Secrets to becoming the next media disruptor from HuffPo CTO John Pavley

Photo courtesy of John Pavley

While traditional media outlets wring their hands and issue alarming reports about slipping ad dollars and loss of audience shares, web-based publications like The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed are not-so-quietly taking over as viral news sites and redefining the behavior of a successful news publisher.

At the helm of such a major shift in news dissemination are the few folks who can stand on the crux of engineering / software development and editorial prowess and see the future. Huffington Post’s Chief Technology Officer John Pavley, an alum of Spotify and Apple among other tech companies, is one such individual.

Between managing all things tech at the sixth most trafficked U.S. news site and creating articles and drawings for HuffPo, Pavley took time to chat with Ebyline about leading HuffPo into the newsroom of the future, and the trends ahead. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.

What’s the newsroom dynamic like at the Huffington Post?

There isn’t a wall. There’s no [physical] wall between the technology team and the edit team. And there also isn’t a cultural wall. There isn’t this idea that [as an editor] you have to go to tech and beg for your work to get done or that if you go to [the editorial department] they’re not going to listen to you because you’re just a techie.

We encourage every single developer to take editorial training. And we encourage every editor to learn enough technology training that they feel comfortable to have a great discussion with an engineer. So it’s not like one side talking down to the other. They’re meeting as equal partners.

With all of this collaboration, is any side in charge?

We like to think of ourselves as editorial lead. So we focus very much on ‘What are the needs of our editors? What are the needs of our consumers?’ There certainly are technical needs as well in terms of scalability and performance. But one of the most important things to us is that our editors have the tools and the data that they need to execute their jobs. We’re a very flat organization.

As chief technology officer at HuffPo, what do you focus on most?

I hire really great people. That’s my number one focus is to bring on board fantastic talent… You can have a great process, you can have a great product, but if you don’t have a great team, all that falls down.

Number two is efficiency. I spend my days and nights, when I’m not recruiting people to build really great products, I sit down and think about ‘Are we doing as well as we can? What is preventing us from really knocking it out of the park every time?’

And then technology. I look at are we using really great modern technology to build our applications and our backend systems and our data analysis and our data collection systems? Are we using technologies that are really giving us huge return on investment, that are low-maintenance and that allow our developers to make changes very rapidly without creating a lot of technical debt?

John Pavley

 

What are some trends you have your eye on this year?

There’s a whole new world out there and we really have to take mobile seriously. It’s not web on smaller devices. We’re flipping to mobile much quicker than we thought and this has huge impacts in how we monetize with ads because ads are optimized for the web, they’re not really optimized for mobile devices. It has huge consequences for our content: our content was not meant to be read on a device that you carry in your pocket or walk around with in your hand—it was meant to be read while sitting at your desk and you have a cup of coffee in your hand and you’re going to read a huge two-, three-thousand-word article.

Another trend is people are increasingly impatient. They don’t want to wait for comments to be moderated, they don’t want to wait for facts to be checked. They want to know what’s going on in the world right now. They’re no longer accommodating their life to the schedule of the newspaper or the television network. It’s all on-demand and in real time.

The third thing that I’m excited about is that all of these mobile devices are getting more deeply embedded into our daily lives and there are apps out there that can help us lead happier and healthier lives on a mobile device that I carry with me wherever I go.

Any examples of this from Huffington Post?

At Huffington Post we have something called GPS for the Soul where I can actually measure my pulse through the phone’s camera and try to come up with an idea for how stressed I am and it will give me breathing exercises. I have another app called Move where basically it figures out if I’m sitting still or walking and figures out if I’ve been too sedentary. I think this is a huge trend.

I don’t think a media company now can just sit back and say ‘here’s the news’… Now we can actually be part of the solution.

What’s been the biggest surprise working at the Huffington Post?

Well I hadn’t worked with journalists before. I have to say the most amazing thing for me was meeting and working with journalists and understanding their process and understanding their thinking.

I would also say that I was surprised at the level of technology behind the Huffington Post until I got here… We have machine-learning algorithms that are pre-moderating content; we have recommendation systems. We have heat maps on our front page that tell us in real time what users are looking at and what they’re ignoring. So we have a lot of really great solutions already and I felt like ‘wow, this is a really great technology organization.’

What’s the biggest challenge about your work at Huffington Post?

Our biggest challenge continues to be scale… When you have the kind of growth that we have, solutions that worked for 500 people don’t work for 5,000 people or 5 million people so with each order of magnitude you have to go back and refactor your systems.

So, how do you become the next Huffington Post?

There are key things that any startup has to do which are, number one, keep your overhead low. Make sure that everybody can code… everyone needs to be on equal footing. You have to have a very clear vision of what you want to accomplish but you have to be able to pivot at a moment’s notice. You know, run with it. You can’t fall too much in love with your own creation.

Particularly in the media world, you really have to think six to twelve months ahead of the rest of the world.

The Huffington Post is very disruptive… We’ve disrupted print journalism newspapers with what started out as a blog and has become a recognized leader, a recognized organization of journalism. A lot of our practices in the beginning were kind of looked down upon. But now there was this article that just came out that said ‘everyone is the Huffington Post now.’ It literally said that.

Every news organization has to do what the Huffington Post did in terms of SEO and social and content in order to be successful. That’s really great but if you’re a startup you need to look past that to what the Huffington Post is going to do in six months to two years down the road.

Featured image courtesy of victoriapeckham via Creative Commons license.

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About Sarah Erickson

Sarah comes from a background in multimedia journalism and scholarly research, recently joining Ebyline as the Content Manager. She graduated from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC and is a proud Trojan. Fight on!

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