Cory Haik, Executive Producer and Senior Editor for Digital News, and Julia Beizer, Director of Mobile Product, make up the mobile leadership team at The Washington Post. They work in tandem and represent the partnership across news and technology. Their teams just released a wearable app for Android Wear, so PostPR caught up with the pair on this and other projects their teams are working on, as well as what the big picture strategy is for mobile at The Post.
You’ve been hiring folks for on-going mobile initiatives — what does this team look like?
Cory: Like a cool collective of top digital talent — like a startup, honestly. We’ve hired a lot of key people to focus on our growing mobile audiences: a group of editors with deep knowledge in important verticals — from world news to social and engagement — producers with killer technical chops, designers with intense focus on producing across screen sizes and device types. To do mobile right, you have to think about the readers, the products and the stories together. With this team we’re attempting to do that from the small screen up. And it’s an incredible energy to have digital newsroom folks sitting side-by-side with the tech teams.
Julia: We have a growing crew of talented Android and iOS developers and smart mobile product thinkers. Our interest is in strategizing around the unique opportunities on different devices and platforms. The gifts of each operating system are different and it’s exciting to think about how we can tune our journalism to what a reader expects on different devices. We all work in an iterative and collaborative way. Editors, designers and developers will flesh out new concepts. We’ll then quickly prototype them and experiment with how they can be used to tell stories. It’s in a short cycle. Days, hours. We of course have roadmaps for longer-term projects, but the best part is the magic that’s happening within our micro sprints.
What is the overall goal?
Julia: The goal is to create the best user-focused products as well as the best tools for the editorial teams to serve those products. We dream big but we also want to ship continually, to always improve what’s out there. I think the formation of our combined and growing teams is a real sign that we’re serious about what it means to think “mobile first.”
Cory: The overall goal is platform specific storytelling, adaptive journalism in daily production — to create new products with excellent experiences that serve our readers and our journalism first. Admittedly ambitious, which we like; not impossible, just challenging in the best way. It’s almost a dream situation when your big vision is to give the reader the best journalism for the device they have in their hand.
What are the kinds of things your teams are working on?
Julia: The recent iOS 8 launch unlocked a lot of cool functionality for publishers. We added a Today Extension widget for our iPhone and iPad apps. The widget shows off the top three Post headlines at any given time and allows readers easy access into the app. We also took advantage of Apple’s new interactive notifications feature, allowing readers to dive right into a breaking news story – or save it to read later.
You and your teams do a lot of iterative work — the ‘always in beta’ philosophy — is there anything you’ve developed recently along those lines?
Julia: A great example of our “always in beta” philosophy is our launch today of the new version of our Android Wear app. Back in the spring we built a prototype of the app. It was interesting. It read you the news by playing it through your phone, showed headlines across all sections from the Post. There were some bugs with it. And a motion piece that we built in that didn’t quite work right (ask Cory about the time she accidently demo’d it). Now that we’ve launched the new wearable app, I can say without a doubt that if we hadn’t prototyped it first, it would not be where I think this one is.
Cory, you once said that all web will be mobile. Are we there yet?
Cory: Depending on what you consider mobile, we’re getting close! Laptop screens are smaller, there is a proliferation of tablets, phones and wearables, not to mention apps for cars, appliances and more. We have seen explosive growth in the last year, in traffic and in device and platform opportunity. (Readers coming to us from mobile devices are now more than 50% of our total audience—and 52% of our mobile readers are millennials.) You obviously have to pick your targets and that is what we are attempting to do. The desktop is not dead, it’s just shapeshifting.
Cory, You’ve talked a lot about ‘palm-to-palm’ production? What does that mean and how does that impact your choices around what initiatives to tackle and what the newsroom should be working on?
Cory: I got Dan Balz on Snapchat — this counts, right? In all seriousness, the concept of ‘palm-to-palm’ production, meaning that journalists are producing from their phones, for people on their phones, is no longer theoretical. Right now editors are working with a few new tools, display-layer editing dashboards, that allow content produced from mobile to flow right into stories that go into, well, mobile. A lot of this work was informed by some experimenting we did last year at Fashion Week and during the White House Correspondents Dinner, using Google Glass and a few other tools — point, shoot, publish. A journalist’s process is now part of their product. We’re taking this concept very seriously.
What is your biggest challenge in thinking platform specific? And what do you think the biggest opportunities are?
Julia: The mobile landscape is exploding – new devices, evolving operating systems. People are using their phones and tablets every hour of the day. Our biggest challenge is meeting that demand and across a very complicated landscape and rewiring newsroom workflows to meet the audience. The big opportunities reveal themselves as we look at the last five years of mobile data. We have a lot of insight into the kinds of connectivity people have when accessing us. For instance, if we know the bulk of tablet usage is on wifi, we can brainstorm and develop product around that assumption. Galleries are another example. Photo stories have always been popular with readers on our tablet apps, so we iterated on our article-page design to bring them front and center. My team is constantly on the hunt for meaningful data points that give us the opportunities to build to specific use cases.
Cory: It takes resources to do it right. The fact that platforms will continue to develop can be challenging because the target is always moving. At some point you have to be efficient and focus on places with the most impact for users. What gets me excited and where I see the real opportunity is in the ability to create new products and storytelling formats in new places for new audiences. It’s about growth and being creative as things evolve. In my mind, that’s us doing modern day journalism. It feels good to return to a place of creativity, it turns the ‘survival’ story into something very desirable. That’s what this entire initiative and team embodies.
Before we go, Cory, tell us about that smart watch demo.
Cory: After Julia’s team built the prototype, I walked around with that watch on for weeks. It worked great, but I have a tendency to talk with my hands. If the watch was engaged on accident, and I moved my arm too fast, it would start reading the news out loud. Funny when you’re showing someone in the newsroom, less so when you’ve forgotten you have it on while presenting to hundreds of people. Needless to say, this feature has been fixed and the app we’re launching today is ready for even the most aggressive hand-talkers.