“There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment.”
That was Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, in the letter he wrote to Washington Post employees upon agreeing to personally acquire the 136-year-old newspaper in August 2013. He acknowledged they might have apprehensions about the historic transfer of ownership, and most of his missive was dedicated to reassuring them that the company would remain dedicated to serving readers even in a time of head-snapping change for the business of journalism.
More than four years later, it’s clear that Bezos was true to his word. But the invention and experimentation that’s happened at the Post has included a side project which is a major departure from the company’s traditional comfort zone.
Since 2014, a new Post operation now called Arc Publishing has offered the publishing system the company originally used for WashingtonPost.com as a service. That allows other news organizations to use the Post’s tools for writers and editors. Arc also shoulders the responsibility of ensuring that readers get a snappy, reliable experience when they visit a site on a PC or mobile device. It’s like a high-end version of Squarespace or WordPress.com, tailored to solve the content problems of a particular industry.
By offloading the creation of publishing tools and the hosting of sites, media companies can concentrate on the journalism itself rather than the technical requirements of getting it in front of readers. Scot Gillespie, the Washington Post’s chief technology officer, says that Arc’s value proposition is “let us run the CMS [content management system] for you, the creation of circulation. You focus on differentiation.”
Among the publications that have moved to Arc are the Los Angeles Times, Canada’s Globe and Mail, the New Zealand Herald, and smaller outfits such as Alaska Dispatch News and Oregon’s Willamette Week. In aggregate, sites running on Arc reach 300 million readers; publishers pay based on bandwidth, which means that the more successful they are at attracting readers, the better it is for Arc Publishing. The typical bottom line ranges from $10,000 a month at the low end up to $150,000 a month for Arc’s biggest customers.
For the Post, Arc Publishing isn’t a distraction from serving readers–it’s a means of bolstering its financial wherewithal to do so, in an age when many news outlets are slashing budgets and downsizing journalistic aspirations. “We’ve done a much better job in slowing down the print decline relatively, compared to others,” Gillespie stresses. But selling software gives the Post a revenue source with the potential for the sort of explosive growth that’s unlikely to come from subscriptions and advertising.
The Washington Post doesn’t disclose Arc Publishing’s revenue or whether it’s currently profitable. (The Post itself turned a profit in 2016.) It does say, however, that Arc’s revenue doubled year-over-year and the goal is to double it again in 2018. According to Post CIO Shailesh Prakash, the company sees the platform as something that could eventually become a $100 million business.
Any newspaper company in America would be intrigued by the possibility of $100 million in incremental revenue. That’s not the sum of Arc Publishing’s value to the Post, however. “Sometimes–usually, honestly–the things the Post needs to support its newsroom become the features that the other clients of Arc use,” says Jeremy Gilbert, the company’s director of strategic initiatives. “But sometimes other clients request things that end up actually benefitting the Post.”
“We Didn’t Have The Tools To Be More Productive”
Though selling software as a service sounds like a quintessential story of the Post’s Jeff Bezos era, Arc’s origins date to the period before he bought the paper. A half decade or so ago, like every other major newspaper publisher in America, the company was scrambling to move at web speed at the same time that financial pressures were requiring it to do more with less. And like an awful lot of papers, it found that the CMS it was then using was an obstacle to progress.
“As a business, we asked more of our newsroom,” says Gillespie. “What we noticed was one, we didn’t have the tools to be more productive and two, the CMS was a fairly monolithic platform. Adding any features to it, making any changes to it, or getting support from vendors was just very difficult.”
Then there was the experience for site visitors, who had little patience for slow-loading content, especially when they read Post content on a mobile device. “Sometimes people are spending mere seconds with a story,” says Gilbert. “And so if all you can accomplish in those handful of seconds is loading the headline or loading an ad or a single photo, then you’ve really done them a disservice.”
Led by CIO Prakash, the Post’s technical team responded to these issues by building a publishing platform from scratch, beginning with a page-rendering system called PageBuilder, which rolled out in early 2013 and which the company has continued to refine. “Over the time that Shailesh has been here, we’ve taken our stories down by about half, going from about six or seven seconds to render an individual article to sometimes less than two seconds now,” Gilbert says.
PageBuilder turned out to be the first of an ever-expanding portfolio of tools. Today, Websked handles planning and scheduling of stories. Anglerfish and Goldfish are for wrangling photos and videos, respectively. Ellipsis is optimized for quick-hit news coverage by multiple authors. Other tools with names such as Loxodo, Bandito, Darwin, Clavis, and InContext cover everything from analyzing how articles are performing with readers to making money through paywalls and advertising. There’s also a “white label” mobile app for iOS and Android, which publishers can brand and fill with their own content.
By 2014, the year after the Post’s sale to Bezos, the company began to think of the functionality it was constructing as having the potential to make other newspapers’ journalists and readers happy: “Obviously, the itch that we scratched existed elsewhere,” says Gillespie. In October of that year, it announced that its platform would power the websites of student newspapers at the University of Maryland and Columbia University, a move that Prakash said was intended to help field-test new tools as well as support the work of journalists in training.
