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Oct. 1, 2015, 12:15 p.m.

Newsonomics: The Washington Post offers an Arc in the storm

Call it a platform, call it a content management system, call it an “umbrella of interconnected services” — the set of tools the Post has built for itself is now being licensed to other publishers, who might find it more useful than their alternatives.

Do you remember where you were when you heard that Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post?

Okay, that’s a bit too dramatic. But: Do you remember how surprised you were when you heard that Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post?

Bezos bought the Post from the Graham family a little more than two years ago, and when the news traveled across the news world, the anticipation hung in the air: WWJD? Could the Amazon wunderkind do for news publishing what he had done for retail commerce, imagining a whole new business model that could sustain a large-scale enterprise?

Even as the wider legacy news industry keeps its ears to the ground, hoping for turnaround ideas, we’ve heard no earth-shattering announcements out of D.C. But Bezosian clues do tumble out now and then — more frequently of late. There’s the Washington Post national network, now comprising some 300 dailies, in which the Post offers local newspapers’ subscribers free access to the national edition of the Post. Then there’s the long-awaited Prime partnership, by which Amazon’s 40 million or more Prime subscribers can get Post national for free for six months, and only $48 a year thereafter (“Jeff Bezos (finally) pumps up the Post with Prime”).

Now comes what could become another fulcrum of a Post national play: Arc. If Jeff Bezos has provided runway for the rebuilding of the Post franchise, think about Arc as the new control tower, a to-be-licensed platform built to support modern digital publishing.

Arc has been in development for more than three years, soon after Post chief information officer Shailesh Prakash arrived on the job and began rethinking Post publishing. Bezos’ arrival then added fuel for the buildout of what Prakash calls a set of “best-of-breed tools that are aware of each other.” You could call it a platform, or a content management system. Most importantly, it aims to newly answer the question that has long bedeviled legacy publishers: how to get both the old stuff (like text and photos) and the new stuff (like video, audio, and interactives) from conception to the audience without so much hassle.

Arc, then, intends to provide an umbrella of interconnected services. These services — from video to app creation to personalization to analytics — can be seen as modules. Each — increasingly self-built by the Post or partnered — can be bettered over time. Each is engineered to work alongside its Arc cousins. In the Post chart below, Arc covers 15 functions — all things a medium-sized or larger publisher now needs to harness. From the left to right, it moves from creation to audience.

washington-post-arc-slide-huge

(On the chart, Clavis is the Post’s personalization engine, Darwin its A/B tester.)

As the Post newsroom has made impressive use of Arc, Prakash and a team of about a dozen have been quietly focused on extending it to other publishers. Just this week, Portland’s Pulitzer-winning Willamette Week became Arc’s first launched customer. The weekly pulled the Arc switch with the usual trepidation — but few of the normal tears, it says — and transformed the look and speed of its web and mobile products. In total, it took but two and a half months from the start of talks with the Post to the launch. Willamette Week’s newsroom has seen a much needed change in its workflows.

“To upload images, we’ve gone from three steps to one,” says Lizzy Acker, Willamette Week’s web editor.

I asked Acker how fast the new site loads compared to the old. She said she hadn’t yet done a calculation, but “I do know that Chartbeat showed us as three snails before and now as a walking person,” she laughed.

“We are now a digital-first company as a result of this because of the way their system works,” says Mark Zusman, Willamette Week’s editor and publisher. “It really makes a lot of sense to publish to digital and then go to print. It’s a change in the way everybody operates, on the editorial side and the production side and on the ad-sale side.”

The benefits should be severalfold, he says. The weekly’s journalists can put more time into their journalism and less into process. He expects that the SEO help provided by Arc will increase audience. Unlike earlier highly templated systems, Zusman says Arc’s flexibility impresses staff. “If you look at the site, you’ll see the sophistication. What you can’t see in the backend is the ease of use and the flexibility. If we want to have a completely different look on Monday from Tuesday, we’ve got the tools to do so.”

“The Post has been an absolutely remarkable partner, and all evidence is that they actually deeply care about local, independent journalism. They’re really helping us.” Zusman says he is paying about the same amount for Arc as it had for its previous WeHaa system.

Willamette Week’s early positive experience is echoed by the Post’s first testers, in the college press. Columbia and the University of Maryland have been testing Arc, for free, to work out bugs. Columbia’s Spectator used the sophistication of the platform to good effect, for instance with this piece on the history of sexual assault activism at Columbia.

“The Post partnership drastically changed how our newsroom approached digital storytelling,” says Teddy Amenabar, a Post intern who is also a recent online managing editor at University of Maryland’s Diamondback. The paper’s created a group of web developers focused on coding for Arc called Diamondback Lab.

The Arc idea

Arc focuses on creating a better reader experience. You can check out a few pieces to get the sense of the nuance and fluidity it can bring to multimedia stories: its Katrina Diaspora series, or a Syrian refugee story, or a Post native ad from its Brand Connect business, which also uses Arc.

