by Edward Qualtrough

News International CIO aims to be multimedia giant in the cloud

May 14, 20139 mins
Cloud ComputingIT LeadershipIT Strategy

News International CIO Chris Taylor wants to move all the company’s infrastructure to the cloud to help drive their transformation from a “great newspaper company to a multimedia giant”.

“Our target is to have 100 per cent of our infrastructure in the cloud,” Taylor told CIO UK in an in-depth discussion following his guest appearance during Amazon CTO Werner Vogel’s keynote at last month’s Amazon Web Services Summit.

“We’re currently running at around 25 per cent and the target is to be at 75 per cent in the next two years.

“Three years ago we were a great newspaper company, but the board decided we needed to be a great multimedia company. And the cloud was going to be at its heart with AWS.”

Taylor joined News International two years ago and assumed the role as CIO in November 2012 when his predecessor Paul Cheesbrough was appointed CTO of parent company News Corporation in the US to report directly to CEO Rupert Murdoch.

Taylor explained he joined News International as he was convinced by their commitment to IT. Other organisations “spoke a good game about technology”. And now Taylor himself is charged with helping drive their transformation.

“The cloud is a key part to transforming a modern business,” he said.

“With our SaaS [software-as-a-service] we’re using Google Apps and Salesforce. With IaaS, we’re 90 per cent virtualised on around 600 virtual machines with 25 per cent running through AWS.

“This was born from the gap between our software teams and systems engineers. It could take up to six weeks to change the infrastructure to give our developers the tools they needed.

“We needed a fast, scalable infrastructure that allowed us to adapt to change quickly, and which also reduced our datacentre footprint significantly, and we had to avoid things that lock you in for years and need on-premise infrastructure.

Indeed, it was reported earlier this year that the publishing arm of News Corporation has 17 main data centres, as well as numerous smaller machine rooms – but that News International was seeking to consolidate down to six data centres with two each in the UK, US and Australia.

At the time the company’s head of infrastructure and cloud Ian McDonald said that it was a cost-driven move which was expected to save News International £10 million.

Mobility and BYOD

“If we have people consuming news on or selling subscriptions on the iPad, our journalists need to be using iPads. If we want readers to follow us on Twitter, our journalists need to be all over Twitter – and really the cloud is at the heart of this.”

Taylor explained News International’s approach to supplying their staff with consumer technology, a similar strategy to that Google CIO Ben Fried discussed with CIO UK earlier in the year about empowering his staff with the technology they needed to get the job done.

Taylor said: “We give our staff access to all mobile devices. There’s a tech bar near the canteen which has all the latest devices, training and support for our staff.

“We also have a good relationship with Apple. Most of our staff are now choosing Apple devices; we have about a third of our staff using Apple desktops and laptops.

“iPads are used across the organisation. Initially we issued the devices to the staff who needed them most, and following that offered a subsidised staff purchase scheme and now nearly all of our 3,000 permanent employees have iPads.

“We support all BYOD – staff can log on to a VPN with a four-digit pin. We allow all access to corporate email although we have to have the ability to remote wipe the device.

“But we have completely weaned ourselves off BlackBerry,” he said.

News worth paying for

Taylor spoke in detail about some of the projects underway at News International, including the infamous Times paywall. “But we don’t talk about a paywall,” he said. “We prefer to say ‘content worth paying for’.

“We needed to create a powerful access control system to tackle the issues of gated content for The Times and Sunday Times digital subscribers – a system that needed flexibility because of the numbers of permutations involved.

Taylor explained that in order to attract more readers to its content and grow its digital subscriber base, News International wanted to allow sharing and free access to content under certain circumstances and on a piece-by-piece basis. For example, it might be opened up to shares on certain social networks or to the first 100 readers.

He said that the publisher looked to Amazon, which gave News International access to a pre-release version of its NoSQL database DynamoDB.

“At that point DynamoDB wasn’t released,” Taylor said. “We explained our requirements and that that there wasn’t a product on the market for us to use. We were one of the first two companies to be working with it, and the second to launch a live product.”

