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Matthew Monahan, director of Arc Publishing at WashPo, on speed and innovation in the newsroom

One of the trickiest problems facing newsrooms and magazine publishers is finding a content management system robust enough to cope with the myriad challenges of digital publishing. It is a problem that The Washington Post has sought to address with Arc. The system, which is available to other publishers as a hosted SaaS platform, combines traditional CMS style features alongside advanced analytics suites, revenue solutions and a whole lot more. 

 

Arc Publishing ()

 

At DIS 2018 Matthew Monahan, director, Arc Publishing at The Washington Post, will outline how the publisher has harnessed technology to drive growth focusing on speed and innovation in the newsroom. Here he explains how Arc came about, what its key benefits are, and how it is likely to evolve in the future through technologies like Artificial Intelligence.

 

 
Matt Monahan ()

***Registration for DIS 2018 (19-20 March in Berlin) is now available. Save hundreds of euros on the registration price when you sign up before 13 March 2018. Secure your place here***

 

DIS logo ()

 

Explain a little about Arc, what it is and how it works?

Arc is a SaaS suite of digital tools for helping publishers succeed in the digital space. It includes a fully-hosted CMS, video publishing system, asset management tools, products for analytics, testing and content optimisation, and revenue solutions for subscriptions and advertising. As a hosted platform, we take care of running it, including a lot of the technology infrastructure many other vendors do not include, and let our customers focus on content and innovation.

What was the driving force behind developing Arc initially and then making it available to other publishers? Is it purely an additional revenue generator for the WP? 

Actually, the original driving force was to solve technological and newsroom problems that we faced at The Washington Post. The whole reason we built Arc was that so many of the vendor-provided solutions we found on the market had serious constraints and were often tied to non-digital workflows. More modern solutions didn’t necessarily scale to the needs of large newsrooms. And many of the solutions out there didn’t take digital speed as seriously as we did.

The move to provide Arc as a commercial offering came later. At some point a few years ago, we realised that we’d built all the pieces of a digital CMS, and that other publishers observed the same weaknesses with other commercially-available CMSs that we had. Bit by bit, we grew the business of Arc, and it’s become a lucrative revenue stream for The Post. But it’s also true that as a hosted SaaS platform, there are benefits to scale. The bigger the platform gets, the more useful feedback we get from our customers and the better the platform becomes. Beyond that, the whole Arc team is excited by the mission of helping publishers around the world succeed in the digital space and unlock their latent potential. 

 

Arc Publishing laptop mobile ()

 

What would you say are the main benefits to publishers?

The main benefit is digital speed. Speed for readers on customers’ sites, speed for their newsrooms, speed for our customers’ developers, and speed of delivery for advertising teams. That’s where we’re placing our bets.

Another benefit comes with the breadth of our platform, along with its fundamental nature as a hosted SaaS CMS. Our customers benefit from reducing their vendor footprint and thoughtfully reallocating the resources they previously used to maintain their legacy systems. 

Also, I think customers benefit from the ecosystem that Arc fosters. Since we launched, we’ve added dozens of customers in a variety of publishing verticals, and we’ve been careful to gather their feedback and include it in our roadmap. This means Arc is an ever-evolving system and that customers (including The Post’s own newsroom) benefit from the ideas that others contribute.



What have been the major innovations to Arc since its launch two years ago?

Well one thing to keep in mind is that unlike many other CMSs, since ours is a SaaS platform, we’re releasing updates every 2 – 4 weeks, depending on the product. So there are a number of new features and improvements that get added, both big and small, on even a monthly basis. But a few examples: last year, we added an all-new visual authoring system for reporters, a newsroom production analytics dashboard for understanding newsroom workflow, new tools for developers, including a CICD pipeline, and a publication planning system that helps alleviate some of the pain of planning a print product inside a digital-first workflow. Perhaps the biggest new innovation came at the end of 2017; we’ve added multi-site capabilities into each of the major products, making it easier than ever for media organisations with many publications to support centralized writing, editing and developer workflows within the platform. 

 

Arc Publishing data ()

 

How far are you into embedding revenue generation tools (advertising, subscriptions etc) into Arc?

