The Politics of Digital Publishing: Ryan Mannion of Politico

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The challenges to those enterprises in the political news publishing vertical are unique – particularly on the technical side. Website Magazine asked a few questions of Ryan Mannion, the CTO of Politico on his own responsibilities managing one of the largest political-focused digital destinations on the Web, where within his enterprises' IT investment is focused, about industry growth trends he and Politico are witnessing, and how to scale from a technical perspective.


WM: What are your official responsibilities as the CTO of Politico? Perhaps explain a day, week or month.

My role as CTO depends on the month, week or project. A big part of what makes POLITICO an exciting place to work is the number of hats that everyone wears.

I arrived at Allbritton Communications, POLITICO’s parent company, about eight months prior to POLITICO’s January 2007 launch. With the help of one other developer, I built POLITICO.com from scratch in a period of about seven weeks. My role now is considerably different. As the team has grown over the years, my responsibilities also have grown.

Currently, my core duties include being responsible for a team of 22 people, consisting of web and mobile developers, designers, system administrators, project managers and IT managers. Other responsibilities include making key decisions about where to invest our technology budget (mobile, cloud, data, etc.); idea creation and incubation, both on the architecture side and the product side; and making key contributions to our entire product line, including POLITICO.com, our mobile apps, and our subscription service, POLITICO Pro.

One of the main areas of focus for me is allowing people to excel at their strengths. I empower the people on my team by giving them the opportunity to make decisions. This concept works well when you have a highly-skilled staff who are not only good at execution, but who also are good at formulating of a number of innovations we take to market.

In what ways has Politico invested in IT over the past five years? Infrastructure, new products, etc.

Over the past five years, POLITICO has invested heavily in native mobile apps, the use of Amazon’s cloud infrastructure, as well as our DR and website portability. We still have a long way to go on sharpening each of these items, but we’ve come leaps and bounds from where we were a few years ago. Our focus will remain the same from a technology standpoint for the next couple of years. We operate under the premise that we want our content accessible and formatted for the new devices that hit the market.

In early 2011, we launched a subscription-based product called POLITICO Pro. This was POLITICO’s first venture into paid subscriptions – which was met with great success. We recently made the decision to forgo native mobile apps for Pro and instead put our resources into HTML 5 and responsive design.

The beauty of this solution is, it’s device agnostic – meaning it not only formats for all devices, but it also doesn’t degrade the user experience or content availability. The decision to go with a responsive design enables us to keep one code base for web and mobile, allowing us to release more frequently, with lower costs and resource utilization.

Are there further opportunities for growth and if so, what trends is Politico acting on now to position itself for success in the future?

As far as growth is concerned, we are continuing to focus on our tablet and mobile efforts, both natively and by using HTML5 and other tools that allow us to make the best use of our resources while keeping costs in mind. Also, we have recently expanded POLITICO Pro to seven content verticals, up from the original three. In the future, look for more customization, further use of push technology, additional platform availability and an increased effort on our video front with both on-demand and live programming.

We also can’t ignore social media as an area of growth. We are continuing to invest in best practices and techniques for optimizing our use of social media, which we’ve seen significant growth in over the past few years. Many of the editorial lessons learned for increasing time on site and website growth also apply to social media.

Where would you suggest other digital enterprises focus their resources if the expectation is to scale up their presence?

My advice to other digital enterprises that have expectations of scaling up its presence is to focus on content. As the old saying goes, “Content is king.” Create a product that people want to read. If you already have a great product, then you should look at the resources you have available to you and weigh your options.

If you are resource restricted but want a web, tablet and mobile presence, I would seriously take a look at responsive web design. This will cut down your costs and provide the best experience to your users. An example of a well done responsive design (other than POLITICO Pro) is the Boston Globe. The Globe has done an amazing job and was one of the first media companies to accomplish this practice on a major website.

Not that this should be any surprise, but I would also focus heavily on building social networks, getting as many followers as possible and reaching them at least 18 hours a day, as people tend to have staggered reading habits. Additionally, I would increase the number of posts during the heavy reading times (noon, 6-7pm and 10-11pm). Again, if you are resource restricted, there are tools available to do this via Facebook (internal) and Twitter, through HootSuite or others.

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