Cory Haik doesn’t care for the phrase “snackable content.” It’s not that Haik, The Washington Post’s executive producer for digital news, doesn’t agree with the idea of developing new formats for news — she told me the Post’s mobile traffic almost surpasses desktop during certain parts of the day. But Haik said it’s important to think in terms broader than “the commuter waiting for the train” or “the person reading on their phone while waiting in line.” Media companies like the Post have to be able to slice up their journalism in new ways, she said, for readers who are catching up on news in the evenings or looking for features on weekends.
Content parting is just one of the ideas Haik spends her time thinking about at the Post, where she helps direct data projects, news applications, mobile development, video, and more. One of the Post’s newest projects is TruthTeller, a real-time fact-checking tool that takes a Shazam-like approach to debunking misleading statements. I talked with Haik about the project, as well as how the Post creates internal tools to help reporting, their plans for a new video channel, and developing the next Wonkblog. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
My answer is always yes we can, of course we can. They’ve all got phones in their hands, there’s something to be done there. It could have been any politician — it was Michele Bachmann, but insert anyone. My thought — because Shazam was a thing and Siri was hot at the time — I thought, “We can take the video, they can upload it, we can do something with that.” So, here we are with a prototype with funding from Knight and it works.
It’s just a prototype. It’s extracting audio from video and doing speech-to-text translation, running an algorithm that we built that looks for claims in that text and matches it to a database. We’re moving it past the prototype now, but we have something that does the job so that feels pretty good.
What we have is something that is much slower. It’s gonna take some time to close that gap and do that real-time fact-checking, because speech-to-text is hard. There’s a process time and other issues. You’ve got to the tweak the algorithm. It’s just complicated in terms of the technology. But it is doable. Somebody tell me no and then we’ll prove them wrong.
We launched a new mobile website ahead of the presidential conventions because we really needed an extensible platform to be able to do the kinds of things that we did. We developed The Grid, which we put out there for the conventions, which was responsively designed. That was our first responsive project. Everything we’re doing now — in the bigger product, platform, or project way — is being designed responsively. TruthTeller was designed responsively. We imagined it, of course, as a mobile app, so we’ll see where we get with that.
Are native applications going to be a thing in 2016? We’ll see. But we do know that mobile is one of the most important things for our audiences and we’re reaching people in new places.
Really, our job is to make sure we’re delivering you an experience that does the right thing for your device.
If you go to that site and you get on the train, a lot of that is pre-cached and then you can actually read it. That’s important. So thinking about the commuting experience is very important.
There was this concept for a while that people thought — and this word sort of annoys me — it’s a ‘snackable’ experience. Doesn’t that just sound wrong? You’re waiting in line for something or you want to quickly check in on your lunch hour — whatever it is, you’re coming in bursts. But think about what you do in the evenings. Think of what you do in the airport. Think about what you do on Sunday mornings on your couch. You’re on your phone for a long time. That’s awesome.
The desktop audience for a long time — and still is, you can look at the peak times of our site — it follows the business day. That makes a lot of sense. Traffic is different on the weekends. But guess what — on mobile, it’s happening. So it’s important for us to think about dayparting, and content parting in a whole new way.
Another thing that annoys me — even though you didn’t ask, I’ll tell you — there was this concept for a long time of “platform-agnostic.” I think that’s fine if you’re making sure your journalism can be malleable to all forms. But what about platform-specific? There are devices out there that do things you should be taking advantage of that people are using in new and different ways. Really, our job is to make sure we’re delivering you an experience that does the right thing for your device, that does the right thing for our digital storytelling, that meets you where you are when you’re at that place with that device.
My goal was to make sure our audience knew that we cared about social as a real indicator in the race, but also I wanted our newsroom to care about it.
So we took the Mention Machine technology that we built and we’re running a query around the pope and all these terms. We didn’t end up publishing anything, but we were able to segment out social by geo, at a pretty high percentage rate. Much higher than I thought we’d really be able to do. The team is psyched.
We didn’t publish anything, but that’s okay. We sort of moved that forward so we’re ready for the next thing. It’s this really nice collection of digital journalists who care a lot about moving that ball forward, doing digital that matters, and pushing the digital storytelling forward.
There are exceptions. But the Mention Machine was this concept of, “Hey, let’s count Twitter!” It’s very basic, but when we launched it, which was the first day of the primaries in 2012, that was way before Twitter’s Twindex, way before all these other things were doing more sophisticated sentiment analysis.
The Post built that and we displayed it in a prominent way on our site, so we said “This guy is up, this gal is down, according to Twitter mentions.’ My goal was to make sure our audience knew that we cared about social as a real indicator in the race, but also I wanted our newsroom to care about it. And they did. They blogged off of it, they took screenshots, they used the data. That was really an advancement. And now, I can’t tell you how many times we’ve used that Mention Machine technology to do social counting for projects.
We did it when the pope stepped down — we turned the Mention Machine on. We had this expertise in house and we know all the papal candidates, so we fed that into the Mention Machine with some other query terms and said “start counting.” From 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. that day, we counted, and then we built this really beautiful interactive around the number of Twitter counts by potential successor. That’s moving it forward, and that’s doing digital journalism I think is valuable and people in this room feel really good about.
I think what you’ll find is something that’s immersive, that’s interactive, that feels of the web. We don’t want to recreate something. Not stale, not boring, not just talking heads. We really do want to make it of the web. If you can turn Wonkblog into something in video, just imagine that. We want to make it something that truly is right for the time, that has the expertise, and is of the Post that way. We have access to all these politicians, all these leaders, so bringing that forth in a new medium. We hope you like it — we’re working really hard on it.
I don’t mean necessarily personalizing every single experience, but I think those are the kinds of things responsive design and a more extensible platform can allow for. We’re always thinking along those lines. Where our users are coming from is important. The days of people sitting around, of expecting people to type in “www.washingtonpost.com” are over. We do care deeply about where the referrers are coming from, and we also care about meeting them there and engaging them there and bringing them back.