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As a computer programmer, Vijay Ravindran sharpened his skills developing software for one of the world’s biggest Internet businesses: Amazon. Now he’s the guy crafting a digital strategy for The Washington Post, which, like many news organizations, is scrambling to keep up in today’s demanding online era of news. Ravindran joins Kojo to explore life along the digital frontier — where journalistic goals, business realities and programming philosophies determine how technology will interact with news consumption. We get the latest on social readers, mobile apps, or other yet unannounced experimental ventures.
- Vijay Ravindran Chief Digital Officer, Senior Vice President, The Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. The news can be a savage business, a dog-eat-dog world, where reporters fight for scoops, websites scrap for hits and networks clobber each other for eyeballs. But Vijay Ravindran says that for his employer, The Washington Post Company, cannibalization just may clear the path for reinvention.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIRavindran was hired as The Post's chief digital officer three years ago when he was also given the responsibility of creating WaPo Labs, a team of developers tasked with creating experimental news products. On his watch, The Post has launched a social reader application that allows people to share content on Facebook, a personal news aggregator and a mobile app that helps people navigate Washington's public transit networks.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIOne could argue that some of these digital products have the potential to steal attention away from The Post's bread-and-butter products in the print newspaper and on washingtonpost.com. But Ravindran says that if one of America's most storied newspapers is going to reinvent itself for survival in the digital era, it may need to embrace its fears first. Vijay Ravindran joins us in studio.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe is the chief digital officer of The Washington Post, where he's also a senior vice president. Thank you so much for joining us.
MR. VIJAY RAVINDRANThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd it's Tech Tuesday, so you know you can send us a tweet at #TechTuesday, email, email@example.com; or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, if you have questions or comments for Vijay. Three years ago, Donald Graham, the chairman of the board and chief executive officer of The Washington Post Company, brought you on board to do nothing less than reinvent the place for the digital world.
NNAMDIBefore we go any further, how would you describe your responsibilities as the company's chief digital officer?
RAVINDRANWell, it's a very evolving set of responsibilities. When I joined, I joined with no more detail than what you've just read. And I spent the first few months really trying to figure out what were the strengths and opportunities within the various Post's media properties, which range from The Washington Post to Slate, Foreign Policy, The Root. At the time, Newsweek was part of the family, which has been sold.
RAVINDRANAnd I really tried to reference that against the background that I had, particularly my experience at Amazon.com from '98 to 2005.
NNAMDIWhich I have to interrupt, it's my understanding that you're the one who was involved in bringing me the one-click feature at Amazon.com, which was going to send me into bankruptcy at some point soon.
RAVINDRANIn fairness, the one-click feature was one of the original creations right before I joined, but I was the steward of...
NNAMDIOkay, you get to live.
RAVINDRAN...but I -- steward of the feature. And actually the one I get more comments about bankruptcy on is Amazon Prime, which I had a very heavy hand in, so I might bankrupt you yet.
NNAMDIOkay. You came from Amazon. You came from a political technology company. What gave you the confidence that your tech skills could lift a journalistic enterprise? Did that intimidate you in any way at all?
RAVINDRANWell, I mean, the trial by fire of working at Amazon during the early days through 2005 really gave me the confidence to go seek out opportunities that were vague and have potential failure. I spent for three years between 2005 and the presidential election at the startup doing political data mining. And, you know, the mission of what the journalists do at The Washington Post to me was so important.
RAVINDRANI saw it firsthand while working in politics. And they're under great threat, and the reality of what I discovered those first few months I was at The Washington Post was that there are many techniques and capabilities that at Amazon I took for granted both in the culture of the company, the value of technologists, the customer centricity of really trying to understand what was best for them and building products around that.
RAVINDRANAnd those learnings have really helped guide me since coming to The Post, and that's what given me the confidence that if I can apply the things I've learned along the way from my time at Amazon and marry that with my passion for really trying to help the journalists who are doing what, I think, is an extremely important work for society that we're going to find answers to help this important craft.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, it's a Tech Tuesday conversation with WaPo's chief digital officer. Vijay Ravindran is the chief digital officer at The Washington Post, where he's also a senior vice president. What do you think newspaper need to do to bring the products into the digital era? You can call us at 800-433-8850. I watched your tech talk online the other day when you said that you became a news junkie after you followed your girlfriend from Seattle to, well, the real Washington, D.C., and started working for a political technology company.
