Is it finally time for media companies to adopt a common publishing platform? » Nieman Journalism Lab

Nov. 20, 2018, 12:48 p.m.

Media companies are each independently trying to solve the same technical problems, rather than focusing on competing with Facebook. Is the usual answer to “buy or build?” changing?

One of the most important lessons I learned as Vice’s chief technology officer was that while the operational needs of the company might feel unique, fundamentally those needs were no different from any other media company. Put another way, while our content was different from other media companies, our business processes and systems didn’t need to be.

This was applicable to business systems like our ERP and CRM — but equally so to our digital publishing platform.

Given this reality, why had we at Vice — like so many other media companies — built rather than bought our publishing platform? The answer is that, until recently, we didn’t have a viable “buy” option. All-in-one CMS/platforms like Drupal, CQ, and WordPress suffered from design limitations and a perception that they would be slow to adapt to changes in web technology. So most media companies choose to build their own proprietary platforms and content management systems.

Today, though, the commercial market for publishing platforms is maturing, and “buy” is finally becoming a viable option. I don’t suggest “buy” casually, as I spent more than seven years building an international-first platform for Vice that was best in class. It spanned more than 12 brands and was used by offices in 35 countries. But the rationale I used for building rather than buying 10 years ago was predicated on a user experience and platform market that is dramatically different in 2018.

For the media industry as a whole, the stakes are high: If companies can set aside their (considerable) differences and use a single publishing platform, they could collectively mount a winning fight against Facebook.

How we got here

When I first built in 2001, its primary purpose was to reproduce the print version of Vice Magazine and to provide contact details to buy print ads. We optimized the site for dialup modems and 640×480 screens.

By 2005, with broadband penetration and screen sizes growing — and more time being spent online — media companies started to seriously invest in their online properties. But with little understanding of the new KPIs — uniques, pageviews, and time on site — and few reliable ways to compare one site to another, media companies did what they do best: They built out experiences that mirrored their print editions. Branding was key; user experience not so much. As media companies built their own platforms, they in turn grew sizable engineering and product teams focused on their digital lines of business.

By 2011, with the mainstream acceptance of smartphones and the first iPads, the number of screen sizes proliferated and responsive design — the process by which a single page can adapt to different screen-sizes — started gaining traction. Over the next three years, most sites were redesigned to make them mobile optimized. By 2015, most media companies had crossed the 50 percent mark for content consumed on mobile versus desktop.

But with responsive design came an unintended consequence: When reading on mobile, you really couldn’t tell one media property from another. A primary reason for building your own platform — to support a unique brand-focused design — was becoming irrelevant.

This matters a lot. If all sites look the same on mobile, and if mobile is the dominant means of consuming media in 2018, why use a custom platform?

One answer is that the “built” platform is still handling a ton of custom backend operations, from ad tech and third-party platform integrations (Apple News, Google AMP) to powering the CMS. But that means that the development teams are no longer tackling anything unique — they’re just solving the same problems as everyone else. Which just doesn’t make sense. It’s as if every record label had their own dev team building their own version of iTunes or Spotify.

The alternative

Starting in 2014, several media companies began to take their own publishing systems and repurpose them as platforms that could be used by other publishers. Vox Media’s Chorus, The Washington Post’s Arc, New York Media’s Clay, and Hearst’s MediaOS are four such platforms that are now available for licensing.

It should be noted that there are a number of modern CMSes that could also be considered, such as Brightspot, Contentful, and even good old WordPress. But because they’re not purpose built for media companies by media companies, they need to be evaluated carefully. There are many use cases for media sites, especially around advanced ad-tech integration, that other industries don’t need to worry about — so buyer beware.

“Buy” is still not for everyone

These platforms aren’t perfect — yet! Using a bought platform will always mean some level of tradeoff.

And for media companies that do choose to migrate from a custom system, there are several other considerations:

A united future

If media could consolidate around a common publishing platform, it would allow players of all sizes to cut costs as well as better compete against Facebook as a media union, taking action collectively, and once and for all addressing their biggest revenue challenges.

For example, while technology exists to stop ad blockers by preventing those using them from viewing a site, most media companies are afraid that by employing an ad-blocker blocker, their visitors will simply go to their competition. But what if every site blocked ad blockers at the same time? Or concurrently deployed a paywall? Users couldn’t simply go to the competition because everyone would be rolling out the change at the same time. (Side note: See Scroll for how publishers could be doing this right now.)

On the SEO front, when Google rolls out dramatic changes to how they index the Internet, in a united media world, any adverse impact that was not content related would be felt by all companies equally, preventing the unpredictable and brutal way some companies have suffered through recent Google updates.

For developers building services for media sites — especially those that require CMS integration — the need to support hundreds of different custom platforms is a tough barrier to entry and prohibits easy scaling. Imagine having to customize software for several hundred different systems, each requiring hand-holding from the companies’ developers? Big developers can handle this, but smaller innovators struggle. The end result is that many developers steer clear of working on third-party media apps altogether. A common publishing platform would allow for plug-and-play integration, spurring far more third-party development.

At stake is a future where companies that transition to a common platform will be able to focus on what they do best — develop content — and leverage their development teams to optimize the “last mile” of user experience rather than solving problems that have already been solved by others.

Jesse Knight was the CTO/CIO at Vice Media from 2012 to 2017 and is now consulting on media, technology, and how to efficiently scale companies.

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