Can Vijay Ravindran and his team of technologists figure out a way to make journalism pay for itself in the Internet age?
Don Graham hopes so. His company’s flagship newspaper and its Web site have been losing money and dragging down the Washington Post Company’s profits and stock price. Free news on the Internet has undercut journalism’s business model.
“There’s no silver bullet,” Ravindran says. He’s the Post’s first “chief digital officer.” We’re in a small meeting room in the company’s executive suite four floors above the newsroom. “We have the willingness to experiment with a new mix. How do we deliver the best experience across all the cultural norms that people now expect?”
Ravindran has been on the job four months, so it’s too soon for a plan to save newspapering. But his installation in the Post Company’s upper echelon is a sign of CEO Don Graham’s willingness to experiment—and his desperation.
Graham had the vision to create Washingtonpost.com in 1996, but he failed to see that the online publishing unit would develop a separate culture. This summer, the Post is consumed by trying to merge the disparate new operations, reduce staff, and reorganize at all levels.
Ravindran, 35, is a sweet, mild-mannered geek. He grew up in Norman, Oklahoma, where his father taught industrial engineering. He graduated from the University of Virginia in 1996 and went into software development for American Management Systems.
“I cut my teeth as a programmer,” he says.
Ravindran sharpened them developing software for Amazon.com. He had seven jobs in as many years, eventually “running teams working on the guts of the Amazon platform.” He developed ways to make it easier for customers to buy more things more easily. When his wife landed a teaching job at the University of Maryland, Ravindran came east and asked: “What next?”
Democratic strategist and entrepreneur Harold Ickes helped answer the question by enlisting Ravindran to build Catalist, a national voter database for Democratic candidates and liberal organizations. From the fall of 2005 through the election of Barack Obama, Ravindran built systems for Catalist. After the election, Amazon board member—and Smithsonian board chair—Patricia Stonesifer introduced him to Graham.
“We hit it off really well,” says Ravindran. “He knew there was a strong need to innovate in the digital space and the Post had to make an investment to grow internally.”
Ravindran started February 13 and now says, “There are a lot of new faces.” He’s building a team, lunching in Graham’s dining room with staffers, meeting with publisher Katharine Weymouth and editor Marcus Brauchli. His main contacts are Geoff Reiss at Newsweek.com; Goli Sheikholeslami and Roger Andelin at Washingtonpost.com; and Raju Narisetti, Washington Post managing editor.
Good news: Ravindran delivered his first “product,” a streaming conversation for the Post Company’s online magazine, Slate, across Twitter and Facebook. The first installment was a five-part series about the use of animals in medical research. He hopes it will be one of the “kernels” to build Post revenues.
Bad news: Ravindran understands there are not enough revenues in publishing online—yet.
Don Graham hopes Ravindran can turn “yet” into tomorrow.