May 11, 2012

Newspapers have always been information-technology companies. Reporters gathered information that the technology of printing presses distributed.

Today, however, news organizations have to be cutting-edge IT companies.

The Washington Post and the New York Times are not as large or as rich as Google, Apple, Facebook and the other denizens of Silicon Valley — but they are striving to be real IT players whose accent is slightly more on the “I” than the “T.”

The Post today literally cannot do its journalism without a large IT staff. I’m not talking about people who change printer cartridges; I’m talking trained computer engineers recruited from top colleges. The Post now has 195 of them; 33 were hired in the past six months alone. It’s the fastest-growing department at The Post. Indeed, IT people are becoming integral —14 are embedded in the newsroom — to helping the storytellers find creative ways to produce and distribute their information.

To that end, I am pleased to report that the IT team is making progress on several fronts that directly benefit readers.

First of all — saints be praised — The Post’s Web site has gone from being one of the slowest in the industry in its download times to among the fastest. Indeed, the number of complaints to the ombudsman about site slowness has declined precipitously from the 50 or 60 per week eight months ago, when I quoted readers saying that even pornography downloaded more quickly than washingtonpost.com. Now I get one to two complaints per week.

So what happened?

Well, Shailesh Prakash happened. He’s The Post’s new vice president for technology and chief information officer, hired last September. He came from Sears.com after stints with Microsoft, Netscape, Sun Microsystems and Motorola.

He has brought a new energy and mind-set to the IT team. He is trying to instill a culture based on creativity, setting goals and, as he says, going “relentlessly” after them. He’s also big on metrics.

In his office is this giant flat-screen TV on which flashes a revolving array of colorful bar and wave graphs showing the performance of the individual Post servers out at the paper’s data center in Tyson’s Corner and various measures of Web site speed. It all looks like a NASA ground-control computer. The blue and purple and green lines are mesmerizing, but the trends are clear — all improving week by week.

Now the Web site runs fastest on the latest generation of browsers from Google Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer. But the next goal is to improve download times for people using older and slower browsers, particularly IE 7 and 8, which many of The Post’s core of readers from .mil and .gov computers use. “That’s a key audience for us,” Prakash noted.

The clunky, aggravating Post online search engine is getting revamped, too. Indeed, right now you have about a 50-50 chance of getting the new search engine when you query instead of the old one. Prakash and his team are slowly rolling out the new search engine, hoping to work out bugs, while the old engine is still available. In a few more weeks the new search engine will be completed.

More good news. The complicated and balky Post sign-in and identification function — for those who sign in to leave comments, get mobile alerts and interact in other ways with the site — is going to be all new. It will be shorter, faster and, we can pray, smoother. This should happen on or about May 19, not far away. Let me know what you think.

Prakash’s next priority is reconfiguring and redesigning The Post’s mobile Web site. Prakash says mobile devices — smartphones and tablets — will do to laptops and desktops what the Web did to print, and The Post’s mobile Web site must be top quality to win that audience.

Prakash wants media companies to compete with the Googles and Facebooks. “Technology is a driver of where we are going … and from this will come our future,” he said. Better that The Post create its own technology for information transmission and distribution than to have a Silicon Valley start-up grab the revenue from doing so, Prakash said.

The key, Prakash added, is that “the team needs to know what is important.”

Yes, that’s a good philosophy, for a tech team — and for a newsroom.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@ washpost.com.