When Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post in 2013, it was easy to assume that the newspaper’s digital content would be getting an update. One of the key people involved in that update has been Cory Haik, the Post’s executive producer and senior editor, digital news. Before taking over the digital team at the Post, Haik previously served as director of content at seattletimes.com, and as managing editor of nola.com, the website of The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune. Her team’s biggest project of the Bezos era to date has been “Project Rainbow,” the Post’s twice-daily tablet edition that—in a fortuitous bit of corporate synergy—comes pre-installed, with a free six-month subscription, on every new Kindle Fire tablet. The team is working on editions for Apple and Android tablets.
Haik spoke to the 2015 class of Nieman Fellows in March, in conversation with Nieman Lab staff writer Justin Ellis. Edited excerpts of their conversation:
How is The Washington Post’s Kindle edition produced on a daily basis? Is there a specific team working on it?
Yes. For the first time ever, we hired an editorial team to specifically produce this app. Early on I just knew that for as ambitious as our plan was, it was going to need its own staff. Which can be a scary thing to ask for.
But I wasn’t scared to ask for it, because I’m like, “Hey, this guy [Bezos] wants us to do a thing, and he wants it to be really great. We need people.” Unless he wants me to put it on a feed and it will be bad, because it’s not custom and no one can really be focused on it as a new product.
It shocked a lot of people, I think, that we were going to ask for it. It took a team of 21 newsroom staffers to produce this app. That’s a luxury, but we’re not just going to be producing this app. Right now, it is, but we have five news designers, four editors and a crew of producers that are working pretty much around the clock to make this happen.
It sounds like a lot of work, and a lot that goes on simultaneously. How do you handle that, and how do you organize your team to accomplish all of these things?
If this wasn’t my passion, I don’t think things would be going the way that they are. Everyone that I’ve hired, or I’ve pulled from other places across the newsroom, I’m pretty honest with them that we’re going to experiment a lot. Some of it might not work out, but if you don’t have the passion, if you’re not invested from that perspective, it may not be the right fit. In fact, I said something the other day, that it’s not just a job, it’s a lifestyle. Then I thought, it’s probably not OK with HR to say that.
We’re in that moment, and we all are really invested that way. Everyone gets the bigger vision. I do a lot of work to tie that vision, coming from up high, and the vision that we are setting. I try to include everyone that’s working on it, even down to the person who’s rewriting cutlines.
This is like an artisanal news product. There’s some pretty tedious work, and I sent some really weird e-mails. “Hey, we need a space between that comma,” because we want it to be pixel perfect.
What are your metrics for long-form journalism? How do you transfer those pieces from the newspaper into the app experience?
It actually works quite well for our app, because this is a lean-back experience. We’ll take those pieces that are written for the paper over the incremental updates throughout the day. Our users are looking for that kind of media material. They have the time to spend. If you’ve got someone who is spending 30 minutes in your app, they’ve got time to read it. We’re seeing those pieces do really well over the quick-hit blog post.
Digital demands all shapes and forms. It just does. There is a place for all kinds of work, which is the nice thing. The problem comes in when you try to shove it in the wrong places.
Because it’s Kindle, these are book readers, people that spend a lot of time that way. We built this offline reading feature so all the content’s there on an airplane. I freakishly sat next to someone coming home from South by Southwest, and took no less than 40 pictures of her because she was on the Kindle app. I woke up my friend like, “A person, in the wild, on the app.” She just kept reading. I’m like, “Oh my God. She’s still reading.” Then she would show her son a story. They would read the whole thing together.
She spent the time. There is good news for long-form content in tablet and in mobile, too. Mobile is about finding the moments. When you have the moment, you’ll spend the time.
What are you learning about storytelling in that medium that might be useful to take away for other media?
A lot of our assumptions are being validated. Yes, people are going to come at these morning and evening times. 4 a.m. it really starts to pick up. By 8, 8:30, it’s peaking, and then it starts to drop back down. That’s when people are commuting. They’ve gotten to their desktop. That’s when our desktop numbers go up. Mobile stays like this all day long. People are always connected to mobile. Then the same happens in the evening. Around five o’clock, it starts to pick back up.
The time spent thing, it’s pretty dramatic. People are spending a lot of time reading. My biggest takeaway, honestly, is that you really have to spend the time to custom create the tops of these stories. I always say, “Tell and sell the story.” It might not matter on the Web so much, but here it does. When we take the time to write the right kind of headline and pull the right kinds of photos, or do the right news illustration, it makes a difference in people spending their time.
It’s not a place that a lot of people can be, because it’s somewhat of a luxury. I think the pendulum is swinging back a bit on spending time producing stories in a way that engages a user. It’s not just “Here’s a lot of words.” There can be a lot of words, but let’s mix it up with something interesting to pull the reader through it.
How involved is the big boss, Jeff Bezos, in these discussions about the app?
He is heavily invested in the creative development of these things, but we have the autonomy to develop this app ourselves. There was a big vision: Create a daily habit off of the tablet.
The first meeting I ever had with that guy, he came to the newspaper right before the sale went through and met with just the editorial team. Didn’t meet with tech or anyone else. I was the only digital person in this room with 30 or 40 people and Jeff Bezos. He was talking about the reason he bought the paper. It was an open discussion. He kept saying the words, “Disaggregated.” “News is unbundled.” “Tablet.” “Newspaper.” “Tablet.”
My first thought is, “Tablets? Cool. Those are for an older demographic and babies.” That was my concept of tablets. And I have a room littered with tablets. I have a million tablets. I work in mobile. But it’s not a device that I really understood. I have my great phone, and now it’s this phablet world where it’s even bigger. Why do I need a tablet? I have my laptop.
There was a high-level vision that was set out very, very early on. “Solve it. Figure it out on the tablet. Rebundle it. Put it together and make it work beautifully, create daily habit. Highly engaged users.” We came up with the product ourselves, and maybe I just drank the Kool-Aid, I don’t know. But the tablet really is a great device for consuming news this way.