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How The Washington Post drives innovation

When Jeff Bezos acquired The Washington Post in 2013 many media commentators expected to see the newspaper become more aggressive in its use of technology. Few predicted the speed and breadth of the transformation, for within two years it was being hailed by Fast Company as the most innovative media company of the year. 

Jeremy Gilbert, the Post’s director of strategic initiatives is the man tasked with keeping The Washington Post ahead of its rivals in shaping the future of news. His role involves identifying, creating and executing new digital storytelling experiences. As he explains below (and will expand up in more depth at the DIS in Berlin in March) this includes everything from harnessing artificial intelligence through to experimenting with new platforms like augmented reality and voice activated computers.

DIS 2017 in Berlin

The 10th Digital Innovators’ Summit 2017 takes place from 19-21 March (main Summit on 20 and 21 March) in Berlin, Germany. DIS is organised by FIPP, the network for global media, and VDZ, the German Publishers Association. See more at innovators-summit.com. See the agenda here and list of more than 70 speakers here. There's still time to register if you haven't. 

The Washington Post ()

How important is it to the DNA of The Washington Post to be perceived as a technological innovator? Does it matter that one day developers might outnumber editorial staff?

It’s incredibly important. Journalism and technology go hand-in-hand at The Post. Engineers work side by side with journalists to develop some of the most innovative features and experiences on our site and create new ways to showcase our storytelling for readers. Our focus is producing great journalism and having the support of technologists gives us a competitive advantage.

You experimented with a lot of new technology at the Rio Olympics. Now the dust has settled what are the key lessons you learned?

The experimentation we did with automating Rio stories helped shape our approach going forward. Techniques like bounds testing to identify results out of the norm — scores or times that were too high or low — help provide sanity checks against publishing bad data. We learned how to structure more flexible templates and got better at listening for changes in data.

We moved from the Olympics to the election almost immediately. We covered more than 500 stories about the election and that is just the beginning of all the ways automation can serve The Post as a way to augment the work of our human reporters. We can start to remix stories, automate other subject areas and help discover anomalies worth investigating.

How important do you think translation is becoming to The Post? Do you perceive a time when The Post will be available in multilingual editions created on the fly?

The Post wants to serve as much of the country and world as possible. While there are more than a billion English speakers, there is a huge audience we cannot reach without translations. We are still studying how translations can work for us. Often it is not enough to simply translate the words, we need to provide appropriate, and often different, context to retain a story's meaning.

How does The Post go about assessing the potential of a new technological innovation for its news output?

We do not timidly try out new technologies. The Post has a singular commitment to experimentation. We push new technologies as hard as we can and we try to use them in real news situations. If they do not work we stop but it’s only by trying in real conditions that we can truly determine a tool or techniques’ worth.

How successful do you feel that your 360 video experiments have been? Does the platform have a future in news video or is it purely an intermediary format? What do you see are the opportunities for publishers in VR? Do you see opportunities in mixed and augmented reality too?

We’ve done some exciting 360 degree stories so far. We’ve pushed the format in number of directions to see what would work best for our audience. So far travel stories have been one area where we can see the value of 360. There is an audience looking for immersive videos but it is a very different thing than computer graphics powered virtual reality or augmented/mixed reality. Augmented reality feels like it has the most potential. The hardware is limited now but for news to be layered on the world around you is much more practical and compelling than asking users to ‘step out’ of the ‘real world’ to invest in a virtual one — at least most of the time.

Above: The Washington Post’s 360 degree video of the Galápagos Islands

Do you think that publishers should continue to invest so heavily in apps? Are there other priorities now?

The Post’s app users are incredibly loyal and are more likely than the broader web or social audience to be subscribers. That means apps have an important value — even though the audience is likely to be smaller. That does not mean we cannot pay attention to other platforms or to the web. It just means apps are not over yet.

You have pioneered chatbots for news in the US. What lessons did you learn from your experience? How do you think publishers will use chatbots in the future?

We learned a lot from our Olympics and election chatbots. We learned two big lessons: it’s not easy to anticipate how questions will come in and once users engage they’ll ask lots of questions. The real challenge so far is actually discovery. How can we get users to find our chatbots the first time? Chatbots, voice activated computers (like the Echo and Home) and augmented/mixed reality are all interlinked. We need to learn to converse with, instead of just lecturing, our audience — and chatbots are a critical part of that learning cycle.

Above: The Washington Post messenger chatbot demo

There was a huge buzz about Amazon Echo and other voice activated gadgets at CES this year? Again what are the opportunities you see for The Post and other publishers in using Echo and its rivals?

We are incredibly excited about the potential of voice activated computers like the Google Home and Amazon Echo. We are already publishing a daily, general news briefing — like an on-demand radio news update — and a host-read politics briefing. The potential to answer audience questions about news is huge but it will require smart AI solutions which we are working on.

Many of the themes Jeremy discusses in this article will feature prominently at the 2017 Digital Innovators’ Summit in Berlin. For more information and to register, click here.

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