NNAMDIAt what point during your time working in politics did you start to develop your own ideas for how news could and should be delivered?
RAVINDRANWell, when you're working in the guts of campaigns and the race, as you know, I think everyone remembers the intensity of the 2008 race and the primaries, you see how news is covered. You see how it's presented. You tend to know things about what's happening behind the scenes that maybe isn't being reflected well in how the journalism plays out. You know, a classical example was that I got extremely interested in polling, and you're really following these state-to-state polls and trying to game out, you know, Obama versus Clinton and who has the advantage.
RAVINDRANAnd we had access to a lot of data, and we saw just all sorts of opportunities where the journalism as it's presented digitally was really just a facsimile of what was being done in print. And there's just so much more opportunity about how you can bring that to life if you start digital first. And I think that's -- that was probably the inspiration for why this was a worthy next step for me.
NNAMDIWhat's your own -- what's your personal routine for consuming the news? Does it ever involve picking up a dead-tree copy of The Post at any point during the day?
RAVINDRANWell, I got a Washington Post seven-day subscription the day I met Donald Graham and to build really empathy for what were the opportunities and assets of The Post. The reality is that, you know, the culture of The Post historically prior to when I arrived and the arrival of Marcus Brauchli, the new editor, and Katharine Weymouth, the CEO and publisher, was that, you know, the print product ruled.
RAVINDRANIt ruled, you know, the journalists judge themselves by being on the front page of the newspaper, and that was success, not the number of people that read the story or commented on it or shared it on social networks, all these things that really come to life since then. And so the print product really showcased the best. I would frequently those first few days see graphics that were in the print newspaper that never made it to the website.
RAVINDRANIn fact, the whole way that the website was constructed in those days was that the editors would edit the write -- the reporters' story down to the line budget of the print newspaper running, and then they'd send it to the digital operation. So, you know, even though there could have been all these great information that got edited out because the budget for the story in the print newspaper was going to be a fraction of what was actually uncovered and written about and were important facts, they were lost, right?
RAVINDRANAnd so that's not true anymore. There's been a lot of changes which have moved us to thinking one story, many platforms rather than writing a story for print and then seeing what you can milk out of it on these other platforms.
NNAMDII also took note of how you said that the genius of the Obama online strategy is that the campaign embraced the new without throwing out the best of the old. How does that philosophy factor into what you're doing now at The Washington Post Company?
RAVINDRANYou know, The Washington Post for decades has stood for seeking the truth to the best as it can be ascertained and objectively showcasing that. And the, you know, those core principles need to be part of how any new experiences are created. If we develop digital experiences that might make money, might grab eyeballs but that they steer us away from that core mission then that's just a -- that's the false victory.
RAVINDRANAnd so, you know, we very much are focused on the journalism at its core needs to make this transition. It's about how do you present it in ways that bring it to life in the new medium so that the new generation of consumers can experience and appreciate it, and how do you build businesses that support it that can support the craft, and that's, you know, looking, you know, beyond some of the advertising techniques that are being used online today.
RAVINDRANIt's, you know, there's lot of discussion around pay walls today, and so there's all sorts of activity around what are the businesses that can support the journalism, and then how do you create products around the journalism that capture the imagination of readers today who are evolving at a rapid pace from the world of print newspapers.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Vijay Ravindran. He is the chief digital officer of The Washington Post. He's also senior vice president there. You can call us at 800-433-8850. We're about to get to this, so you might as well start calling. Do you use The Washington Post's social reader? How much potential you think social media have for the news industry? 800-433-8850. Or you can send us a tweet at #TechTuesday, email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or ask a question and make a comment at our website, kojoshow.org.
NNAMDIVijay, could you please don your headphones because we're about to hear from Joseph in Arlington, Va. Joseph, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOSEPHYeah. Thanks for taking my call. I'm a former Post subscriber. I cancelled my subscription, but I do occasionally read articles online. And one thing that has brought me back to reading articles online is the fact that you allow comments to the articles. I think -- I don't think it's very controversial to say that The Washington Post has a definite liberal bias when it presents the news.
JOSEPHAnd my question is, do you think that you could attract more readers if your underlying journalists who are actually collecting the information and presenting it had more of a balanced view or alternatively...
NNAMDIOkay. Wait a minute, wait a minute.
NNAMDIAllow me to allow me to interrupt at this point. The Washington Post's editorial page is separate from its news sections. What leads you to say that The Washington Post news pages have a liberal bias?
