The days of big, drawn-out technology platform investments are over. At today’s rate of change, publishing technology moves too fast to plunk down $10 million for a three-year build-out of a content-and-data-management platform that turns obsolete the moment the switch finally gets flipped.
Instead, many publishers are taking an iterative approach to infrastructure and systems development, taking little steps forward each time there’s a substantial market shift—they’re making strategic investment bets over capital-oriented upgrades.
For this special technology-focused issue, we invited a panel of some of the publishing world’s top tech leaders—from both traditional and digital-only media—to discuss their own priorities and how those are influenced by resource realities, consumer behavior and the blurry pace of media technology advancement.
FOLIO: What are the primary market trends that are having the greatest impact on publishing-specific technology?
Jack Goldenberg: Cross-channel publishing and the need to have content available wherever the consumer is—whether that’s a tablet or mobile, and how we can make that process as efficient as possible without doing it five times.
The other part of that is the mobile Web, the volume coming through the mobile Web is unbelievably large—it’s growing significantly—and it’s making us think about our Web presence a little differently.
FOLIO: Do you think that mobile is going to have a comprehensive impact on your overall Web presence?
Goldenberg: I think it already has.
FOLIO: Stephen, what are your thoughts on that same question?
Stephen Orban: We’re doing everything we can to optimize distribution such that the front-end platform matters less. We’re doing everything we can to get our content out onto a platform that will ultimately be discoverable and have everything we need to get out to our customers no matter where they are.
Debra Robinson: Yes, within Hearst the trend is also a shift into mobile, so this has had a major impact on the type of content, the velocity of producing the content and the ways in which we serve the content. So we’re working toward a responsive design across the portfolio sites.
Mitch Klaif: It’s not only the consumption by the individual consumer, it’s the ability for the consumer to share it as well.
FOLIO: That’s true, but how does that shareability surface in an infrastructure?
Klaif: I think we’re all learning that as we make these mobile experiences better. When we want to give the consumer the option to share the content, we now have to consider who they’re sharing it with, and then make sure that the content that they want to share can be consumed by that second, third or fourth party. It backs all the way up the chain to what Jack was saying about how do we create this content so you can use any of the buzzwords—adaptive or responsive. Also, when you go to share it, it has to be generic enough so the person you’re sharing it with can consume it.
Orban: On top of that you also have to take the paywall into consideration. If you do have a paywall, are your ways for defining how that works different based on people who are coming to your properties directly versus people who are coming to you organically through search or through sharing? We think an awful lot about that.
FOLIO: Trei or David, what are some of the primary trends that are impacting your infrastructure?
Trei Brundrett: To counterpoint this a bit, it may be that we don’t have as many cross-platform requirements, but obviously mobile is big and we’ve gone responsive.
But there’s a preoccupation with abstracting the content to where it’s going to be delivered—this idea that it needs to go wherever the audience is.
I think that’s important, but—and this might be because we have more blogger DNA in our company—one of the trends we’re seeing is a very strong response to richer, immersive storytelling experiences, and the ability of the creators to understand and think about being much closer to what the end product is going to be. We’re thinking about our systems in a way that allows our designers, developers, writers and videographers to work together to create that.
I get worried sometimes about falling too much in love with pushing all of our content through all of the APIs and atomizing it and abstracting it from the end product when the medium is so rich in delivering it.
David Lerman: I would have to absolutely echo mobile and richer storytelling 100 percent.
Mobile is certainly number-one, but I think the next thing that we’re starting to talk more about is data. The day when you could put a story out there and just see what happens is gone. We know exactly what’s happening and what people are reading, why they’re reading it and what they want to read next.
Using that [data] to tell better stories and create better content and allow our authors and editors to do more is definitely influencing how we think about our platform.
The third issue is leveraging two-way conversations. We’re still in a world where we write content, put it on the page and leave a space at the bottom for commenting. We haven’t really embraced the opportunities in digital to have a two-way conversation with our readers and potentially let them be authors themselves.
That will absolutely change how we think about the publishing platform as well.
FOLIO: How are you navigating these trends and balancing your priorities so that you’re not going to have to go through this entire process again in a few years? And is that even avoidable?
Philip Barber: We have all these platforms now, and one of the challenges we all face is how to stay in front of the same user and understand that that’s the same user on mobile versus a tablet versus desktop.
One of the big things we’re all dealing with is how to identify without identifying and how to personalize when I can’t know specifically who a user is.
Those are some of the things we’re dealing with from a personalization standpoint.
In terms of building our infrastructure, our biggest concern right now is the production of content.
The more content we can produce the more value that’s going to provide at our site level. So it’s not only the ability to produce large quantities of content ourselves and manage and maintain that across the different platforms, but it’s also to allow an end-user to produce and provide that content where they are in their current lifecycle.
For us it’s all about managing and maintaining that content and then creating that individual experience that’s mobile—not in the sense of a mobile phone, but mobile in the sense of knowing who you are and where you are and what you’re doing.
FOLIO: We’ve talked about the ability to iterate on services and technology in a nimble fashion. Operationally, is that how you see things going long-term?
Goldenberg: Well I can’t imagine a world where I’d never want that. So I think some of the keys to that are service layers independent of UI and how you take your data with you as you move across either device or location. So those kinds of investments become important. Apple’s got their version of iCloud or whatever, but I think users are way more portable than an iOS device. So those are the kinds of things we think about, especially in the personalization context that Phil mentioned. I want that experience to be with me wherever I am.