The following year, the company gave those tools the name Arc—meant to convey that they cover the entire publishing process from creation to monetization—and signed on its first official customer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Portland-area publication Willamette Week. More deals with larger clients have since followed, such as one with Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and New York Daily News publisher Tronc, announced in March of 2017.
“A Technologist Can See When A Reporter Is Having Trouble”
Any journalist who has logged a substantial number of hours toiling in content-management systems knows what it’s like to use tools that feel like they were devised by software engineers who have never met a reporter or editor. As a publishing platform created by a company primarily engaged in the news business, Arc doesn’t suffer from that disconnect.
“Usually, it’s really hard for engineers to understand what a news outlet needs or what journalists need,” says Daniel Hadad, founder and publisher of Infobae, an Argentine news site, which, thanks to a global Spanish-speaking readership, sometimes exceeds a billion page views in a single month. “What we like about Arc is they come with a background from the Washington Post so they knew exactly what to do.” Announced as an Arc customer in June 2016, Infobae was the first large-scale site other than the Post itself to move to the platform; Hadad says that it would likely be cheaper for the company to host its own sites, but that Arc is “a perfect match.” In the first year after the switch, the site’s unique users grew by 110% and its page views by 254%.
Back at Post headquarters in Washington, D.C., “because the technologists and the reporters and editors are often sitting alongside each other, sometimes we can get away with a less formal process to identify needs,” explains Gilbert. “A technologist can see when a reporter or editor is having trouble with something, and so sometimes it doesn’t have to be ‘file a ticket,’ ‘file a complaint,’ ‘send an email to an anonymous location.'” For instance, when editorial staffers wondered if it was possible for the Post site to preview videos with a moving clip rather than a still photo, a video developer quickly built a tool to allow editors to create snippets. “We see a much higher click-through rate when people use these animated GIFs than when they used the static images from before,” Gilbert says.
That conversation between Arc developers and the people who use their tools extends to paying customers. “We were just here yesterday in the big office right next to my office, and they were presenting 10 things that were on our backlog that we wish we could have,” says Greg Doufas, chief technology/digital officer at the Globe and Mail. “And not only were they presenting their roadmap to get them there, they were making commitments to deliver them in time for some important things for our business. They’ve learned, as we’ve learned, that it helps them make a more robust platform, because the next client that they’ll fly to in New Zealand or Argentina will want those same things as well.” (Such close collaboration is possible in part because of Arc’s relatively small pool of current clients; the Post plans to broaden that base by seeking business from makers of consumer packaged goods, as well as launching a self-serve version of the platform.)
It’s tempting to see adopting Arc purely as a way for a publisher to opt out of having technology expertise of its own. But Doufas stresses that the Globe and Mail doesn’t look at it that way at all. Instead, using the Arc platform has allowed the company to redeploy its tech staffers to projects that it thinks have more unique upside. For instance, they’ve built a metrics tool called Sophi that aims to help the newsroom identify hidden-gem stories, regardless of whether they racked up page views by being prominently featured on the home page.
“There’s no way we would have been able to build our own analytics software, our own algorithms, and our own data science capabilities ourselves if all of these people were working to maintain the operations of the CMS,” says Doufas.
“It’s Hard to Attribute Anything Directly To Jeff”
Though the Washington Post is not owned by Amazon, its kinship to Jeff Bezos’s biggest company is unmistakable; Gillespie says that the success of Amazon Web Services is an inspiration for the people responsible for Arc Publishing. Bezos himself participates in meetings where Arc is discussed, asking questions and making suggestions, but his greatest contribution has been enabling the Post to engage in the experimentation and invention he referenced in his August 2013 letter.
“This is where the Bezos effect helps us,” says Gillespie. “He gave us that runway to continue to innovate, where other publishers may not have had the same opportunity.” The Globe and Mail‘s Doufas even says that his company has been able to attract top-notch engineering talent thanks in part to “the relationship with the Washington Post, because of the Jeff Bezos philosophy and, frankly, the profile and esteem it brings to the table.”
Arc Publishing’s early success with external customers may give the Washington Post reason for optimism, but the effort is itself a beneficiary of the upbeat, can-do spirit which the company’s management has successfully cultivated in the age of Bezos. “It’s hard to attribute anything directly to Jeff,” says Gilbert, emphasizing that Post editor Marty Baron’s “incredible acumen” and CIO Prakash’s “incredible energy” enable the Post to do big, ambitious things.
“Compared to a lot of newsrooms, I feel like there’s just a sense that things have gotten better and will continue to get better,” he adds. “The newsroom really believes that. And I think it shows in the way that people approach their job, that they are genuinely excited to be here because they think that they’re contributing something important, and they can see the results of what they’re doing.”