JOSEPHWell, I think the coverage of, you know, political issues is, by and large, it's very biased in the way that it presents facts. I mean, could you read The Post today and find out about fast and furious and find out all the details, the controversy about that topic? I don't really think so. I don't really think they're presenting that. You take the person in Massachusetts who's running for governor.
JOSEPHShe claimed that she was a member of a Native American tribe, but there's no documentation that sort of supports her claim. Is that something that The Washington Post has covered in an objective way? No.
JOSEPHAnd I can probably go on and on and on.
NNAMDIWait a minute, though. I have actually read both of -- about both of those issues in The Washington Post itself. It's my hometown newspaper, so it's the first newspaper that I read every day. However, I also read other newspapers. But here is Vijay Ravindran.
RAVINDRANYeah. I mean, I think one of the most fascinating elements of when you move from print to online is that The Washington Post can be the most liberal news source you read. It can be the most conservative news source you read if you read Chares Krauthammer and George Will and the...
NNAMDIAgain, the opinion pages.
RAVINDRANAnd that -- and the reality is that consumers on the Web today access news sites through a variety of mechanisms. Some of them go directly to washingtonpost.com, look at the homepage, navigate it based on the stories there. But some of them are coming from the Drudge Report. Some of them are coming from Huffington Post. And the fact that news has been unbundled online, where before it was bundled into a print product, changes. And so the -- to this caller, he's reading a lot of stories that is leading him to a liberal bias.
RAVINDRANI hear just as many comments from my former political cohorts of the conservative bias of The Post, and they're both true. I think it's all about how you access content on the Web today, and people are doing it through aggregators. They're doing it through social networks. They're doing it directly, and all of these put a different lens on what content is highlighted because the editors are no longer curetting the news in one way for everyone.
RAVINDRANInstead, everybody is developing a personalized manner to access the news, and that's leading them to viewpoints about the type of coverage that's happening and, you know, something like The Post, which publishes a thousand stories a day across its blog post and articles. It's kind of everything for everyone, depending on how you access it.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. Joseph, thank you very much for your call. Our guest on this Tech Tuesday conversation is Vijay Ravindran. He is the chief digital officer of The Washington Post. You can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. Do you like the idea of your friends knowing what you've read, watched or listened to as you do it? Why or why not? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's Tech Tuesday, and we're talking with Vijay Ravindran, chief digital officer of The Washington Post. Vijay Ravindran is also a senior vice president there. Let's talk for a minute about the experimental wing of The Washington Post WaPo Labs. What happens in this part of the company and what's your vision for it?
RAVINDRANYeah, the -- WaPo Labs group was started about three years ago, maybe about three months after I started. I saw the need to create a team that could work on digital products, but not be part of the quarter to quarter, year to year, you know, the really tough day-to-day challenges that running a real business has that to really try to do, you know, next generation innovation that we needed to create a pocket of talent that could really try to sink their teeth into what the future could look like.
RAVINDRANAnd so the group that we've built over the last three years is predominantly software engineering and technology-based. They are focused on building products that are different, that push the envelope in different ways around what news experiences could be like. We basically have three objectives to the type of products we create. We want them to teach us about what the future can be, which we can pass on to The Washington Post, Slate and our other media properties
RAVINDRANWe want them to create underlying technology that can make us capable of doing bigger and bolder things on washingtonpost.com and Slate and other properties. And we wanna see if we can create new consumer experiences, new products that can be stand-alone businesses down the line, if successful.
NNAMDIIn other words, looking into a future that we are not exactly sure of, but attempting to also be a part of creating that future. WaPo Labs also designed DC Rider. Explain to our listeners what DC Rider is.
RAVINDRANWell, DC Rider is one of our earliest experimental products done in partnership with the Express, our free Metro newspaper in the D.C. area. We created a Metro application for timetables and for knowing about elevator and escalator outages. I have a 2 1/2-year-old. These are important to me these days and gave you access to Dr. Gridlock, our traffic blogger on The Post.
RAVINDRANAnd again, it's a, you know, not groundbreaking and not gonna change the world by itself, but it starts to show a way of what Washington Post in a digital world could be. It's -- in this particular case, I think, what we're highlighting here is that where many news organizations see themselves as news content online, as they translate their print product, we have a responsibility to a local community to provide utility beyond news reporting content.
RAVINDRANAnd so DC Rider is useful, and people use it as part of how they plan their day. And I think news organizations really need to think about the total holistic value that they provide to their audience in this online world, and it goes beyond necessarily text articles that are going into the printed paper and being turned into content online in pretty much exactly the same fashion.
