New York Times Disbands R&D Lab, Pulls Innovation Closer to Newsroom

By Scott Kirsner |  May 10, 2016

The New York Times Company has closed its research and development lab, founded a decade ago with a mandate to look “beyond the next product cycle, identifying trends and technologies that will emerge in the next three to five years.” Michael Zimbalist, who had overseen the lab, had already departed the Times in March to join Simulmedia, an advertising tech startup.

In a press release, the Times positioned this as a “rebirth” of the R&D lab. But key employees like Executive Director Matthew Boggie, Data Scientist Michael Dewar (right), and Creative Director Alexis Lloyd are leaving the newspaper.

InnoLead visited the Times’ R&D lab in 2015 as part of our New York Field Study event. Among the projects lab employees demoed and discussed were a “listening table” that could record and transcribe conversations taking place at it; a testing program for using aerial drones as reporting tools; and Madison, an archive of advertisements that users could help describe and categorize. The lab also developed, in 2011, a bathroom mirror that could deliver data to help you start the day.

Kinsey Wilson, the paper’s Executive Vice President for Product and Technology, will oversee a new venture called Story[X], which doesn’t yet have a website. Story[X], according to a report in Politico, “will focus on technology that the Times (and its advertisers) can use in the near future — augmented reality, messaging apps, bots that work with the Amazon Echo, even connected cars.”

The R&D lab may have veered too far into exploration and prototype-building that didn’t tie back directly enough, or quickly enough, into products and services the Times can sell to readers and advertisers.In a post titled, “A Eulogy for the New York Times R&D Lab,” David Riordan writes:

    The work done by NY Times R&D was somehow always ahead of the time, in that they would make vivid prototypes and experimental services and then most of them would simply become how we consumed and created the news. It was convened to work on new problems, technologies, and opportunities that the rest of the organization would start to seriously face 3–5 years out. It wasn’t their place to “solve and scale” outright, but to create research?—?made manifest by incredible interactive prototypes?—?that would help the organization think through, and adapt to these changes, and to show where The Times could go.

In 2013, the Times also shut down a group called R&D Ventures, which was intended to spin off and commercialize work done by the R&D lab.