DMA: Stardust from Ma and Bezos lights up a tech future

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Star act at today's opening of the Digital Media Asia conference in Singapore was in fact two acts with a common denominator - billionaire bosses.

And for one of them - Gary Liu, appointed chief executive of Jack Ma's South China Morning Post at the start of this year - the stardust kept flowing into the evening when team members collected a swag of this year's Asian Digital Awards.

Earlier, "outsider" Liu outlined the priorities and privileges of his role transforming the Hong Kong-based newspaper into a modern digitally-focussed business. Two notable changes - dedicating a team of 27 to the print edition to free up the rest for digital and remove the latter's role as a "staging point" for content, and changing the whole pace and nature of reviews - are notable: Quarterly goal-setting and weekly copy performance reviews "push the narrative of speed" while retaining the precision, while the print separation has helped to "dramatically change what our digital output should look like".

Prompted by moderator Victoria Ho of Mashable, he outlined tech stacks including the customized Méthode CMS and Drupal-based front end, and told how the tech team had been grown from 20 to 140 in 12 months. "If you are not a product and tech company, you'll be increasingly irrelevant... and that's bad for the world."

In fact, it's the decision to remove the paywall which has attracted most attention since Alibaba chief Jack Ma acquired the 113-year-old publisher, but Liu says it isn't permanent: "Trust is earned," he says, "and when we've earned it we will experiment with paywalls again."

And from what he admits is a privileged role working for a billionaire owner, he says the luxury of time before a paywall is resumed "down the road" is one than must not be squandered.

Ads will look different in a product mix which includes subscriptions, data, events and niche products, and Liu says that some of the editorial content he has most admired (citing Netflix's Coconomics in the WSJ as an example) has turned out to be native advertising. The "moral backbone and ethics of place" however determine that it should never be confused with front-page news.

On the Google-Facebook duopoly, he eschews the blame game and urges, "friend or enemy, we just have to work with them".

Liu's assertion that the focus should be on smartphone-active Generation Zers - "millennials are in their 30s now" - and the advantage enjoyed by managers who had children in the nine-to-13 age bracket, was also an apt introduction to the next speaker. Shailesh Prakash, chief information officer of Amazon boss Jeff Bezos' Washington Post, has one of each.

His quick-fire list of the mostly ML-based technologies which have emerged from the publisher, was also an ad for its Arc Publishing division: "Everything you see here is for sale," he added, pointing out that with clients such as the LA Times and Toronto Globe & Mail, "you can attract a better class of engineer".

Prakash says very few publishers do both journalism and tech well, but asserts that "it's easier for us to improve the way we do tech, than for the tech companies to do journalism".

His toolkit includes:

Clavis, an audience-targetting tool which sorts and matches content so that relevant advertising and branded content can be placed near it;

Virality, a Bezos initiative which tries to predict which stories will go viral, and ensures that resources are directed to optimise their success - "people focus on things to fix, and tend to forget to double down on what's working," the Amazon boss told him;

The Bandito algorithm, a set-and-forget "multi-armed bandit" for content variation testing which goes way past A-B testing;

Headliner - still in the labs - which suggests headline options; and

Heliograf, a "storytelling agent" which started its career at the Olympics and has moved on to other areas including college sports.

Catch phrases include speed of execution, "no sacred cows", "debate but commit" (and then no undermining), and the new embrace for "lead measures v lag measures", the latter a focus on areas which can be influenced or changed.

A WaPo bot also crawls competitor sites and rates how riveting their content is.

The investment in 300-400 engineers (against 700 jouralists) is something "we have to do", Prakash says, adding that it helps that Bezos owns the business: "It's always good to have a billionaire (boss)," he says.

Pictured: Gary Liu with Victoria Ho

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