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The Globe and Mail: Building a culture of innovation with Arc Publishing

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In 1844, The Globe and Mail was founded, and one hundred seventy-five years later, it remains Canada’s newspaper of record. As an era of declining print circulation and print advertising revenues confronts the global newspaper industry, The Globe has invested in in-house software engineering to drive innovation and product differentiation.

That commitment to innovation was aided by the company’s 2016 decision to adopt Arc Publishing as the digital-first publishing system for all content and digital assets managed across the company’s newsroom. Moving to Arc in the AWS cloud gave the organization three key benefits: the freedom to innovate, a green-field opportunity to rethink and reexamine the entire business, and the peace of mind that their publishing system would support any changes they wanted to make.

Why Arc Publishing?

Arc offered two major advantages over previous systems, explains Alasdair McKie, who was project team leader on the Arc implementation. First, as an AWS-based cloud solution with high SLAs and an aggressive product roadmap, Arc allowed The Globe to reallocate all of their internal resources who previously had responsibility for the platform upkeep.

Second, Arc’s robust API-driven architecture let The Globe build services directly on top of Arc APIs and Amazon Kinesis streams, unlike the black box development required by other proprietary CMS systems. “Having that confidence with the platform,” McKie says, “it allows you to focus your resources, to grow out your capabilities. To be more adventurous.”

Three years later, CEO Philip Crawley continues to view Arc as a critical driver of success. "Arc technology has allowed us to focus and innovate in key areas of strategic importance to our business, including data-science-based design and personalization,” says Crawley. “It is the key to delivering the user experience and enhanced storytelling that underpin our primary mission: journalism that matters."

Laboratory of Innovation

Arc was part of a major strategic alignment around innovation at The Globe. In 2015, newspaper leadership created an in-house innovation lab, Lab351, with a mandate to provide money and resources to encourage anyone in the company to be able to present ideas. The lab in turn took the lead on adopting Arc, allowing the company to free up back-end engineering resources for a greater focus on change.

Because the Arc implementation was a key strategic initiative, Globe leaders saw it as a “green-field opportunity” to completely rethink the way that they presented content to readers: they reevaluated everything from site design to fundamental data structure. In order to ensure that readers received a truly personalized experience, rather than delivering the same static experience to every reader, The Globe and Mail moved internal engineering resources into data science.

Mission-Driven Strategy

The Globe saw an immediate opportunity to invest in data science. A few days after the Arc announcement in June 2016, Publisher and CEO Philip Crawley gave a much fuller explanation at that year’s WAN-IFRA World Congress, in which he announced three key strategic goals for the coming year:

  • Better user experience for digital subscribers
  • Apply data science to storytelling and selling
  • Journalism that makes a difference.

“We're going to reorganize our newsroom starting this summer,” Crawley told attendees. “And relying on the fact that we're going to have a much better CMS thanks to the Post partnership, that will enable us on a daily basis to choose content, choose the right platform based on real-time data.”

At the same time, Lab351 became the fulcrum for a culture of innovation, allowing anyone at the company to contribute, as the company invested real money in the cash awards that they offered to any employee in the company: there were short-term $1,000 grants for two-day projects, as well as long-term grants of $100,000 for an employee to work full-time on an idea for three months, receiving full salary and a guarantee of getting their job back at the end of the project.

This was a serious investment in innovation, as explained by lab cochairs Sean Stanleigh and Gordon Edall. “You’ve got to spend money to make money,” Stanleigh told Digiday. It was driven by their confidence in their software platform. “We’ve made a lot of investments, particularly on the data science side,” Edall said, “because we didn’t have to worry about content management.”

Measuring the Benefits

The benefits of focusing on data science, while not having to worry about content management, were palpable. Two of the most innovative data science products developed by The Globe are called Sophi and Delphi. Sophi is a business intelligence tool, and Delphi is a tool they’ve built on top of it for predictive analytics. This helps their editors make decisions in real time on how to promote stories, as well as powering personalization logic that ensures that each reader who visits the site receives a tailored experience.

Insights from Sophi helped drive a print redesign in 2017 which saved $1 million in newsprint costs.

Using Data Every Day, Everywhere

These days, data science is at the heart of The Globe’s financial success. “[Sophi and Delphi are] allowing us to better distribute the content, get the right material in the right format at the right time of day, night, and week in front of our readers,” explained Tracy Day, The Globe’s managing director/creative studio and ad innovation. “This initiative will continue to enhance the engagement of our readers and increase the value of our audience to our advertisers.”

As the company continued to grow in its 18th decade of life, data continues to drive decisions across the organization. “Our emphasis on using information derived from our reader data made our transformation better,” as Creative Director Adrian Norris told INMA, who explained the value that Arc provided. “More than a content management system, Arc is a tool for high-quality digital storytelling. Underlying our Web, tablet, and mobile sites, as well as our apps, Arc means that our audience can access the full breadth of Globe news and insights. We’ve increased engagement more than 30% and decreased Web site page-load speed by almost 50%.”

Across The Globe, executives in all departments are seeing immediate benefits from the company’s commitment to technology. “A better experience for all digital readers has stemmed from our work with the Arc platform,” says McKie, who is now The Globe’s Senior Product Manager, Digital. “We were able to hire the best possible talent in front end and user experience.

“We’re willing to try anything.”