PRIVACY BEAT EXTRA
Washington Post, with more than 500 engineers, likely to field ‘Zeus Pass’ and ad marketplace similar to Google and Facebook, top technologist says
By Bill Densmore
The Washington Post has built a multi-publisher, shared-subscription system in its tech labs — one of three components of its digital advertising suite of tools called Zeus — and is considering deploying a “Zeus Pass” to allow users to sign in once and get access to multiple publications in the Zeus network, the paper’s chief technologist says.
“That essentially gives you a single sign on (SSO) across Zeus sites,” says Shailesh Prakash. “Is there a market where you sell not just the subscription bundle, but single articles? My answer to that is from a technology perspective, I want to do it, we will probably end up doing it. We have stuff working in the lab already.” He isn’t sure, however, the public wants to buy articles “per click.”
Besides countering possible consumer unwillingness to buy per click, a network subscription based approach led by The Post would raise business-rules questions, Prakash said, since the paper is not just a technology provider but also a pre-eminent national and aspiring world news producer.
Standing as the Washington Post, he asks: “Am I really an independent retailer in that equation? . . . Doesn’t The Post want to grow its subscribers in the Dallas area? . . . . How is that going to work? Where does the data go?” But the fact those questions need to be tackled and resolved shouldn’t hold back experimentation, he feels.
Prakash, The Post’s CIO and EVP, also envisions a premium-content, multi-publisher ad network driven by the Post’s “Zeus” technology — a “marketplace” aimed to be similar to the ad-tech services of Google and Facebook.
Prakash signaled interest in network content payments during an 80-minute web interview last week with ITEGA Privacy Beat and Randy Picht, executive director of the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. Privacy Beat reached out to Prakash, who has led The Post’s technology efforts — now involving more than 500 engineers — for almost a decade under Post owner (and Amazon Inc. founder) Jeffrey P. Bezos and CEO Fred Ryan. Prakash says he speaks regularly with Bezos.
MORE EXPLORATION OF CONTENT PAYMENTS
During the interview discussion about the “Zeus Pass” concept, Prakash indicated at least understanding and perhaps support for a payment system in which each content provider has the ability to set the price of their content offered to a system at wholesale, with billing agents allowed to apply a retail markup. The idea of such dynamic pricing is to some extent what already happens in programmatic advertising.
Prakash took note of “Scroll” a single-account access pass to multiple publisher’s websites — with ads deleted. “You get paid based on how much of the consumer’s attention you got,” says Prakash of Scroll. “And the reason I think that’s . . . a very difficult business model,” he added, [is] simply because if you compare it to the AppleNews+ world, they have the advantage of the platform . . . whereas to build a destination, that is trickier.”
A few years ago, The Post suggested to regional newspapers that they adopt Post technology and look-and-feel for their own website, and then drop-in local news and features. He said the local publishers didn’t like the loss of branding. As well, some Post executives worried about “giving away” Post content not from its own site, even though the paper has syndicated its news for decades.
“When you go to the next step of, ‘I’m the market maker for content as well,’ then I think the lines begin to blur,” said Prakash. “And so to basically answer your basic question, do we want to do it? Yes, absolutely. Do I think the business model will be tricky to sort of get aligned with all the different players in there, and therefore make it a big enough marketplace to make sense? I think that’s a little premature, but it may come to pass. Let us see.”
MANAGING EMAIL IDENTITY — WHO CONTROLS?
Prakash acknowledges the trend of the ad-tech and publishing industries to encourage more users to “log-in” with their email address, phone number or other unique identifier, such as Unified ID 2.0, which The Post embraces. But he says the challenge is to create incentives for them to do so, and also be clear about how their personal information is going to be used or shared. The login action is an improvement over the opaque use of third-party cookies, he says.
Google’s World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) discussion about having advertising targeting controlled inside individual user’s web browsing software seems initially to Prakash a good idea since it is a trend toward “decentralization” and avoids putting information about user preferences in a single, potentially hackable database, or spread (as in the current case) among an uncountable number of data-scraping companies.
The “log-in” approach underlies such initiatives as The Trade Desk’s Unified ID 2.0, which is to be operated by PreBid.org Inc., an ad-industry nonprofit. Prakash’s understanding is that such a system will not share an open email address or even the same encrypted identifier, among multiple players; only the user’s “home base” will have the real email.
But that raises a trust question, he noted. Suppose the email address holder is Apple (which already has deployed an proxy-email system), will Apple be trusted? What if it is someone else? “I think Apple is a privacy-centric company,” he says. “I think their heart is in the right place. But at the end of the day, Apple knows who you are. So it’s basically you’re trusting a central company, rather than trusting 15 players who might want to do whatever they want with that [email].”
Today, The Washington Post allows its users to login with federated SSO’s offered by Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon — in addition to a Post credential. “And it’s in our best interest as The Washington Post to cast as wide a net as possible,” says Prakash. “But when we are talking from the perspective of Zeus, of course, I want to be the gatekeeper of that identity.” And, he said, he would want to control data about that user, too.
EIGHT ADDITIONAL POINTS
Besides more exploration of content payments, and considerations about who controls email addresses and user “identity”, the Prakash interview ranged across at least 10 topics and points:
- A coming component of Zeus ad platform, dubbed “Zeus Insights,” will begin to focus on identity to apply machine learning that will put “highly, highly relevant” ads in front of viewers. With that and other enhancements to Zeus, he says, “My hope is that it is truly something like what Google offers or Facebook offers. Because we will not just offer technology, we want to build a marketplace for this ad ecosystem.”
- To concerns about the news industry being dominated by one tech platform such as The Post’s Arc/Zeus combination, Prakash says three years ago he thought that would be fine, but he no longer does. His reason: He doesn’t think The Post can serve the needs or budgets of smaller publishers or broadcasters.
- The web’s advertising-technology system of real-time bidding is “very opaque, very complex” even for a career-long engineer, Prakash says. “Header bidding can turn your hair gray, trying to understand how that ecosystem works, and how cross-site tracking moves around and what pixels do what.”
- News organizations are culturally better equipped to manage content than tech platforms, but to do so they have to get control of their own technology, Prakash feels. He recalls making that case as Bezos considering buying The Post in 2013 and Bezos heartily endorsing it. As a result, The Post keeps adding engineers with another 100 or more hires planned during 2021. The Post seeks to be a tech provider, however, to smaller news organizations without engineering teams.
- It will be a long time before computer algorithms are able to “write” a complicated news account, beyond game sports, election results or stock movements, said Prakash. Platform efforts to manage false information posting illustrates. “In fact,” he said, “Some of the algorithms, I think, in the big-tech companies have gotten so complex that they themselves don’t understand how it works.” Also, The Post’s brand would suffer, he thinks, if readers were to learn they were paying not for the insights of reporters, but of algorithms.
- The Post’s Arc publishing system is now used on 1,500 websites, with the non-publishing segment targeted for growth. Increasingly, retailers and other businesses are effectively becoming niche publishers in their own fields and need tools to manage. Arc handles 1.5 billion unique visitors per month and runs on the Amazon Web Services cloud.
- Platforms such as Google, Facebook and Apple often don’t give The Post “enough insight” on how Post content is playing inside their proprietary services. “What we get, when we get it from the platforms, is very different from what we see on our own platforms. So then we are always left wondering, is our content consumed so differently on that other platform that it contradicts everything we see on our site? Or is there something going on here in terms of how it’s measured, what the definition of a page view is? So it’s a very confusing story.”