This week in Austin, Texas, at the zoo that the South by Southwest Interactive Festival can be, Washington Post Chief Information Officer Shailesh Prakash entertained a few of the digital animals. Prakash, the Post's executive in charge of both product and technology, highlighted his pet project, Arc Publishing, in his Tuesday "Predicting the Future of News" keynote.
Arc serves as the foundation for the reborn Washington Post's very digital-first publishing business. The platform, first developed in 2010, has helped drive the Post's astounding audience growth, maximizing the value of its expanding content to propel it from 50 million to about 100 million unique visitors in the space of two years. That's the potential power of Arc. It's a force multiplier for news publishers aiming to wring more value from the content they produce.
The Arc story is significant, one answer to the question of how legacy news companies can harness the best tools of internet creation, distribution and sharing, like the newcomers such as BuzzFeed, Business Insider and Vice have shown themselves able to do.
Today, despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars on publishing technology, many publishers' news tech looks like a digital tower, or stack, of Babel. Legacy content production suppliers such as DTI and CCI have built out their digital capabilities atop legacy tech. WordPress and Adobe (ADBE) have become more of a standard among some publishers. And many companies, like Tronc (TRNC) have devoted countless resources of time and money to building, rebuilding and adding onto to their own proprietary systems.
All these systems require lots of integration with third-party software players, providing utilities publishers now find essential. Yet despite all the investment, most publishers will frankly, if confidentially, tell you that they find themselves falling further and further behind in the tech race.
Arc, now a platform available for license from the Post, creates a new "build or buy" decision for news publishers.
That makes Arc doubly notable. This week, as Tronc (nee Tribune Publishing) adopted Arc as its fundamental platform throughout its nine-city metro chain, Arc comes of age and gains what is now its biggest client.
Further, Tronc's outsourcing soon reveals an apparent and distinct change in that company's announced tech strategy, and one that other dailies, and chains of dailies, may consider sooner than later.
While one year ago Tronc was touting the tech chops of its new investor, Nant Capital chairman Patrick Soon-Shiong -- including "100 machine vision and artificial intelligence technology patents for news media applications as well as access to and use of studio space made available by NantStudio" -- it now plans to rely on another company for the foundation of its tech future.
Further, Soon-Shiong, whose recent, rapid accumulation of Tronc shares has made him the company's second-largest shareholder with a 15% stake, became a smaller part of Tronc's future this week. In an SEC filing, Soon-Shiong's name was left off the company's board slate, and his vice chairmanship will end in April. That's a likely sign of chairman Michael Ferro's even-greater control of the company, as Ferro looks for acquisition targets.
Tronc's overall size puts it in third place among newspaper chains, and its flagship Los Angeles Times houses the nation's fourth-largest newspaper-based newsroom. The Times aims to fully implement Arc within the year, and over that time other Tronc papers -- first the larger such as the Chicago Tribune and then the smaller -- are being scheduled to adopt it. Why is the L.A. Times first? For one thing, it drives about 60% of Tronc's overall traffic, and a lot of its digital revenue.
Tronc represents both a challenge for Arc and a newfound ability for the platform to demonstrate that it can handle complexity.