NNAMDIA hundred and three steps up a stuck Metro escalator with a 2 1/2-year-old child and voila, D.C. writer was born. We had a conversation a few weeks ago about the frictionless Web, an idea championed by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, that the Web is a place where people want to share things, that the social experience is a pivotal part of the online experience. What's your philosophy when it comes to the frictionless Web, and where does it fit into your vision for digital news?
RAVINDRANYeah. You know, we have three elements of what we think the future of news experience is like that are very important to us. The first is that consumers are gonna demand personalized experiences in how they see content. Second is that the value of their social network needs to be infused into that experience. And the third is that no single news publisher has enough content to satisfy a modern news consumer.
RAVINDRANBut that I mean, you know, I'm a Oklahoma Sooners fan. I grew up in Oklahoma. I live in the D.C. area. The Washington Post doesn't have Oklahoma Sooners content, and they never will. And yet as someone who cares about The Washington Post being a place of first resort for news consumers in the D.C. area, how do we accommodate that need? And so aggregation is very important, and that can take many different forms.
RAVINDRANIt can take the, you know, getting timely links in place to guide people to other websites. It can be writing two paragraphs and summarizing it, and it can be syndication agreements. And so when we got the invitation from Mark to participate in the new features that Facebook was putting together, you know, we saw the opportunity to take advantage of Facebook's incredible audience and that -- and to marry that with these concepts, and so we built Social Reader.
RAVINDRANIt is different than many of the other Social Reader apps out there because unlike the others, it contains the content from 80 other publishers that we have reached syndication agreements with. So it's a growing plethora of content, and then it's built on top of a personalization engine called Trove that we've built in house, which you can also access directly at trove.com that maps your interests to that content.
RAVINDRANSo in my case, Oklahoma Sooners signals highly because I'm a fan of the Sooners, and it shows up on my Facebook profile. It shows up on my hometown. And we have great content from SB Nation showing up in The Washington Post Social Reader. So we've created an experience that we think is unique. And as far as, you know, the discussion from two weeks ago, I think two points I would try to make is that we intentionally made the experience separate from washingtonpost.com.
RAVINDRANAnd we did that because this is a new and experimental experience that we don't expect users to -- who are traditional users of washingtonpost.com to get immediately and that we wanted to build it in a way that clearly signaled, hey, this is different. And this is -- we think this is fun. It might not be for everyone but it's different. And by being -- by building it in a manner that was more akin to Farmville as an app inside a Facebook, we set to build it in a manner that signaled that clearly.
RAVINDRANIt's not because -- we believe they're very -- consumers are intelligent as a bias from the beginning, but we also know they're busy, and they are not going to read the privacy policies by and large, so you have to really think about when they come to visit this experience how clear can you be. And so the capabilities Facebook have provided are powerful, but they need to be harnessed and refined in a manner that meets consumer expectations.
RAVINDRANWe've made probably about two dozen changes to the app since launching in September to try to more clearly signal the behavior of the app in response to feedback from customers. We'll continue making changes. Facebook's been making changes as well but that -- the capability of adding a social context around what is being read, I think that's powerful. I think that in time, that is gonna be an expectation and a norm, not something that a small set of people...
NNAMDIGot a couple of questions about that, but first I'd like to inform our listeners that the show two weeks ago that Vijay Ravindran was referring to was one we did on social media. You can find it in our archives. It was on June 12 that we did that show. And if you have calls or question, 800-433-8850. Do you use The Washington Post's Social Reader? How much potential do you think social media have for the news industry? You just heard Vijay talk about that being the wave of the future. Two questions I have and then I'm gonna get to the phones.
NNAMDIThe product that you're ultimately tasked with selling, pushing out to an audience, is the journalism produced by The Washington Post. When you look at the Web and you see sites like the Drudge Report or the Huffington Post, which live and breathe on aggregating content produced by journalists from other organizations, you seem to be seeing the future. But what does that have to do with the basic product that you're supposed to produce, The Washington Post?
RAVINDRANYeah. Well, I think you can -- to simplify what The Washington Post produces, I think they actually produce two things. One is the actual stories and the second is the judgment of which stories are important and how to think about looking at the news from different points of view. And I think when you look at what a site like Drudge and Huffington Post have accomplished, that's a form of personalization.
