The key question Shailesh explored through his interaction with
students is – How does a newspaper company founded in 1877, focussed on
excellence in journalism, having a little bit of chip on the shoulder, with the
brand and the success that has come along the way then end up offering a SaaS
product which is now with every large newspaper and many broadcasters? It was
an excellent primer on how intrapreneurship can happen in an established legacy
business. Here are a few highlights from his talk:
The digital disruption at the publishing industry:
Shailesh began by telling us that at one point, newspapers like The Post were
monopolies, owned railroads, paper mills, printing plants, logistics and supply
chains, and much more. And they were very profitable delivering 2 editions every
single day with deep and wide moats. However, over the last twenty years, the Internet
and subsequently mobile revolution disrupted the industry. Many newspapers made
the mistake of offering the content for free on the web and couldn’t sustain
the business based on advertisements. Many newspapers went out of business.
Excellence in journalism and engineering: The first
step in this journey, according to Shailesh, was to accept that excellence in
journalism is not enough. Google, Apple, and Amazon have spoilt the consumers
and they are demanding speed, beauty, and ease of access in whatever they
consume. The Post had to become excellent in the other dimension - design,
product, technology, and engineering in order to attract and retain its
consumers. With this realization, Shailesh was hired by Don Graham, the
erstwhile owner of The Post, and given the task of making the newspaper
digital-friendly. With the arrival of Bezos, this initiative got accelerated
further and the culture was infused with the spirit of experimentation.
Crawl, walk, run story of Arc: “It’s not that we had
everything figured out,” said Shailesh, “and then we did marketing and boom!”
The journey has been relatively fast but very incremental. The first step was
to say that the content management system can be built in-house and doesn’t
have to be bought from outside. Once some aspects of the stack were built, Shailesh
got curious as to whether it can be delivered as a SaaS solution. So it was
offered for free to some university newspapers like the University of Maryland,
Yale, Columbia, New York University, University of Southern California, etc.
The idea was to learn what it takes to run a multi-tenant architecture. Could
it be ensured that the content of Yale is not seen by the student journalists
in Columbia? What is the cost of running such a solution?
The next step was to offer it to a small newspaper and get
paid for it. The newspaper was trying to support blogging on their site and that
worked. The next step was Toronto Globe and Mail – a big newspaper in Canada.
They were willing to partner at an early stage of the product development and
were interested in influencing the roadmap. This was the first time two large
newspapers – The Post and Toronto Globe were simultaneously using the product.
And slowly, other papers like LA Times and then broadcasters
started to come in. Once supporting online subscriptions became an important
feature of the platform the commerce piece, payment gateway mechanisms had to
be worked out. Were there non-believers? Of course, there were. Even analysts
and respected journalists were skeptical of this “side business”. Fortunately,
the parent company of The Post went private during this phase and that helped.
Over the years, the journalist mix in the newsroom has changed too. It now has
a number of TikTok savvy native digital journalists. Now, questions like “How
does one deliver stories with speed and still stay true to the brand?” have
As major competitors of The Post started to come in as
customers, the business agreements and associated liabilities especially for
data breaches started to become nuanced. Mutual Funds wanted an ISO audit. All this
pushed the boundaries for the technologists but it also meant building
competence on the legal, finance, and consulting sides.