Abid Hussain Barlaskar

How Jeff Bezos breathed new life into The Washington Post

Shailesh Prakash, chief information officer and VP of Digital Product Development, The Washington Post brings forth the digital transformation of the American print brand since Amazon's founder Jeff Bezos bought it in 2013.

American daily newspaper The Washington Post (WaPo) has just introduced its app-only subscriber programme for India. The subscription is offered at Rs 100/month, a fraction of the equivalent cost ($10/month) in the US. Shailesh Prakash, chief information officer and VP of Digital Product Development, The Washington Post opens up about the digital metamorphosis of the print media brand and its transformation since Amazon's founder Jeff Bezos bought it (for $250 million) from the Graham Family in 2013. Prakash's disclosures come in the form of a presentation at the South Asia News Media Conference conducted by INMA (International News Media Association) in New Delhi.

A software engineer for nearly three decades, Prakash has had stints with organisations like Microsoft, Netscape Communications and Motorola in the past. He joined the The Washington Post in 2011.

Prakash describes the ideal for today's media as the perfect balance between journalism and engineering (technology). He draws up an image of a brand which is a hybrid of tech-led companies like Facebook and Google, and print media brands like NY Times and The Washington Post.

He marks up a graph chart. "On the Y-axis is a business metric that defines success and there is time on the X-axis. Every company is on a curve. It begins rising slowly, accelerates rapidly and begins to stabilise. The stability and dominance is accompanied by 'sustaining innovation' to protect the business. The business turns conservative and aims to maintain market share. While that's going on, a new business/technology begins the same pattern," says Prakash.

That's when the stable business looks at the new one with a 'They don't know what they're upto!' attitude, he says. "While the big stable business is resorting to 'sustaining innovation', the new one takes to 'disruptive innovation' with something new," he points out.

Also Read: The resurrection of the Washington Post

When Bezos bought The Washington Post, he asked himself why he would buy The Washington Post if he wanted to start a new media company. "His thought was, 'You take what is good and leave behind what you don't want'. 'We start again but we evolve instead of starting from scratch'," Prakash reveals.

Later in the session, he mentions that Bezos' taking over the reins brought along a lot of freedom, investment and impetus on technology. Bezos also replaced the the 'operating cash flow' (OCF) method of measuring talent performance with subjective metrics like 'how fast are you moving?', 'no sacred cows (ideas considered beyond criticism)' and 'disagree but commit'.

This led to WaPo's sticking to technology while also making way for new technology. Prakash stresses on 'experimenting'. "We ask us if it's a one way door and if we will be able to return. If the answer is no, we experiment. Next is 'speed and urgency'. Without speed and urgency, the experiments are pointless. If you feel dominant, there is complacency, you are not as hungry, tend to be safe - if you have that culture, it would be very hard to experiment," he adds.

Prakash also mentions technologies The Washington Post has invested in over the years.

Clavis, WaPo's ML led deep classification and recommendation engine looks at every piece of content on the CMS generated both by the newsroom and WaPo's ad content created for advertisers by the sales team. Apart from smart recommendation of stories, Clavis also places ad content close to relevant newsroom stories. "This does not raise privacy issues as it stresses on content relevance against user relevance," Prakash says.

He reveals that the engineering team (400 strong) at WaPo is also working on Virality, a solution that could predict virality of content. "We tend to focus on things that aren't working. Instead, we could double down on things that are doing alright. Sometimes that might be a better strategy. The goal is to double down on what we think is popular and make it even more popular," he adds.

Next up was Bandito, that helps test multiple headlines set in the newsroom and helps direct traffic to the most popular headline. This is followed by an AI/ML-led automatic headline generator. While Prakash accepts that it needs to be used very carefully, he also maintains that combined with something like Bandito, it could unveil enormous possibilities. This is followed by AI generating complete stories. "I think AI technology is three, four or maybe five years away from doing opinion pieces and deep analysis," he says.

He further makes mention of Arc Publishing system software being used by 500+ news organisations globally.

Shailesh Prakash (L) and Puneet Singhvi
Shailesh Prakash (L) and Puneet Singhvi

Later, in a fireside chat with Puneet Singhvi, CEO - Digital and President - Corporate Strategy at Network18 Media and Investments, Prakash mentions that Jeff Bezos' involvement at The Washington Post is limited to the technology part. Prakash advises that platforms should concentrate on building on the original experience of a medium instead of creating an all new experience. He makes it clear that The Washington Post is owned by Bezos and not Amazon, and rules out data sharing with the e-comm giant.

Speaking on aggregation of content via distribution channels like Google and Facebook, Prakash explains that the likes of Apple News are keen on privacy and are ideal for subscribers, not for ad revenue. Facebook on the other hand, is a good source for ad revenue (since FB audience network monetises better) but bad for subscriptions (because of its user-centric nature). However, The Washington Post managed to convince FB for subscriptions, given the three free stories every month.

Prakash advises that media brands should initiate the subscriber model immediately because of the long transition process. "You have to start thinking like a retailer as opposed to a publisher. That's why transition is difficult, not just from a technology perspective but also the business perspective," says. He reveals that while WaPo has a wide base of monthly unique visitors, very few hit the pay wall and even fewer make it through and convert. He adds the the platform is approaching a space where the distribution mediums (Alexa, Google, Facebook) will have to share ad revenue generated from aggregating WaPo content.