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March 23, 2016, 12:18 p.m.
Mobile & Apps

The Washington Post has developed a tool that tracks the speed of its breaking news email alerts in comparison to nine other competitors. The tool, called BreakFast, has allowed the Post to streamline its own breaking news protocols and is part of its CMS.

BreakFast tracks how quickly each outlet sends out an alert, whether they’ve previously covered the alerted topic, and whether an alert could be considered spam by noting if two or more news organizations send an alert about a topic. Since the Post introduced the system in April 2015, data scientist Shuguang Wang said the paper has improved its breaking news email delivery speed by 80 percent.

In a post, Wang explained how the BreakFast system works:

There are three components in the BreakFast system: email tracking, event identification, and dashboards. We subscribe to breaking news emails from The Washington Post and nine other major news organizations. As soon as each breaking news alert lands in the email account we use to collect and track alerts, the back end service automatically parses the alert and determines whether it is about the same event as previous alerts. The time stamp and ranking of each new alert are collected and aggregated in real time. These overall results are shown in dashboards used by our newsroom. In near real time, they can see all of the breaking news events that have been covered by these news organizations and also each news organization’s overall performance.

BreakFast diagram

Wang also detailed how the system covered two two specific stories:

In this example, BreakFast collects the live feeds of news organizations; it records four alerts from three news organizations. We identify which breaking news event an alert is about and group alerts by the same event. These four alerts are about two events: Maria Sharapova’s failure of a doping test and Michael Bloomberg’s announcement that he will not run for president.


For each event we compile statistics about how well each news organization performed. BreakFast identifies which news organization is first to report an event and how much longer it takes other news organizations to report the same event. Each news organization is ranked according to its overall speed in breaking news performance over time.

BreakFast helped the Post identify how its technical and editorial processes were limiting how it sent out breaking news emails. On the technical side, the Post uses a third-party vendor to send out breaking news emails. “Emails are sent one by one, moving down the list of readers to email,” Wang wrote. “This can be a slow process for lengthy lists.”

To improve the delivery speed, we are exploring alternative delivery methods such as separating readers into smaller groups based on their interests. We are also exploring ways to refine the list to reflect user’s level of engagement. If a user opened a political breaking news alert recently and time-spent signals indicate the user read the content, he or she could receive future political alerts earlier.

Editorially, by looking at the data, the Post was able to identify several areas where it could improve, Eric Rich, editor of the Post’s Universal News Desk, said in Wang’s post:

Confirming the news takes the time it takes, and nothing changes there. But we discovered that other aspects of our process — from how we communicate internally when news breaks to the technology we use to send alerts — could all be made more effective. And as we worked through those issues, using the data to measure improvement, our ability to get breaking news out quickly improved dramatically.

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