Credit: Image by Mark Hakansson

While The Washington Post is “really a local news organisation,” more than 90 per cent of its digital audience is not local, said Shailesh Prakash, chief information officer and vice president of digital product development at the Washington Post.

Speaking at the Monetising Media conference in London today, Prakash shared some of the ways The Washington Post is keeping up with consumer behaviour and technologies on digital platforms, and particularly on mobile.

“Some would say that identifying key trends is a constant exercise and therefore trying to keep up with it requires to constantly experiment,” he said, “not really knowing what's here already, what's going to come soon, or what's going to take a very long time.”

Here are three of the key digital areas The Washington Post has been looking into, as explained by Prakash in his talk:

Mobile web or apps?

As mobile traffic becomes more and more important at the Washington Post, one question Prakash flagged up was the issue of monetising mobile content.

It’s hard to experiment when you have a lot of partners who supply your technology for youShailesh Prakash, The Washington Post
He said mobile was “explosive” and the numbers of visitors on the media outlet’s mobile website reflected that, but the engagement was “on the app side”.

He said print organisations trying to accelerate their digital development should pay attention to mobile web, because it's possible "mobile web will do to web in terms of revenues what web has done to print".

Mobile web is relatively cheap from a design and engineering perspective, he said, but should The Washington Post be focusing on apps instead? "I don't know but it's something we're experimenting with."

Invest in design

The platforms which visitors use to access content are changing rapidly, not just in terms of software, he said, but also the "form factors" of the devices in question.

“Accept and understand that while journalism and content is still king, design and quality of products is equally important,” he said.

“We often talk about smaller screens, watches, smaller devices,” he said. “Mobile is somewhat synonymous with smaller devices. That’s not really true. Our presentation has to be as good in other forms.”

He said it was important to experiment in the “engineering side of the house” and trying to find strong designers and developers for mobile technologies like tablets.

Build your own

Truth Teller
Screenshot from the TruthTeller.WashingtonPost.com

According to Prakash, many non-technology companies fear the costs of building their own technology products, believing they “don’t have the talent" to do develop products that are critical to their business interests.

“[Publishers] consistently decide to not build our own critical systems,” he said. “It’s hard to experiment when you have a lot of partners who supply your technology for you.”

The Washington Post, however, has been launching a number of products, he said, including “the Shazam of political speeches,” called Truth Teller.

Truth Teller, launched as a prototype in 2013, converts the audio from video streams of political speeches into text, and then uses algorithms to extract statements from the speech and fact-check them against a database of figures.

Prakash said that while concerns about costs and resources were understandable, the culture inside media outlets should change and reflect that “if it’s important to us, we need to be able to get into it and try to build it on our own”.

Further evidence includes the collaboration with the New York Times, Washington Post and Mozilla, announced in June, to build a bespoke commenting platform.

“We collaborated and now we are trying to build it on our own with a grant from the Knight Foundation," he said, "with an agreement that we'll open source it when we're done.

“If we pool our resources we can get it done," he said.

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