Earlier this year, smartphones outsold PCs for the first time. It’s amazing to see what the smartphone has become for many people—it’s their primary device for consuming media, doing e-mail, and spending time on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. For many, it’s replaced the digital camera and the navigation device.
The technology in these devices will continue to improve, and we’ll see some very interesting applications for mobile phones and tablets over the next few years. The phone will replace your wallet, especially for banking. You’ll see more “augmented reality”—using your phone to overlay digital information on the physical world. You can already point your phone at a building to find out what restaurants are inside or what apartments are for rent—even the building’s history. These experiences will only get better with time.
Longer term, the search function, as we know it, will change. The trend is toward more of a push model, where relevant information is forwarded to you instead of you searching for it. For example, a system could know that I have two young children. It could also know, based on access to my calendar, that I’m visiting the in-laws in Connecticut this weekend. Using this data, it could send a schedule of child-friendly events and restaurants in the area—all reviewed by critics and friends in my network—directly to my phone without any work on my part.
Obviously, this type of enhanced search is not without some perils—there are huge privacy and trust implications. But all in all, I’m excited by the prospect of a more efficient way to unearth relevant information. It’s a large technical challenge, but it’s just around the corner.
Finally, how did Lewis & Clark help to prepare you for success in such a cutting-edge career?
It was the mix of classes and experiences that I got at Lewis & Clark. My degree was in math and computer science, but I never felt like I had to narrow my focus to just those areas. I wasn’t sitting in a computer lab all day. I took a variety of classes, from the basics of computer operating systems to the history of Pacific Northwest Indians. I participated in a great overseas study program to Australia. And I played varsity football for four years and golf for three. All of those experiences, I think, helped prepare me for the challenges of a technology career. n
Romel Hernandez is a freelance writer in Portland.