This is one of the areas we’re most excited about. Tools for advertising optimisation have been part of our suite for over a year now, but obviously in 2018 many publishers are looking to make strides in the digital subscriptions space. Our own home-grown paywall and subscription system have powered the Post for four years now, and in Q2 of 2018 we’ll complete the process of taking that product and including it in the Arc suite. In preparing our subscription platform for Arc, we’ve been sure to follow the approach that has made our other tools so successful and popular among users. Any of the key configurations, including paywall/meter settings, offer management, payment & billing configuration and more will be able to be managed by business users, and not require developer intervention — all through a simple, intuitive user interface. 

How do media brands transition to use Arc? Do they take all the tools or tend to work with some of them and develop a bespoke way of running the CMS?

We see a bit of both. Obviously, most publishers are replacing an existing CMS, so at a minimum often they’re taking the core tools that comprise authoring, newsroom planning and workflow, and publishing. Part of what makes Arc so compelling is the potential for reducing vendor footprint that it offers, and the opportunity for cost savings is substantial. Having said that, we certainly offer our platform a la carte, and in the past we’ve integrated with third-party asset management systems, video platforms, and even our customers’ own authoring tools.

 

Arc cms ()

 

It sounds like you have to do a fair amount of hand holding with clients initially. How far are you away from Arc being fully automated? 

Well, we’re working all the time to simplify the onboarding process. I wouldn’t look at it as “how do we make it fully automated” so much as “how do we lower the bar to onboarding and decrease time-to-market”. The reason for this is that among medium- and large-sized publishers, there are often fairly complex integration and site design requirements that demand development effort outside the core platform. As things stand now, we already have the capability to automatically create a fresh new instance of Arc with a default site “theme” (called the Feature Pack) – this is work that used to take months that now takes minutes. We’ll add a new self-service portal later this year to allow customers to initiate this themselves. But again, our experience is that customers still need to plan for the custom requirements and migration they often ask us to layer on top of the platform — we do a lot of work internally to try to make this process more efficient, too.

Can you see Artificial Intelligence transforming the CMS of the future? If so, in what way?

Absolutely, and a number of our 2018 roadmap initiatives focus on exactly this. The overall theme is this: there are tons of workflows and tasks in the modern newsroom that are repetitive, low value-add, and distracting to the core publishing mission — these are tasks that are ripe for automation. AI and machine learning are critical tools for building automation into the newsroom. For what it’s worth, it’s also true once you start really examining your workflow for automation opportunities, it’s common to find low-hanging fruit where automation can be accomplished with low-tech solutions, too.

But to give you some examples, we’ve been developing a tool called ModBot aims to clean up comments sections by automatically accepting and rejecting the best and worst user-generated comments, respectively, based on a learning algorithm that examines comments for content and meaning. The Post has been using this system for some months now, and we’ve cut down the time and money required to moderate our comments to less than a third of what it was previously. Another great example is work that our team is doing to help reporters and content creators automatically locate related images, videos, and other multimedia to the story they are writing. This capability uses a number of techniques, including NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming), ML (Machine Learning), computer vision and more — all with the goal of saving users’ time in searching the photo archives for the right shot to include in their story. In the most extreme case, we have a system called Heliograf that can automatically write whole articles based on structured and semi-structured data. 

Putting it altogether, I think this is a trend you’ll see continue into the future. Bit by bit, we’ll bite away at the rote tasks that fill up a reporter’s or editor’s day. That should allow us to focus on the publishing mission of our customers, and hopefully make the lives of those reporters and editors a bit easier in the process. 

 

Arc Publishing cms ()

 

How important is it to the DNA of The Washington Post to be perceived as a technological innovator? Do you know see the business as a software one as much as a newspaper?

You nailed it. This isn’t just limited to Arc, either — we very much see the whole Post as both a media company and a technology company. It’s actually that mentality (as well as the budgeting, hiring, and strategic decisions that go with it) that enables something like Arc to exist.

***Registration for DIS 2018 (19-20 March in Berlin) is now available. Save hundreds of euros on the registration price when you sign up before 13 March 2018. Secure your place here***

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