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Publishing suites

Publishing Suites Review Series: Issue #1 — Arc Publishing

Céline Tykve, March 29, 2019

Just like a handyman needs his tools and his own skills in order to build a great house, publishers and media houses need top-quality tools to be successful. And software is certainly one of the crucial elements.

The pain of most editorial teams is often the same: most of the tools available in ad tech and in publishing are tools made by engineers who have seldomly met a reporter or editor. That’s why lately, quite a few newspapers and publishing houses have decided to take tech into their own hands and build their own solutions — which they are now licensing to other publishers.

On the one hand, because they promise to solve the problems of the industry with insider knowledge — and on the other hand, because they are obviously experimenting with new ways of doing business.

In this new series on our blog, we plan on shedding some light on these publishing solutions and collect some factual information for you.

We are starting this series with “Arc Publishing” by The Washington Post

The best known publishing solution is probably “Arc Publishing” from the Washington Post, which they advertise as “tech made by publishers for publishers”. Claiming to have worked based on their own experiences with previous CMSs (Content Management Systems) and with “what we liked, what frustrated us, and changes that we saw coming”, the tech team at the Washington Post started developing a software to solve their problems with the CMS. They also commenced to build advertising, analytics and other products in-house — arguing that nowadays publishers rely way too much on third parties for their technology.

What is included?

Arc includes a fully-hosted CMS, video publishing system, asset management tools, products for analytics, testing and content optimization, and revenue solutions for subscriptions and advertising.

Screenshots of the Arc publishing system (Image credit: Arc Publishing)

The History of Arc

  • Arc’s origins date to the period before Bezos bought the paper, when the company was scrambling to move at web speed at the same time that financial pressures were requiring it to do more with less. And like an awful lot of papers, it found that the CMS it was then using was an obstacle to progress. Some first steps were taken by Matthew Monahan, now Arc’s Director and Head of Product, who was creating websites for his and other universities using Wordpress at the time — and the project Arc started to grow organically from that. (And yes, the WaPo gave away his Arc system to (these) universities for free, to have them test the CMS and get some first users).

  • The WaPo’s technical team started building a publishing platform from scratch, beginning with a page-rendering system called PageBuilder, which rolled out in early 2013 and which the company has continued to refine since then.

  • Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos acquired the Washington Post for $250 million. In his letter to the employees he wrote that “there is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment.”

  • With the new operation — Arc Publishing, whose name is meant to convey that they cover the entire publishing process from creation to monetization — the WaPo has started to offer their system to other publishers.

  • They signed on its first official customer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Portland-area publication Willamette Week.

  • An ad-tech startup RED (standing for research, experimentation and development) was founded inside the company, whose job it is to use The WaPo as a sandbox of sorts to come up with new ways to deliver ads and then market the technology they produce to other publications.

  • Today, the WaPo’s Arc supports more than 30 clients operating more than 400 journalistic sites and apps on four continents, representing more than 500 million monthly unique visitors.

A Change in Culture

The WaPo’s story is a very unique success story. Under its new owner and money-giver, the newspaper has started transforming the way they work. It seems that under the influence of e-commerce visionary Bezos, the paper’s business and technology has begun to outshine its award-winning journalism. The WaPo itself says that their shift from a “manage the vendor” culture to a “build and own it ourselves” culture combined with thinking like a tech-startup has produced a lot of innovation.

“There was great fear in the newsroom that technology was going to destroy journalism. Now, technology might save it.”

As a result of all these changes, the WaPo’s revenue has doubled over the past year. According to their own statements, they observed a 60% increase in web traffic (visitors) as well as an increase of 22% in online readership — since using their very own Arc system. Furthermore, they measured an 5x increase in users engaging with the ads and their digital ad revenue now exceeds $100 million annually. The company grew its IT division to 250 people, focusing on recruiting high-quality talent by selling them on a startup-like environment and a creative mission to save journalism.

Obviously, the WaPo’s strategy seems to be working and their publishing system Arc seems to has stabilized the newspaper. With the progressing digitalization, traditional media organizations around the globe need to break up their natural DNA and need to evolve their business models — because that is the future. But probably building their own solutions is not the way to go for all of them.

The “dark side” of Arc

However, working with Arc, a full-fledged hosted solution, entails quite some risks for publishing companies. Apart from losing control over the technological basis of their products and being fully reliant on a vendor in the US, one also has to be aware that Bezos has an Ad Network around Amazon and plans to compete with Facebook and Google. At the moment he is lacking the necessary reach, but newspapers might just be the missing piece in his formula.

This blogpost is part of our series on publishing suites.