RAVINDRANIt's a crude form, but people that are going to Drudge Report to access their news or Huffington Post, they have probably a point of view already on how the news should be played, and this is a great lens. And, you know, you can imagine that Joseph, our previous caller, probably goes to one of these sites and not the other, and that's probably true of many of my friends that I work for the Democratic politics. They go to the other site and that's fine.
RAVINDRANI think that's serving a valuable purpose because it's taking advantage of the unbundling of content online. And when you look at what we have to build on, those are important building blocks, our news content and the editors and the intelligence of the newsroom. You know, we have -- if someone's really interested in China, we have reporters and editors that know a lot about China, and we need to figuring out how to build consumer experience to take advantage of that intelligence and experience that they've built up to present the news in a way that captures them and adds value.
RAVINDRANAnd some of that will be pointing them at our content, which we value and believe that it needs a gold standard. But some of it will be against trusted partners' content and, you know, how we...
NNAMDISo you seem to be saying that what the digital world is doing, what The Washington Post digital officer sees is that The Washington Post brand is no longer a brand simply for the presentation of news. It's a brand for the judgment of its journalists and its editors and its managers, a brand whose judgment people tend to trust and will therefore trust what you aggregate. However, in terms of your broader philosophy, when it comes to products like Social Reader, is it your feeling that Internet users are predisposed to share more, not less with their friends?
RAVINDRANI think they want to share more if they have the right controls and the right expectations clearly presented to them. And I think the lessons to take away from the last nine months in the refinements is that we could be doing a lot more to help them give them the control in the refinements. But when given the right capabilities in their hand and the right expectations that there's incredible value from the context of what's important, you know, I think, you know, I have friends on Facebook that followed Oklahoma Sooner football more passionately than I do.
RAVINDRANAnd if they read a story on the Sooners, I am more keen to read it than if I had no context at all. That's an important input. Now, is that type of passive input as valuable as them strongly recommending it in a more classical way on Facebook? No, it's not exactly the same thing, but there is a rich context around the world around us, and there's so much information. And we're looking for ways to sort and filter the information around us that, you know, we see different ways to create social context as something very valuable.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here now is Martha in Charlottesville, Va. Martha, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARTHASo, yes, speaking to the social media part that you just mentioned, you know, when I see something on Social Reader on Facebook, I purposely won't go there because I don't want it shared -- what I'm reading. I don't like that feeling. And, you know, in the old days, people would say to me, well, that's because you're an old or late adopter. But I'm a high user of, you know, Internet, Facebook, Twitter, blogging, the whole thing. And I don't like it.
MARTHAI also don't like the fact that it leads me to read things or to, you know, I'm only exposed to things that may already show my inclinations. You know, I want my world more open. I don't want my world more closed. So that's one issue I have.
NNAMDIWell, allow him to respond to one issue at a time. Does that have to either, A, with her -- Martha's overall philosophy or, B, just as importantly with her privacy settings?
RAVINDRANWell, I think, you know, privacy is very important. And, you know, I think one of the things we try to point our users to do as much possible is when you add Social Reader on Facebook or you add any app on Facebook or you're about to add any app, there's a -- there's an important setting on the bottom left dialogue that says, you know, it might say friends or public. But you can set that to only me, so your sharing is actually kept to yourself. And many, many users take advantage of that function, and that's okay.
RAVINDRANI think we want people to be comfortable and knowledgeable of what they're doing. And if they don't wanna use the product because it doesn't meet their -- that's great. We want them to opt out and not use it at all if they don't -- if they're not comfortable with the rules of road. But I will tell you one thing about tendencies in society. When I joined Amazon in 1998, I was, you know, walking at the customer service floor -- it was the first week I was there. Well, in software I worked on initially was in that space.
RAVINDRANAnd there were the fax machine which was spitting out pieces of paper. The tray was catching about half of the papers and the other half were being spilled out in the hallway. And, you know, I went to look in what it was. I was trying to learn what was going on at Amazon. And it was the people who were sending their credit card numbers over fax because they didn't trust typing in their credit card number online over secure, you know, server. And to them, that was safer to them, and they were not comfortable yet. And today, of course, that would be...
NNAMDIAnd they didn't realize that the credit card numbers that they were sending by fax was spewing out on pieces of paper that they weren't seeing.
