At 'Washington Post,' Tech Is Increasingly Boosting Financial Performance : All Tech Considered The newspaper struggled amid declines in print ads, but under Amazon's Jeff Bezos, it has transformed its operations, from how it writes headlines and chooses photos to how it generates ad dollars.

At 'Washington Post,' Tech Is Increasingly Boosting Financial Performance

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The mainstay of The Washington Post has been journalism, breaking news and award-winning stories. But since Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos bought it three years ago the paper's approach to business and technology has also attracted attention. The Post, which is now private, says revenue and profits are up as subscribers grow and digital ad revenue increases. The e-commerce magnate has transformed the paper's operations from how it writes headlines and chooses photos to how it generates ad dollars. NPR's Yuki Noguchi takes a look.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: When I started my career at The Washington Post in the late 1990s, the newsroom wore a grimy, outdated look as if paying homage to its legendary past. The Post of today occupies an updated building on D.C.'s renowned K Street in modern, glass-walled offices with a Silicon Valley aesthetic. This is The Post after e-commerce visionary Jeff Bezos bought it three years ago. Bezos arrived with deep pockets and a message, says Shailesh Prakash.

SHAILESH PRAKASH: He talks to us a lot about not being afraid to experiment, to think long-term. Stop whining that the web took publishing away from us, took our business model. It also brought new models.

NOGUCHI: Prakash is The Post's chief information officer. Prior to Bezos, he says The Post's technology operation consisted mostly of a help desk - fixing computers and software bugs. After Bezos, The Post made a critical decision to build its own software.

PRAKASH: Pretty much every tool that the newsroom uses or the sales team uses has been built in-house.

NOGUCHI: Creating its own technology gave The Post more control over things like load speeds and reliability as well as visibility into its users - which stories they read, which headlines worked and whether readers had preferences for videos or photo presentations. That information could be fed back to the newsroom in real time, enabling them to, for example, beta-test headlines and photos.

The Post's print circulation continues to decline, though at a slower pace. Online readership, meanwhile, is up 22 percent over the last year. Readers are spending more time on the site. And most critically for marketers, there was a fivefold increase in users engaging with the ads. The Post has said its digital ad revenue now exceeds a hundred million dollars annually, growing by double-digits the past three years. Its software is so successful, in fact, it has sold it to 22 other publishers, including the LA Times, Toronto Globe and Mail and Chicago Tribune. Selling its technology is, Prakash says, a new business line.

PRAKASH: It's in its infancy. We have great aspirations for it. And at the end of the day, what is the point of it? The point of it is, it's a revenue stream to power journalism.

NOGUCHI: It used to be that we feared in the newsroom that technology was going to destroy journalism. Do you think that it's going to save it?

PRAKASH: (Laughter) I think so. I think so.

NOGUCHI: Jarrod Dicker is The Post's director of ad product and engineering. He helped develop software that filters through news stories and automatically places the right ad to match the users demographics and preferences. The Post allows its advertisers to use that same software to create more relevant, content-rich ads, no pop-up or flashing banner ads.

JARROD DICKER: We talk about in this industry that ads need to now become user-first. Because of hostility with ad blocking and fraud and viewability, we've really built this scenario that we need to help build better advertisements, or else consumers will never engage with advertising online.

NOGUCHI: Dicker says the technology underpins The Post's turnaround.

DICKER: I wouldn't want to insult anyone in the newsroom, and our journalism is absolutely amazing. But we are 100 percent now, when it comes to competitiveness in the market, a technology company.

NOGUCHI: The result is not only more targeted ads but fewer of them. Corey Elliott is a vice president for Borrell Associates, an ad consultant.

COREY ELLIOTT: If you go to their app and - which is a beautiful app - and you pull up their app, it's hard to find any advertising on that thing.

NOGUCHI: Elliott says advertisers care less these days about circulation or traffic volume.

ELLIOTT: That isn't important anymore. What's important is that I get in front of the exact right people.

NOGUCHI: And that is precisely what Janel Shervington says. The media director for ad agency Mediacom says her view of The Post has gone from stagnant to cutting-edge.

JANEL SHERVINGTON: We can be comfortable knowing that we're going to be speaking to the right person and our message is going to be getting in front of the right audience.

NOGUCHI: She says she's recently doubled the amount of money she spends advertising with The Post. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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