Some years ago, the people behind the Israeli newspaper Haaretz came to a simple but powerful conclusion. “We realized that we were more than just the printed edition,” says Inon Gershovitz, Chief Technology Officer at the news organization. “When we took a good look at what our readers wanted and how they were consuming our news, we saw that our online presence is just as important as the physical newspaper. We were one of the first news organizations in Israel to see that.” That insight would transform the way Haaretz served its readers.
The rapid changes in the media environment have seen many traditional newspapers around the world decline as their circulations and subscriptions plummet in the age of digital media, social networks, and new, hungry competitors. But Haaretz, Israel’s longest-running newspaper, established in 1918, chose to flip the “old media” narrative and embrace the potential of the internet early on. That commitment to innovation has seen the company not just survive but thrive and continue to be a leading news provider with global recognition.
“We’re known for having the highest standards of quality. Both in terms of news and the experience we give to our readers,” says Gershovitz. Haaretz was one of the first newspapers in Israel to switch to a paywall for its news, and a model that relies on subscriptions from engaged, loyal readers, rather than just advertising revenues.
But building a reader-first model has not been easy. Haaretz has had to continually invest in a technology infrastructure that can handle the scale of its ambitions.
Building a digital news operation
Building a high-quality digital news experience is not simply a matter of putting everything on a website. In addition to the print edition, Haaretz distributes its three publications—the Hebrew edition, the English language edition in collaboration with the International New York Times, and the business-focused daily TheMarker—across six different digital platforms, optimizing to suit mobile and desktop readers alike.
While Haaretz’s on-premises infrastructure had served the company well in the early stages of its digital revolution, it had its limits. By the late 2010s, scalability was an issue as its online presence and digital operations grew. “If I had to get a new server in to meet demand, it would take as long as three weeks to order, install and configure,” explains Gershovitz. That meant the website could suffer if a sudden breaking news event caused traffic to spike.
With the old infrastructure, IT staff were responsible for maintaining and managing the servers, as well as developing the product. This led to stability issues that slowed development and could even affect the readers’ experience. Also, the move to a paywall model had placed more emphasis on marketing and sales. If subscriptions were to increase, Haaretz needed a more sophisticated business intelligence platform with the latest data analytics tools.
Haaretz saw that the existing on-premises infrastructure was reaching its limits and when Gershovitz became CTO in July, 2018 one of his first moves was to investigate a cloud-based infrastructure. He knew that for scalability on demand, Haaretz needed to move away from a monolithic infrastructure to a microservices-based solution, based on Kubernetes, the open source container technology developed at Google.
After narrowing his options down to two solutions, Gershovitz chose Google Cloud because of its maturity with Kubernetes, its superior data tools, and his experience with the technical team. “It was easy to find people with genuine expertise at Google Cloud,” explains Gershovitz. “They weren’t just technical experts. They were also knowledgeable about the needs of our business and how we could use their solution to reach our goals.
“My role is to make sure that my team has the best available technology. We didn’t just want a cloud-based infrastructure to replace our existing solution. We wanted a platform that would help us scale, grow our data capabilities, and look to the future. For us, that was Google Cloud.”
Moving beyond on-premises infrastructure
To minimize disruption to the platform, Haaretz migrated to Google Cloud in stages. The first stage involved a lift-and-shift of the website to virtual machines managed with Compute Engine, along with a migration of the Content Management System data to Cloud SQL databases and Cloud Storage buckets.
Next, Haaretz embarked on its more ambitious second phase, building its new data analytics platform and refactoring its technology stack around microservices and Kubernetes.
Google Kubernetes Engine (GKE) is the heart of the new infrastructure, allowing Haaretz to scale quickly and easily without worrying about managing hardware. “Google Kubernetes Engine has been transformational for us,” says Gershovitz. “It’s easy to use, highly scalable, and we can run our whole technology stack with it. It improved both our front and back ends.”
BigQuery forms the backbone of the new data platform, serving as both data warehouse and analytics tool, while Dataflow helps with processing. Haaretz also uses Looker in conjunction with BigQuery for enhanced business intelligence insight. “With BigQuery and Looker, we can collect and analyze more data, more quickly, for more powerful insights,” explains Gershovitz. “We can serve our readers better than we ever could with an on-premises infrastructure.”
Enhancing the reader experience, growing the subscription base
With Google Cloud, Haaretz has built an infrastructure designed first and foremost for its readers. The most noticeable improvement has been to the digital product, which runs faster and more smoothly than ever before, thanks to the scalability and reliability of Google Kubernetes Engine. Now, during important news events, if it needs more resources, Haaretz can add more instances in a few minutes instead of waiting weeks to install new servers.
And, behind the customer-facing parts of Haaretz, the company has made huge strides with data analytics and business intelligence. Such insights have led to a steady increase in subscriptions, a result of more relevant content directed at readers and automated responses to get people to purchase subscriptions. “We can really personalize our content in a way that we couldn’t before,” says Gershovitz. “BigQuery and Looker really allow us to make the best use of the information we have and understand and respond to the needs of our subscribers.”
Moving to Google Cloud has also made life easier for Haaretz’s IT staff, who no longer have to shoulder the burden of managing infrastructure. Instead, they can concentrate on core business tasks and spend their time testing and bettering the product for an improved reader experience. An added bonus has been the ease with which Google Cloud assigns permissions, allowing the company to democratize data for non-technical departments, such as sales and marketing.
But the quest for perfection is never complete, and Haaretz is constantly searching for new tools and new ways to improve its product. It is now working on redesigning its CMS architecture to make it work better with Kubernetes, for an even smoother online experience. And, now that its data platform is bedded in, the company is ready to explore the range of machine learning and AI tools that Google Cloud offers. “We’re really looking forward to getting our hands dirty with tools such as TensorFlow and the suite of AI tools,” says Gershovitz. “That’s our next big step with Google Cloud.”