RAVINDRANI'm sure they didn't. I mean, I'm sure they knew that it was coming out on a fax machine on the other side so you had to assume that was the case. The point is that, you know, people, their comfort levels change over time, and, you know, people's -- there's a fluid situation around on what is okay and what's not. We don't know whether Social Reader itself is the future in the way that it's created today. We have explicitly not put advertising on the product today.
RAVINDRANAnd we'll do so in the future, but I think the -- we have treated it as an experiment from day one because we're trying to learn about what the future is, and that there are users that are really enjoying this experience that are embracing it. It's not everyone in the world. It's not everyone on Facebook. But there's enough of a population that we think that there's something worth mining there to understand, and that's part of what my job is to see what's the opportunities are, refine and craft.
RAVINDRANAnd then hopefully, you know, inform both the products within my group that I have direct operational control over as well as advising our media properties on how to evolve.
NNAMDIMartha, you had a second part to your question?
MARTHAWell, I wanna say this to -- and that is that there are many people who don't realize, like it is surprising to some of my friends when I say to them, you know, everybody just saw what you just read. So I think, you know, there's a little bit of disingenuousness there to say, okay, there's the settings that you can use. People don't...
NNAMDIWell, Martha, I have to tell you that I have had that same experience that you have with some of my friends. But I suspect that a lot more people understand the use of the privacy settings than me and a few of my friends do.
MARTHAMaybe. I find that even my young adults pay less attention to that stuff than I do and are quite surprised to find that people are, you know, maybe reading -- that they are reading about controversial things and with all the other issues. Anyway, so I just wanna say that...
NNAMDIWell, I just happen to think that if you download an app that says Social Reader, that there is some expectation that other people will be able to access what you're reading because that, well, is the meaning of social.
MARTHAI think the expectation is that you are getting what they are sharing, not that you are sharing just by reading. I think that's a...
MARTHA…default that, you know, is not automatic.
NNAMDIOkay. Okay. The other part of your question.
MARTHAYou know, I -- so my other question is just to point out that I do think The Washington Post has done a much better job digitally, you know, looking at its content and its services. But I try to use other dailies like the Charlottesville paper, the Richmond-Times Dispatch and try to use their digital version. And you can't even -- you can't really use them because they're -- the technology -- you know, you try them. It doesn't work.
MARTHAYou call them. They say, we know it doesn't work. You try to get a sample, but you have to register, and then that makes you -- you know, so much of this is not ready for prime time, and it's very interesting to me that it's so difficult.
NNAMDIWell, I guess that's because so much of it is still in the experimental stage. I say that only because we're running out of time and there's one aspect of Social Reader that I'd like to get Vijay to talk about, and that is what kinds of conversations have you had with editors at The Post about how stories are presented within the reader? It would seem that if the stories are chosen by social signals, then you're taking editorial control away from the journalists and the editors themselves.
RAVINDRANYou know, the editors are really interested and excited about what they're seeing, and I think it is giving them incredible input on what the audience is wanting to read. And in particular, one of the most exciting things for us since launching Social Reader has been the audience that is using Social Reader is considerably younger, more global, and we're reaching an audience that we weren't reaching through washingtonpost.com, which is much more older and more concentrated in the D.C. area from an audience standpoint.
RAVINDRANAnd so we're learning a lot about a generation that we haven't had a lot of insight into in the past. And, you know, I can tell you there are reporters today who are writing content in The Post who -- their value is higher now because editors are seeing how their content is playing amongst a younger demographic. And that's -- that is incredibly exciting. It's like at the point that we start helping inform where coverage moves to and what reader expectations are and how to reach it in the next generation.
RAVINDRANI think that's -- part of painting the future is that we're gonna have to cover the topics that matter to the future. And so that part is -- the editors could not have been -- could not be more supportive today because they see how important social is as a context around news. I think there are all sorts of questions that begs as we point readers towards content from SB Nation that might be covering the same topics, and we'll have to eventually cross that bridge.
NNAMDIWell, you know, the Social Reader keeps the user within Facebook itself. A lot of online editors measure success by clicks onto their own websites. How much do you have to adjust their measure of success by keeping readers within Facebook as opposed to driving them to washingtonpost.com?
RAVINDRANWell, the application Social Reader that we've developed is our property even though it's running inside of the facebook.com banner. And so we have -- we can credit -- we can create the rules of credit in a manner that keeps them neutral. And so, you know, we haven't had to do that per se yet because it's not so large and disruptive that it's causing that.
RAVINDRANBut I think, you know, in the future, you're going to see content distributed through so many different mediums that news organizations are gonna have to move beyond the siloed view that my content is only on my site. That's the only place it shows up, and that's the only place where I measure my success to.
