This is part of a series of articles focused on the key issues that will be covered in our Monetising Media event at the end of September.
The Washington Post's new owner Jeff Bezos is one of the most high-profile and successful tech entrepreneurs around, but the newspaper's attempts to work out how to build a media company that works online predates the Amazon boss's intervention.
Washington Post chief information officer and vice president, digital product development Shailesh Prakash has been at the heart of that process for three years, under former boss Don Graham and Bezos.
He tells TheMediaBriefing that predicting what, or more importantly when, new technology is going to have an impact on your business is nigh on impossible to get right all the time. But that doesn't mean you can't make sure you ride the wave effectively:
"Often it’s quite hard to work out what is a fad and what is here to stay. It’s very easy to predict the future, but it’s very difficult to predict when that future will arrive. Some will take hold and others will take years and years. You’ll have spent money without any return."
"I don’t think there is anyway other than to be completely open to continuously experiment. There isn’t a science to it. It’s much more about art."
As an example of projects that haven't taken off, Prakash cites The Washington Post's experiments in long-form online video targeted at web-connected TVs, which were relatively easy to build but have so far failed to take off with consumers, and its ongoing experiments with personalisation, which are not yet quite right for its audience.
Prakash says that key to creating that environment where this kind of experimentation is possible is making sure that the budget for trying new things is set out early on:
"Have an explicit conversation with the leadership team to draw the lines on a yearly basis of the bucket of money you want to spend on new tech and experimentation. I say that because if you get an upfront agreement it is vigorous debate, but you commit. If you go half-way through the year, by that time everyone’s kind of nervous."
Bread and butter efficiency
Prakash says he has been lucky in that during his time at the Post under both under Bezos and Graham he has always been able to earmark more than half his budget for experimentation.
However, he believes all media companies can benefit from at least working out how much room they have to manoeuvre, and trying to free up funds from "bread and butter" technology systems – the ongoing tech work – to provide more funding for new projects:
"CIOs and CTOs should take a careful look at their existing bread and butter operation and see how much efficiency can wring out. At a lot of media and retail companies there is a process of removing products and processes that are no longer necessary."
"Folks are good at building things, they are very poor at stopping things. It can yield significant dollars to invest in innovation and that is something I would do very seriously."
When to think about money
There is of course the tricky issue of when you bring in the topic of monetisation to the development process. Few media businesses have the same leeway as Silicon Valley startups and giants to mess about without a clear vision for making money.
Prakash says the Washington Post takes a twin approach. The first involves making sure sales teams are embedded in the development of most projects from the start:
"The number one goal is to have embedded designers and engineers in the sales team. They have a very strong voice in the design of any product we are trying to develop."
"Dedicating designers and engineers to the chief revenue officer of the company gives him the freedom and makes him an equal partner."
However, there will also be projects that have no immediate clear path to making money that are nevertheless necessary. Prakash says that when it comes to these, the most important thing is to be upfront:
"We do our very best if we are not going to go after monetisation, to explicitly say that. That helps us all to have visibility of the money, and it makes us a bit more judicious about when we do it."
"The dangerous approach is just doing stuff and informally saying I haven’t figured that out yet."
Experimentation both on the design and content sides of the Washington Post business are having some impact. Prakash says the Washington Post's recent widening of focus to include more national and international news, as well as more content for verticals such as style and cooking, have driven traffic to near record levels this summer during what is traditionally a quiet period.
But Prakash is pretty clear the company, and other media businesses, need to keep going or risk potentialy catastrophic implications of falling behind:
"Five years ago there was no iPad. Things come very, very fast. If you want to be a fast follower, typically there is no fast follower. Someone (leading) takes a very large part of the pie. Just look at Amazon."
"To not experiment is not an option."
Image via Flickr courtesy of clasesdeperiodismo used under a Creative Commons licence.