Globe Lab: The future of mainstream news?

Boston Globe opens up its Globe Lab for a behind-the-scenes peek

As a member of the local Hack/Hackers group in Boston (an organization of "hacks" (i.e., journalists) and hackers (i.e., programmers and designers), I had a chance Tuesday night to visit the Boston Globe's headquarters in Boston and take a peek at the newspaper's R&D lab, dubbed Globe Lab. The Globe, which has the website as well as a new paywall-protected site dubbed, is experimenting with all sorts of new social media, Web and mobile technologies in an effort to better deliver its content and engage with readers and serve advertisers.

The lab opened this year and has one full-time employee, creative technologist/programmer Chris Marstall (above, center), who hosted the visit. While the Lab engages in basic research, Marstall says "there is definitely an emphasis on producing products that can be released and hopefully make money."

The lab is housed in an open, newfangled space at the Globe featuring all sorts of video screens that are connected via HDMI and are portable so that the configuration can be changed regularly. A mix of classic editorial types, hipsters and programmers trapse through the space, which also has invited MIT Media Lab students and an Olin College of Engineering professor to work on projects. Globe Lab is also incubating projects such as The Next Great Generation that is run by budding journalists. Six projects were shown:

--A Google TV version of the Big Picture blog, which which is the Globe's most popular blog with 3-5 million page views per month. It's basically big beautiful pictures, with captions, in a sort of slideshow. While Globe Lab personnel acknowledge Web TV hasn't taken off yet, they figure Google has as good a shot as anyone.

--Snap: They exploit the iPhone Instagram photo sharing app to plot geotagged pictures taken by Instagram users on a map of greater Boston displayed on 6  big beautiful displays vertically fitted together. It gives reporters a snapshot of what sorts of pics people are taking across the city and has potential to spark story ideas and maybe even supply photos for breaking events.

--Cascade: A Twitter and story click visualization and analyzation tool borrowed from the NYT Lab. It enables the Globe to track how stories get tweeted and retweeted. Lab personnel plan to sit down journalists and producers (those who distribute stories via social media) to examine which story topics tend to get tweeted a lot and to figure out better social media strategies for stories. The biggest social media referring technique for Globe subscribers? Sharing stories by email...

--Shim: This was pretty cool. It's basically a mobile cart/desk that features a bunch of different devices (MacBook, iPad, Nook, iPod touch, smartphones, etc.) and is used by Web designers to see how content looks on different screens. Like many, the Globe is following a path of responsive design in an effort to have its content look great on any size screen and any OS. Some devices look better with content in 3 vs. 2 vs. 1 column, for instance. The Globe has gone all in on HTML5 in an effort to avoid building specific apps for different platforms. Shim software allows one device to control the Web browser on multiple other systems, saving time in checking how a story or template looks on multiple browsers and devices. The code has been open-sourced and is available on Github. Shim is show here (sorry for the poor photo quality...)

-- PaperEye: The Globe is looking at the intersection of paper readers and online readers. This felt a bit forced, but one app was that you could be reading your physical newspaper at the breakfast table, take a picture of a story, and that pic would get converted into a tweet with the story URL embedded. Future ideas for this include allowing people to view online comments about the story. I signed up to be an alpha user of this.

-- Information Radiator: They have 3 screens arranged vertically in the newsroom (see photo at top, with the Radiator on the left) so that anyone sitting near or walking by can see the content. The top screen displays the most recent Tweet  from the staff, changing pretty frequently since they have a lot of staffers tweeting. The other screens show and the homepages.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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