Home Tech The Times’s Experts Making High-Tech Storytelling Possible

The Times’s Experts Making High-Tech Storytelling Possible

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Times Insider explains who we are and what we do and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together. At the top of a New York Times article online that explains frequently asked questions about Covid-19 vaccines, readers can type in any query that comes to mind. “Am I eligible?” “Can I take Tylenol before I get vaccinated?” “How will we know when things are getting better?” A search tool returns the most relevant answer. It’s a little like Google, except all of the results have been reported by Times journalists.

The tool uses machine learning to accurately infer what readers are asking, and is a project of The Times’s research and development group. A constantly evolving department at The Times that has existed in its current form since 2016, the group continually looks for technology to elevate journalism. In June, the R&D team updated its website to make sharing its experimental projects and newsroom collaborations easier with fellow technologists, journalists, and academics.

While “research and development” might evoke images of locked offices full of analysts and inventors secretly building futuristic prototypes, the reality is slightly different. The 35-person team of technologists, designers, producers, and strategists work closely with the newsroom involving technologies already used for other mediums, such as gaming, or are expected to be soon. “We make calculated bets around those technologies” and then experiment with them, Lana Porter, R&D’s creative director, said.

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The vaccine F.A.Q. Page was built with natural language processing, which uses machine learning to analyze large amounts of text. The software that R&D made was initially developed for the coronavirus F.A.Q. Page, a predecessor where readers sought answers about the virus when it was first spreading around the globe.

“We all realized that if coronavirus was the story of 2020, the vaccines were the story of 2021,” said Tara Parker-Pope, founding editor of Well and the lead editor of the F.A.Q. Page. “And we wanted to ensure that we gave readers the same kind of science-based answers to their questions.”

“Much of the work that we’re doing is trying to figure out how we adapt the technology to the needs of journalism — or sometimes the constraints of journalism,” Marc Lavallee, the executive director of R&D, said.

In photogrammetry, for example, which is often used to create 3-D scenes for video games, producers must take upward of thousands of photos that accurately capture ample space. A gaming company might have months or even years to put together a scene in a game, and if designers don’t catch something correctly, they can artificially fix it later.

That efficiency can be critical. Using homography, a computer vision technique, R&D, and the Sports and Graphics desks published a multimedia article on Lamont Marcell Jacobs’s gold medal run 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 runners’ positions.

The members of the R&D team will use the new website to connect with other people doing similar work around emerging technologies. The site serves as a space where team members can share the results of a big project, incremental experiments, and other questions the team is thinking about.

It’s also a place to celebrate successes, like the tool used for the vaccine F.A.Q. The litmus test for many of these technologies is whether they strengthen journalism. The ultimate goal of all of this experimentation, Mr. Lavallee said, is that it “makes sense for our readers.”

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