Washington Post’s Tech Quest Prioritizes The Biggies: Mobile, Video, Social

WaPo KindleAs the Financial Times reported last month, The Washington Post is making its content management system (CMS) available to partners, like universities and fellow newspapers.

The University of Maryland, Yale and Columbia have already adopted the CMS. Additional users may come from the more than 200 newspaper partners with which the Post has established subscription-sharing privileges. Users can access content for their home newspaper and the Post.

Expansion plans aside, the bigger news is the CMS itself, which shows the Post’s investment in engineering solutions for today’s publishing needs. The platform includes mobile, video and social components.

“We’re making the CMS in a way that others can use, but the first priority is to make sure that Washington Post can take the benefits of the new system,” said Shailesh Prakash, the newspaper’s CIO and VP of product development.

That means building tools like article previews for mobile and an ad server for its new Kindle app, and deploying algorithms that can predict an article’s virality as well as suggest related articles.

Prakash expects the system, already live, to be fully functional by this fall. That’s when some of the talks with these partners will likely turn into action.

The revamped CMS includes features to take advantage of “sideways traffic” from social media, already successfully exploited by publishers like BuzzFeed and its ilk.

“We are trying to analyze the content with an algorithm and give suggestions to the creator of the story how much this content, this set of phrases, would help in making this consumable in social media,” Prakash said.

It works by accessing the Twitter fire hose, Reddit, Tumblr and Facebook for trending articles’ headlines, images and keywords “and seeing how close of a fit that set of dimensions is to being offered,” he said. Tests against articles that went viral in the past show the algorithm works, though it’s still experimental.

Almost 60% of The Washington Post’s traffic comes from mobile devices. The new CMS allows the newsroom to preview a mobile or app view and the technology changes mirror those in the newsroom: In meetings, editors now discuss what the mobile site and apps will look like, not just the desktop home page.

Treating Mobile Ads Like Content

The newest product delivered through the CMS, the newspaper’s Kindle app, “treats ads exactly like content,” Prakash said. “There’s no difference. There are full-page ads and full-page stories, and the tools used to create it are the same, and the way you can create the assets required for that ad are exactly the same, and the engineering doesn’t differentiate if it’s showing an ad or a story.”

Early results suggest higher engagement with ads on the Kindle app. Prakash said the scroll rate for ads and articles, which allows users to see an expanded preview of the content, is the same for ads and stories.

Sponsored posts on desktop or the mobile web can use the same sophisticated templates designed by the team for news stories.

The Post is also working to improve the recommendation modules below articles. The article creator will vet machine-generated recommendations to ensure a proper fit.

“I personally think we are far away from automatic personalization,” Prakash said. “We think we should have the machine make suggestions and then have the editorial team judge if those are related.”

It’s become common for publishers to call themselves “technology companies,” but Prakash suggested that’s actually the case for the Post, something that has further increased since ownership shifted to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in August 2013.

“We have taken a hard look from moving from an IT focus to an engineering focus: IT buys and manages systems, engineering companies build their own,” Prakash said, adding that the creativity of building systems is what attracts talent that might otherwise go to Facebook, Twitter and Silicon Valley. “The overall philosophy that we have, which has become even stronger with Jeff Bezos taking over, is that we will build it.”

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