Jeremy Gilbert, the Post’s digital development director of strategic initiatives, gives credit to The New York Times’ groundbreaking Snow Fall story of 2012. That story opened eyes of how the web could tell stories. The challenge, he says, has been in creating tools to do that as part of a work routine, rather than a great exception — to do it twice a week perhaps, rather than once a month. Consequently, Arc is architected to save time, and use repeat processes — packaged in templates and toolsets — to make presentation assembly easier over time.

Arc, to be clear, is a digital platform. The Post’s integration of it with its Méthode print CMS — while offering promise — is a work in progress. Says Prakash: “This is also an advantage we think we have over the pure-play digital offerings — they simply have no idea of how to integrate with a print operation that still brings in the majority of our revenue. Arc is a bridge to the digital future which is aware of our print legacy. As much as we would rather not, we live the legacy of our print legacy (and systems) everyday at the Post.”

Still, what the Post has built calls to mind the high-profile platforms of the news startup world. Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff has long pointed to its Chorus platform as the secret sauce of his lower-cost, fast-to-market business. Similarly, just-acquired Business Insider cites its Viking platform and Gawker its Kinja platform as central to their growth.

The strategic idea for the Post, and one Prakash believes is sharable: Any company of significance needs to be able to be in charge of its own means of production. Dependence on too many vendors — for video here, analytics there — can stifle any publisher’s progress, believes Prakash. Arc’s argument is that working off one vendor’s well integrated, and constantly updated, platform is a suitable solution. Customers would get all of Arc’s functionality, being able to pick which modules they want, and see functionality improve as it improves for the Post.

Vendorland

Still, licensing the platform moves the Post into Vendorland. Creating and iterating a state-of-the-art platform is tough enough; servicing noisy and high-expectation customers is something else again.

Prakash acknowledges that the many to-dos — deeper documentation, training, finalizing pricing and more — are all in early stages. That buildout is now supported by 10 to 15 of Prakash’s overall complement of 200 engineers, designers, and product managers. A second customer is signed and on the rollout schedule, and the Post is gearing up for more over the next year.

An alt-weekly is one thing; is he ready for a good-sized daily with lots of complexity? “Well, if The New York Times called tomorrow, we wouldn’t be ready,” he says. But the Post is clearly thinking big.

“We’ve done a market sizing,” says Prakash. “I fundamentally believe there is a big gap in the marketplace, and this is a business worth at least $100 million in revenue if done right.”

I’d agree. Publishers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on content management systems over the past two decades, and still largely find themselves behind whatever curve is on the horizon. A better solution — whether the Post’s or someone else’s — should find acceptance among the struggling, transitioning press.

It’s just not traditional media that the Post will target. There’s also all those brands that now consider themselves “publishers.” They’re adapting to native advertising, but they’re also getting used to all that’s required of — or that may be useful to — a publisher in direct contact with an audience. Prakash names the financial industry as one likely target there.

A horse of what color?

As the Post rolled out its national network program to local and regional dailies, some confidentially described it as a Trojan horse. How opaque or transparent the Post’s national programs appear to be may be in the mind of the beholder; it would be silly to expect a Jeff Bezos-led enterprise to be less than super-aggressive in the marketplace. The Post’s many initiatives, including Arc, certainly suggest an army on the move. That army can be a potent gatherer of data; as with the national network deals with publishers, the Post gets access to audience analytics churned out through Arc.

All publishers would be smart to keep that in mind, but it shouldn’t stop them from testing initiatives offered by one of the few well-funded, mold-breaking pioneers in today’s digital publishing. Look across the landscape of the North American (and European) regional press today, and we see a shortage of new ideas, and of investment in new ideas. We do see lots of cost-cutting — but not enough of the moves that can improve the bottom line and improve the products that audiences get.

The Post intends Arc to make money, of course. “We’re not altruistic,” says Prakash. Beyond charging for the service, the Post could add other moneymakers, such as content syndication services, says Matt Monahan, a senior product manager.

While Arc is not now connected to the Post’s ad management system, it’s not far-fetched to see how a networked content platform used at scale could become a foundation for both advertising and reader revenue (a.k.a. paywall) sales. We’d have to consider that a longer-term possibility; it clearly would take a minimum of several years to develop. But if it did, it might both benefit Bezos’ Post and provide a new lower-cost, higher-performing tech foundation for the wider news business. There are a lot of ifs there, but the advent of Arc makes the notion less of a fantasy.

Shailesh Prakash puts his Arc in perspective: “As much of hype and pomp there is about our technology offering, I am happy to go on record to say, this is a ‘stretch’ goal for us…Our strategy is ‘crawl, walk, run.’ I grew up in the tech industry from Sun to Netscape to Microsoft, and I know how hard it is to be a software vendor, and I think we have a shot at it, especially under the the tone that Jeff sets for the company.”

Photo of the Washington Post building by Max Borge used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 1, 2015, 12:15 p.m.
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