Welcome to the Times Machine

It’s taken a decade or so, but newspapers are finally beginning to get the hang of this new media thing.

Among the most impressive new offerings: The New York Times Machine, an online experience that allowed me, in an instant, to read a story, originally published on May 25, 1883, entitled: “Two Great Cities United: Bridge Formally Opens.” From the text:

The Brooklyn Bridge was successfully opened yesterday. A fairer day for the ceremony could not have been chosen.”

Train service was extended from Easton, PA, Long Island, and other just-far-enough-away places. The service was decidedly a Brooklyn celebration. The people in New-York (at the time, the hyphen was still in common use) were less ecstatic, but showed up in the tens of thousands to join the celebration.

I know all of this because I am reading the actual printed page of the newspaper, the story in its original font, in its original presentation. I can see what happened on that day by reading other stories. There was an uprising of Italian railroad workers in Philadelphia who demanded their pay before they went back to work. The French government is having trouble with their colonial subjects in Madagascar who seem willing to “fight to the death” for their rights (The New York Times is remarkably even-handed in telling this story.) General Grant arrived in Chicago, and will leave for Galena tomorrow (in fact, that was the whole story).

The interface is simple, and well-designed. On the left, which occupies about 3/4 of the screen, there is simply a picture of the newspaper. Click on a story, and it becomes large enough to read. (No way to copy contents just yet, but I hope that will be part of a future release.) On the right is a search window and a list of search results, each with a headline. Some stories are presented with a brief summary. Every story can be forwarded by Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Google+, and more (this feature doesn’t work just yet, but it will soon).

After writing this initial draft of this article, I decided to explore some more. The Sunday New York Times for July 20, 1969 is filled with fascinating advertisements. I found a real zebra rug offered for just $195, marked down from $395, from Hunting World (“the sought-after high-contrast skins with the darkest stripes and the whitest backgrounds”). And now, the news… A judge in New Jersey determined that the conflict in Vietnam was, legally, a war. TV writer Jack Gould explained how television signals were transmitted from the moon. Bobby Seale led a Black Panther rally with about 3,000 people; most of them were white, and they shouted, repeatedly, “power to the people” while thrusting their fists into the air. Son House, Sleepy John Estes, Brownie McGhee, and Yank Ranchel were among the performers at the Newport Folk Festival (I wish I had been there!). Elsewhere in New England, last night, Ted Kennedy’s car ran off a bridge in Edgartown, Massachusetts, and the yet-unnamed female passenger was killed.  Ted Williams was managing the Washington Senators, host of that year’s baseball All-Star Game, celebrating the 100th anniversary of professional league play. And, the Pope, still watching black-and-white TV, arranged for a color set so that he could watch today’s Apollo moon landing. It is SO cool to see these original stories in their original form. This particular edition included over 450 stories–plus a whole lot of interesting (and not so interesting) advertisements, mostly from department stores.

The current version is a prototype (Beta version), so the range of dates and stories is very limited. Still, it’s fascinating to see what The New York Times Machine will be–and soon.

Below, a sample image. It’s far easier to read the real thing (just click here).

NYTimesMachine NYTimesMachine2

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Smaller than I thought

Just out of curiosity, I decided to explore the list of top U.S. newspapers by circulation.

Some things that I found interesting:

1. The top newspaper in the USA is not a general interest paper. It’s the Wall Street Journal, with a circulation of about 2 million.

2. The second largest paper is USA Today, and the third is The New York Times.

3. The daily circulation of The New York Times roughly equals the population of Rhode Island–just about 1 million people. On Sundays, the Times circulation equals the number of people in Idaho (1.3 million). And the NY Times is the biggest local paper in the USA.

4. Other big papers in the USA include The Washington Post, The Daily News (NYC), Chicago Tribune, and Chicago Sun-Times. Each is around the half million mark–roughly, the population of  our least-populous state, Wyoming.

Before this end-of-journalism web madness began, daily New York Times circulation was about 1.1 million in 1998. Not much of a change from today’s 1 million. In 1990–years before the internet’s introduction–The Daily News peaked around 2.3 million per day, but by 1990, circulation was down to 1.2 million, and now, it’s about half that amount. Based upon various conflicting, but helpful, sources, I believe newspaper circulation is down by around 1/3 since 1990–but that’s two decades ago, certainly plenty of time to reinvent an industry. In Chicago, that means 1 in 9 households gets a paper (either Sun-Times or Trib) every weekday. I’m curious whether that number was, say, 1 in 5 around 1960, or maybe even 1 in 3 around 1940. I’ll do some research on those details, and get back to you.

Regardless of the specific numbers, the trends are no secret. It’s clear that the music and newspaper industries made their technology decisions late in the game, limiting their options, struggling with their status quo for too long, allowing competitors to dominate. And, it’s pretty clear that the internet is a better way to deliver news than, say, newsboys standing on street corners. I wonder whether we still need print editions. And I wonder just how much energy, and paper, we spend printing, trucking and recycling millions of newspapers every day of the week. And on Sundays.

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