Another major project for Taylor is an attempt to create search tools that will allow access to almost 250 years of digital content from The Times, which is migrating over to AWS CloudSearch.

“There are hundreds of millions of pieces of digital content in the archives dating back to the 18th century, but it needs to be searchable and usable. It’s being restructured on to Amazon, we need access to that kind of horsepower,” Taylor said.

“It is a massive resource, and while the majority of it is digitised, it is very hard to access and manipulate in any kind of real-time way.”

Big Data

Despite News International controversial decision to put The Times paywall up in June 2010, the newspaper still serves adverts and Taylor hinted at the strategy which the company believes is more in tune with its readership than dropping tracking cookies.

“We’ve been able to mine our users for insight. We’ve been able to display highly personal adverts based on what our users have been reading, rather than just which other websites they’ve been on.

“We also to performed some split testing to find out which are the best methods for getting subscribers,” Taylor said.

The Timestrialled three separate subscription landing pages with either a picture of devices, the faces of the columnists, and a third with a clear price listing.

“We expected the faces of our columnists to drive the most subscribers, when in fact it was the picture of the devices, which is what we least expected. In the end, showing our readers where they could access our content from for their subscription turned out to be the best method.

“And this all came from our user experience officer, a role which falls in the technology department.”

Indeed, Taylor said that he runs an IT team of 250 permanent staff and around 100 contractors at any one time, in addition to an infrastructure management outsource of around 45.

Agility and goals

Other subscription-based projects at News International have involved cloud computing.

Historically, Taylor said, the newspaper industry has always had an arms-length relationship with its readers and subscribers; that was always the role of the post office or local news agent.

“But now with the internet and ‘news worth paying for’ we’re more at the forefront on this.

“We built a customer subscription management system entirely with Salesforce. It’s been a two-year effort, taking a year to get up and running and we’ve been running improvements for a year.

“Again we needed to be agile, to be able to test and refine but also it needed to be business as usual while selling subscriptions directly.

“You might have to dodge a few arrows along the way, but you need be agile and to be able to learn throughout the process.”

CIO responsibilities

As our time with Taylor drew to a close, he explained a couple of his strategic goals at News International, one which is shortly going to be implemented.

“We’re creating a multi-platform news room, one that isn’t just paper-centric. We have multiple content management systems, but print still comes first. We need something where you can produce content once and publish it to multiple channels.

“It’s going to be opening with The Times soon, followed by The Sunday Times six months later and subsequently The Sun another six months after that, with the goal of having platform agnostic content.

“And the one thing I really want to crack is digital advertising on tablet and smartphone products. Problems like how do you serve an interactive package when someone might be on the underground for 30 minutes and completely unable to download a video ad?”

As well as being impressed with News International’s attitude towards technology before joining the organisation, he gave the impression of not having been let down in the slightest. He meets several times a week with CEO Mike Darcey, and with the board once a week to formally discuss business decisions.

While Taylor is scheduled to have one-on-one meetings with Darcey twice weekly, he said that these are invariably re-arranged because they have so much proximity as it is, while he also chairs News International’s monthly digital review.

When we met at the end of April, Taylor also said that he’d been with News Corporation founder, chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch just a few weeks previously. “He’s a very actively-engaged in technology, a very hands-on guy and even hosts a News Corp tech summit with vendors,” Taylor said of the 82-year-old media mogul.

“At other companies tech was less important,” he said. “I was CIO at Emap, a B2B media company, where I reported to the CFO and technology at the company was entirely cost led. But the nature of the company was to cut costs, so technology had to fit that mould.

“Here I feel that to lead a technology organisation with a seat at the board, you need to earn your seat there every day.

“First you have to make sure the core technology of the organisation is solid and performing, and then focus on transformation – making sure you are going after the big projects.

“And being a CIO is also about brokering relationships with different arms of the organisation, it’s an exercise in diplomacy making sure that editorial, sales and marketing, commercial and technology departments are all in line.”