RAVINDRANWe have a series of distribution agreements and syndication partnerships, and we're using social media, and content is being viewed in all these different ways. And you got to figure out a way to credit back to the business all of those different access points and figure out whether the content was worth producing, gonna go forward either because of your journalistic mission or because you're satisfying reader interest in some manner.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned business because when we come back, we're gonna have to try to figure out how all of this can help to keep the business afloat. We're talking with Vijay Ravindran. He is the chief digital officer of The Washington Post, where he's also senior vice president.
NNAMDIIf you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. The number is 800-433-8850. What do you think newspapers need to do to bring their products into the digital era? You can send us a tweet at #techtuesday or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's Tech Tuesday. We're talking with Vijay Ravindran, known to his parents as Vijay, as the chief digital officer of The Washington Post, where he's also senior vice president. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. We've mentioned the business aspect of this, so I'd like to go to Steve in McLean, Va. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEHi. Thanks for taking my call. My question relates to advertising. And I know that many readers have expressed discontent over the slowness of Post webpages to load because of all the advertising in -- that's loading at the same time in the background. So I'm one of those. And I wrote an email to The Post a few months ago, expressing my desire to be a subscriber, a page subscriber, in return for them hiding all the advertising, you know, so I would see just content, no advertising.
STEVEI never got a response. Not that I necessarily expected or requested one. But my question to you is has The Post calculated how much money it would have to charge me as an individual to subscribe to replace the ad revenue that's lost by hiding all those ads from me?
RAVINDRANYeah. Yeah. Yeah. You know, the business models for the site, a lot of analysis has happened, is happening. There's a lot of change going on in the industry. You know, I think the last time I saw this, there are numbers that represent that, but there's a complex ecosystem to manage that ends up not making it as clear-cut as one might think from the outside.
RAVINDRANFor instance, you know, The Washington Post advertising proposition very much plays into that we have important business decision makers that are trafficking the website, that we have, you know, military and government workers that come to the website, and advertisers see that as value. So I think, you know, there have been a few experiments in the past.
RAVINDRANSalon.com, for instance, had a product like what you're, I think, asking for where you paid us a fee, and then based on that fee, they stripped all the ads out. The problem with that that media sites run into is that that essentially takes their most valued readers off the table when they're talking about what the advertising proposition is. And so it's a catch-22. I think the reality is the price that would be charged in a subscription basis feels unviable if we were to replace all advertising, much like the print product. I mean…
NNAMDIYeah, my presumption, Steve, is that you find the ads online much more intrusive than you did in the print product, right?
STEVEI get the print product as well as, you know, watching it online. But I ignore all the ads, you know, essentially. I just visually tune those out, and it's kind of a waste on me because I don't even bother looking at them. I just can't stand the slowness of the page loading. And secondly, I don't feel like a customer of The Washington Post because you don't view me as someone who gives you revenue, I'm not a customer. The people who pay you are your customers, and those are the advertisers.
STEVESo I feel like I'm not treated like a customer even though you -- the people who write for The Post ostensibly are trying to cater to my desires to read their content.
NNAMDIYeah, and that's the trick, if you will, Vijay.
RAVINDRANYeah. I mean, we -- first, we very much value you as a customer online. I think the -- part of what I've seen in the cultural shift in The Post in the three years is a really deepened understanding of who our readers are and, you know, looking at them in a way that is more than just a destination for advertising. I think -- with respect to the slowness of the site, I don't know if you saw -- the ombudsman did a story a couple of month ago on this, and a lot of really great technical work by the technology team within The Washington Post has been performed on the site.
RAVINDRANAnd there was a follow up about how much the site has improved, that it's now moved into the upper echelon of news sites in speed. That being said, you're actually speaking to a more fundamental problem with advertising online today, which is that it really is not particularly personalized, the content is not highly valued, it's not elegantly presented. Only second to the number of people that read privacy policies in terms of services is the people that look at the right rail of most sites, that the right side of the site is generally ignored if you look at eye tracking.
RAVINDRANAnd that's because these ads are low value and don't really take into account any of the intelligence of what could be actually useful to the consumer. And so, you know, I think what the future holds is to -- in a way that honors the reader and manages their privacy in a tactful manner, also has to start providing utility. That -- the reason the Google ads product has done so well for Google is that you're searching on a term.
