PressReader’s Alex Gruntsev: ‘Make innovation a part of daily life’

15 Dec 2017

PressReader is helping publishers to win online. Image: Gaudilab/Shutterstock

Innovation shouldn’t be a milestone, it should be embraced as a process as companies grow, says PressReader CIO Alex Gruntsev.

Canadian app player PressReader hit the headlines in Ireland recently when it announced the official opening of its new Dublin office, which will employ 65 people.

PressReader is a global platform that allows users to choose from more than 7,000 top-quality publications online or via an app. Its homepage and content-selection tool help users to discover content they like by directing them to stories read by users with similar tastes and interests.

‘We’re proud to be part of a stronger, healthier, global publishing industry’

Alex Gruntsev’s technical mind has turned PressReader into so much more than a digital kiosk.

He led PressReader’s groundbreaking development of the horizontal home feed, an endless stream of stories influenced by other users. He has built a digital product that’s changing how people discover content and connect through news.

Can you outline the latest technology roll-out from your organisation and what improvements it will bring to your product?

We’re always looking for more ways to improve our product. In order to create the world’s largest platform for discovering content of all kinds, not just the newspapers and magazines that are there now, we have to be thinking ahead to meet the future needs of our users.

PressReader’s Alex Gruntsev: ‘Make innovation a part of daily life’

Alex Gruntsev, chief innovation officer, PressReader. Image: PressReader

Most recently, we launched home feeds and user channels on our mobile apps. These features have been live on our desktop platform for a while, but now they’re transforming PressReader’s mobile experience, moving it further away from a simple newspaper and magazine kiosk, to a true content-discovery platform.

Our home feed delivers an endless stream of content from more than 7,000 newspapers and magazines, pushing the most relevant stories to any individual reader to the top. User channels help readers organise content they like and share their own collections with followers. It’s all about discovery.

We work closely with thousands of business partners around the world who sponsor access to PressReader for all of their customers. These new features reinforce our position as a global leader in providing personalised experiences for customers of all kinds.

What are some of the main responsibilities of your own role, and how much of it is spent on deep technical issues compared to the management and business side?

That’s an interesting question. In the beginning, when we were building our flagship product and figuring out how it would work, how it would look, I was down in the gritty details. Then, of course, as the company grows and we secure thousands of contracts with partners around the world, it becomes about establishing a process.

It’s no longer about innovation as an event or some big milestone. It’s about seeing innovation as a process and creating the kind of environment where that happens smoothly and effectively.

What I strive to do is create a process in which dramatic innovation, new concepts, bold thinking and experimentation are common. We want to exceed expectations and give our users and partners something they didn’t know they wanted or needed.

What are your thoughts on how heads of technology should achieve their goals?

That comes back to that process, I think. A strong head of technology is able to build a process for his or her teams that makes innovation, new thinking and new ideas a part of daily life.

I think good heads of technology can set clear priorities. We’re not just adding features and sticking them on. We have to recreate architectural development, restructure the system, change it to accommodate a new feature – and it all has to happen continuously. So again, it’s about that process.

You have to be quick to determine what works and what doesn’t.

What are the main points of your company’s technology strategy?

Everything we build is centred on our mission to improve the way people discover quality content. We want to build a product that makes that discovery process easy and engaging.

It’s that mission that drives our partnerships with brands around the world. We want to make our content accessible to everyone, so we’ve built a new business model, one in which our partners – including hotels, airlines and libraries – are the bridge between readers and quality content.

There’s a lot of technical development that supports those partnerships, so it’s important for us to be flexible.

We’re also contributing to a sustainable future for publishers and creators of content. That means our technology has to deliver value to publishers and help them build an audience by making their content discoverable by new audiences around the world.

Do you have a large in-house team, or do you look to strategically outsource where possible?

We have a very talented, efficient in-house research and development department with team members from around the world. Now, with our newly opened European office in Ireland, we’re looking to build a new team that will focus on building up and enhancing our machine-learning capabilities.

The new Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement presents a really cool opportunity for us to tap into Ireland’s growing tech industry. We’re already seeing it start to pay off.

We also have a great team in Manila and a network operations centre in Vancouver that operates 24 hours a day.

What are the big trends and challenges in your sector, and how do you plan to address them?

In our sector, we see a lot of products and features being designed without a real understanding of who the user is and how the product fits into their life. The challenge is to create a regular habit among people who don’t regularly read a printed newspaper or magazine.

Everyone, including publishers and content aggregators, focuses their development efforts on emphasising the size and quality of their huge content libraries. But that doesn’t solve the user’s real problem. That kind of design forces the user to sift through mountains of content to find something they might like.

We’ve found that users share, like and comment on one set of stories while actually taking time to read and think about an entirely different set. Our product is built to tailor the experience for each user based on the actual reading behaviour of other, similar readers.

Of course, we know that people around the world are paying less money for news and magazine content. It’s also obvious that supporting content only with advertising isn’t a viable model. Google and Facebook own most of that revenue, leaving publishers to find new ways to monetise their content.

That’s why our focus on discovery is so important. The more people that read a publisher’s content on our platform, the more royalties that publisher receives. We’re proud to be part of a stronger, healthier, global publishing industry.

What other projects do you have lined up for the year, and what will they contribute to the business?

After just launching a partnership with Cathay Pacific (which integrated our mobile experience into Cathay Pacific’s own app) and opening our new European headquarters, we’re excited to create more robust channels for publishers, reporters and users. These channels will help readers discover stories from a particular journalist, or explore stories related to a particular topic.

Our brand partners will also have their own channels to publish their own messaging, which will reach users who get access sponsored by that partner. Plus, our gifting feature will let our brand partners send full issues of magazines or newspapers to their customers, keeping them connected long after they’ve left the hotel or airline or library.

It’s all really all about making PressReader more interactive, more inclusive and more intuitive.

How is your organisation preparing for GDPR?

GDPR will become law and any company that works with user data will need to be compliant.

As much as we support data protection principles, we do have questions about whether or not some part of GDPR may inhibit tech progress. Having said that, we are preparing and will be in full compliance by the time GDPR enters into force.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years