The Washington Post has always been a journalism powerhouse. In the past decade, it’s also emerged as a technology company. This shift has happened through the process of intrapreneurship, and has made major waves in this industry. Can technology products not only serve to delight media subscribers and advertisers but also become a sustainable source of revenue? In this talk, Washington Post Chief Product and Technology Officer Shailesh Prakash discusses how to build a technology suite of products that serves its own needs but can be offered to others on-path or off-path to its core strategy.
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On intrapreneurship and the willingness to build solutions
Intrapreneurship is the act of building a company or new product from within an already established company. A great example of this is Amazon, which is constantly innovating from within, perhaps most notably with AWS (Amazon Web Services). It should come as no surprise, then, that another Jeff Bezos-owned company, The Washington Post, is the source of two successful intrapreneur companies, Arc XP and ZEUS. Intrapreneurship could happen in any field, but it must come out of a desire and willingness to to build solutions.
“The culture is consumed with entrepreneurship. The stories around intrapreneurship, where startups get started and built out within existing companies, is a story that is not told enough. And intrapreneurship becomes even more interesting when it is intrapreneurship within a so-called legacy company. So I’m talking about The Washington Post, and the intrapreneurship that has occurred here at the Post. But it could be a bank. It could be an insurance company. It could be a brick and mortar retailer. I don’t claim I have a formula that will work consistently. All I’m going to do is to tell you the story about intrapreneurship, here at the Post, that I’ve been through in my 10 years here.
“We live in an age where it’s not enough to think about excellence, just in what your core is or what your brand is or what your company stands for. You must also, as product people, as designers, as engineers, make sure that the company understands and embraces that you also need to be excellent in engineering, which is a catch all bucket. Product, design, customer service, and so on. That is what we, at the Post, have embraced.
“How does a newspaper company like The Washington Post, end up building an entirely new business line, on track to be a $100 million business, in an area that is not directly related to news? It begins with making sure that excellence in technology and engineering are truly embraced. If you truly embrace it, it is possible to do wide scale intrapreneurship and make it successful. That’s that’s the first thing.
“The second thing is, Arc began by us trying to solve internal problems, and having the product mindset and the will to not just buy products off the shelf, but to be willing to build out actual solutions on our own.”
On Arc XP
As Shailesh Prakash points out, Arc XP began as a way for The Washington Post to solve its own internal problems. But over time, it has grown into a full-service content management system, used by over 2,000 sites in multiple languages around the world, spanning a range of industries. The name “Arc” refers to the fact that the product is designed to span the entire arc of a modern publisher’s needs, from content creation all the way to analytics. “XP” stands for experience.
Arc XP’s main customers are newspapers, including Toronto’s Globe and Mail and Le Parisien, in Paris. But they also serve broadcasters like the American company Raycom Media, as well as big brands like England’s BP. So why do publishers need a platform like Arc?
Publishers “create a lot of content — photos, videos, multimedia, presentations, graphics, stories. And [they] want to package that up into experiences, whether it’s a homepage, or article pages, or third party platforms. And then more and more, publishers are becoming e-commerce sites, because you buy a subscription with us, you want to have the ease and convenience of an Amazon or a Shopify, to be able to actually transact with us, and go through the payment systems and have the customer care, the multiple payment mechanisms, and the identity that you might want to use, whether it’s login with Amazon, or login with Facebook.
“Like any modern software as a service offering, Arc is completely hosted. You don’t have to worry about product installs and so on. And also, it’s been refined over time to have content creators — the newsroom in our case — use this set of tools and the platform, both advertising and subscriptions. If you want to run a Black Friday sale, that shouldn’t be a big conversation with engineering. They should have the tool sets to be able to have that subscription experience and campaigns and sales experience built out. So it’s for business users.
“And then, of course, it’s a platform. So like any modern SaaS offering, you do want to have the right APIs, the right SDKs, the right micro services, and the right data collection, exposed in a way that developers can pick up and run with. So this is where Arc is now.”
After the success of Arc XP, intrapreneurial PMs at The Washington Post soon developed another SaaS relevant to other publishers. Known as ZEUS, this product is an advertising framework and rendering engine, combined with an ad-buying marketplace and a contextual targeting engine. Its customers include Snopes, the Miami Herald, the Idaho Statesman, and more.
“ZEUS is another software business line that we’ve begun. Once again, we were trying to solve problems for ourselves. How do we make our ads more viewable? How do we make sure that the ads you see are more relevant? And can we do something where we take on the big tech players, like Google and Facebook, and ourselves become an ad network, created for publishers, by a publisher?
“So that’s ZEUS. We’ve taken all the technology we have built for our own ad revenue systems, and are now offering it out, again, to publishers in the United States. But we have aspirations to go global. But at the heart, what is it? It’s another story of entrepreneur intrapreneurship. We are turning around and doing this again, taking our technology, offering it to others as a hosted service.”