RAVINDRANAnd a lot of times, the ads on the right end up being more relevant to your search than the content in the middle, in the main area. And I think that's what you have strive for. We have to figure out how to make -- if we're going to be an ad supported business online for news, we have to figure out how to make ads become content and tell stories that capture utility.
NNAMDIWell, the tip we got from an emailer for you, Steve, is that -- the emailer says, "There aren't any ads in the Kindle edition of The Washington Post."
STEVEThat's true. And I use the Kindle part of the time. Most of the time I'm on my laptop, but I occasionally just wanna lie down on a sofa and use the Kindle.
NNAMDIOkay. I'm afraid we do have to move on. Thank you very much for your call. We got an email from Cady in Cleveland Park, who says, "I don't know Vijay's interest -- if Vijay's interested in this, but here it goes, I challenge The Post to come up with a digital product that also channels content from other local news sources in Washington. My friends make fun of me because I'm a news geek. I read all the zoning stories on the front page of the Northwest Current even, but it's not easy to access so much of that hyper-local content from places like the Current or the Gazette.
NNAMDIAnd if you want to look at that content from a mobile device, forget about it. If The Post can't come up with a digital product that could stream all that local content in one place, hyper-local -- if you could come up with that, hyper-local junkies like me would worship you.
RAVINDRANYeah. Well, the good news is that your -- what you say is exactly correct, which is that there's -- this goes back to the point I was making earlier that we within The Post not only know how to play the content we write, but we also know who are the good bloggers and news sources in our community, and we should be doing more about how to bring those together in a way that's beneficial to everyone and the investment we've made in the personalization technology trove within the labs group, which you can access at trove.com.
RAVINDRANAnd if you take -- if you're a news geek, you can play around, and you might be impressed by what you can do yourself. The user experience is complicated today for a typical user, but you sound like you might be motivated enough to work your way through it. But the opportunities around being a combination of an expert curator with an original news publishing element, is I think, big, especially big in our community.
RAVINDRANAnd I think, you know, if you took the Northwest Current, the Gazette in Montgomery County and some of these great blogs like -- the Prince of Petworth blog has great content -- you could build a great experience. Don't be surprised if you see some mobile apps from the labs group that plays into this theme around smart local representations of the news.
RAVINDRANI think going back to -- I think it was Martha, the caller from earlier from Charlottesville, you know, aggregation to bring together a loft of these smaller communities that don't have news outlets that have the technology teams capable of building great experiences online, again, could benefit from smarter collection of quality news, and we need to do more of it. I think it's a great idea. I think, you know, I think you will be hopefully pleasantly surprised by some of the products we try to create in the future with that...
NNAMDIWell, so far we've been talking about social uses for the print content of The Washington Post. Where does your video or photos fit in? Is this part of the content that you would also like to see shared locally?
RAVINDRANOh, absolutely. And I think the, you know, when you move online, again, this is the legacy of starting as a newspaper and just trying to create facsimiles of that content as your kind of first version of how you think about your online product. It's -- online video is really important. Online user-generated content is really important. You know, we did -- the labs team, its very, very first project is a site called Reach for the Wall.
RAVINDRANIt's a local swimming community site that is very inexpensively built through editorial resources within the sports desk of The Post but then takes the results of the swim meets in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area and creates opportunities for the community to build content around teams and swimmers and meets. And it just had amazing response from the community. And we actually handed it back to The Post, and they're running it now as part of it.
RAVINDRANBut the -- engaging the community to not only serve as an expert curator but get them to contribute content and build that, you know, ecosystem of great experience and trust and bidirectional communication, I mean, that's where we have to go. And I think it's sometimes hard to get there when you're just working off of the print product. You have to think beyond that.
NNAMDIFrom a business perspective, do you expect that you learn any lessons from experimenting with social media advertising that will help the traditional online advertising model at washingtonpost.com that our last caller was complaining about?
RAVINDRANI think so. I'm very excited about the possibilities with Social Reader, you know, what -- the labs group is now working on products that -- for -- on the revenue side that -- our goal is to go beyond flat, simple-display advertising that is untargeted and not particularly relevant and try to create social context around what's valuable. And so, you know, I think you'll see some interesting things happen on Social Reader. I think they'll be very applicable back to The Post.
NNAMDIAnd hopefully you'll come back to tell us about them. Vijay Ravindran is the chief digital officer of The Washington Post where he's also a senior vice president. Thank you very much for joining us.
RAVINDRANThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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