When The Washington Post first began looking at replacing its legacy content management systems a few years ago, executives didn’t plan to market the tools they developed to other media companies.
But by following a slow and deliberate strategy, the Post is now entering what it believes could ultimately become a US$100 million technology services marketplace that includes organisations well beyond the media sector.
When he came to the Post, CIO and Vice President of Technology Shailesh Prakash was confronted by legacy systems supported by multiple vendors and a newsroom with a single request: “They just want things to work.”
The Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post was evolving into what Prakash calls “a technology company mindset” — one in which a company, like Bezos’ own Amazon, is much more likely to build than buy its technology solutions.
“If you compare a technology company to a non-technology company, you will find some common traits,” Prakash says. “One is an appetite to build — you don’t run off and immediately find a vendor to solve your problem. You analyse what you need.”
As a result, the Post decided to explore creating its own publishing tools to replace the legacy technology: “To solve a problem, you need a mindset,” Prakash says. “You say it’s a problem and that you need to get the right talent to fix it.”
As the Post’s in-house technology staff made progress on developing the pieces of what would become a unified content management system, executives wondered whether there was a market for the product.
Conversations with some of the 250 newspapers participating in the Post’s digital partner programme, which allows publications to offer their subscribers access to Post digital content, confirmed a need for new technology, according to Prakash.
“There turned out to be a lot of other people in legacy media companies struggling with the same problem,” he says. “We made the decision to harden the software tools we had developed, make them modular in nature, and dedicate an engineering team to building them out for others.”
The in-house suite of tools gained a new name, Arc, and was broken into highly integrated modules, including tools for scheduling and organisation, story creation, print and online page-layout, syndication, comments, and analytics. The back-end technology was also hardened to allow the Post to host the technology for other organisations.
Media organisations have a long, if somewhat checkered, history of developing and marketing technology products. Prakash’s approach was to avoid over-promising and over-marketing — a key problem in the technology sector writ large.
“I was not keen to go in with lots of glossy materials claiming we can do all kinds of things,” he says. “I don’t want shelf-ware or vaporware.”
To that end, The Washington Post developed what Prakash calls a “crawl, walk, run” strategy for marketing its technology tools.
As Arc neared maturity, the Post began slowly with external tests of components of the system at student newspapers at four universities. In 2015, the Post announced its first sale to a small alternative weekly newspaper, the Willamette Week, in the western U.S. state of Oregon. Others followed.
While larger media companies are interested in Arc, Prakash says the Post is deliberately starting with smaller organisations to see how well the technology scales before offering it to larger ones.
“We are cautiously moving forward,” he says.
Along with hardening the technology for use by multiple clients, Arc’s dedicated engineering team has focused on creating documentation to make it easier for companies to adopt the system with less assistance and in a smaller timeframe.
“We can’t do a massive engagement,” Prakash says, “We want to make it as self-serve as possible.”
Prakash believes the overall market for systems like Arc could exceed US$100 million. This includes organisations beyond traditional media companies, such as brands that, he says, now “want to publish their own story and are publishers in their own right.”
Media companies considering developing and marketing technology must have buy-in at all levels of senior management, Prakash says. “That’s not easy and it cannot be taken for granted,” he says. “The CEO has to understand what it means, the CFO has to understand what it means, legal has to understand, and so on.”
Even with that mindset, it’s critical to proceed carefully into new territory, Prakash warns: “This is still a stretch goal for us.”