You should know who I am and my content should follow me. No kind of device vendor is ever going to do that.
FOLIO: Debra, is the personalization aspect a priority for you as well?
Robinson: Personalization is very much targeted, yes, and then we’re also focusing on the whole content framework to deliver products with the personalization.
FOLIO: Can you describe what you mean by a content framework?
Robinson: The framework is across Hearst, not just with magazines, and it’s what is the standardization and how we’re going to map content across all our divisions to produce new products. And that’s print, TV, digital media—all of it.
FOLIO: So you’re creating a common pool of content that can be utilized across any platform?
Robinson: Yes and without changing the underlying system. So we’re putting in a content layer and an API layer so the content is really a framework and then it’s what standards are we going to use across it—XML, PRISM and so on.
FOLIO: Mitch, how about you guys?
Klaif: I think what we’re all doing is trying to remain as flexible and—I don’t want keep using the buzzwords—but being iterative and using the cloud. You don’t know what the future is going to bring, so trying to anticipate it and future proofing it is an old concept. So I agree with what everybody has said, it’s about standardizing your data, being flexible, making sure it’s available, and being able to re-purpose it and re-use it.
Robinson: It’s important to keep your content separate from your presentation layer. Because your presentation layer is going to change. Whether it’s Web, mobile, smartphones—the form factor.
FOLIO: Talk about the criteria you guys use to decide how and what to invest in.
Klaif: That’s a good question, I mean I guess we have to just reiterate again that things change very quickly in this business, so you should never get too stuck in the old way of being too long-term. I’ve built systems that weren’t going to be ready for a couple of years and by the time they were ready they were obsolete—so no more of that kind of planning or investment.
I think you set your business strategies or your business priorities and then you decide what is ‘core technology.’ You need to support those initiatives and then you build or provide—I think ‘provide’ is the word to underline versus ‘build.’
At Time Inc. we’re spending a lot of our investment dollars right now on the e-commerce platform which will allow a lot of the things we’ve talked about in the first question, and our ability to build and distribute mobile applications and platforms.
You can’t have a conversation with these colleagues and not talk about CMS. At Time Inc. we’re investing in what we’re calling a digital CMS platform.
And video—video’s obviously very important to all of us. Some of us are connected to video, TV companies. Those are some of the specifics, but I think they all come from what your core business growth strategies are and then what the core technologies are. How you implement on those platforms is a whole different question. Those are different investment initiatives. Once we build the core, then the different brands can decide where they want to place their investments.
FOLIO: Do the brands have any influence on the front end of those decisions?
Klaif: Of course they do. Any one of us who says ‘no’ to that question would probably be unemployed next week.
I think brands are most concerned about what they can do, what they can create on those platforms, so I think we spend more time with them understanding what they’re trying to accomplish as a brand, and then make sure the core technology can be used or adapted to that. And then we make a small smart core technology decision that fits some of those needs.
FOLIO: How are you building consensus across the various groups when you’re building that core technology?
Klaif: It’s much easier these days than it used to be. I think all of our journalists and editors and content creators understand how challenged our business model is and that efficiency and leverage and doing things smart is very important. They’re much more keenly aware of how costly it can be to build five different systems versus building one system. But, yes you have to involve them and really make sure that they understand their functionality. Maybe not be as involved in their preference, but you must know what they’re trying to accomplish.
Goldenberg: There are too many brands to engage every bit of detail for every bit of technology you’re going to do.
We canvas the larger [brands], and then the others get a free ride to some extent.
The key is to understand the kinds of things that they want to do. I talk about the services we provide rather than the technology—meaning here’s a service that will let you do the following—without describing how we made it. Because most can’t comprehend what a CMS does and doesn’t do, and how it does it, for example. We try and hide them from too much of that detail.
Robinson: We’re also very focused on content structure. We focus on how content gets entered into the system so it can be utilized going forward on different platforms.
FOLIO: When you talk about content structure, what do you specifically need to do with the resources? What is involved?
Robinson: This is more workflow and culture. We’re very print-centric, so how do you change editors from thinking of a print magazine to entering content or developing content that can be used on multiple platforms without having to go back and re-work it? We’re starting off an initiative here where the content is separate from the platform—we try not to be as print-centric.
Brundrett: So I would imagine that you’re defining a whole new data set, a data structure, almost like a structured XML document that would cover that, right? Here are all the elements that you’re going to need across all the platforms.
Robinson: Yes, and it’s a big cultural change, too.
Goldenberg: The cultural change here is huge because the designers tend to think about layout almost before the content. So we’re trying to do it exactly the opposite.
Robinson: That’s correct. Some are layout-centric and some are content-centric.
FOLIO: So are you building systems that are not forcing, but helping corral that thought process into actual workflow?
Robinson: We’re templatizing things, yes. But again I feel it’s more of a cultural change and workflow change than a technology change.
Orban: We have a significant challenge in that regard—changing the culture and getting, quite literally, thousands journalists all over the world to start thinking outside of The Wall Street Journal and how they’re going to have shorter headlines for mobile and so on.
Rather than try to solicit what everybody needs and wants, we try to be in the driver’s seat and articulate a strong vision such that we can tell everybody what’s possible and try to drive technology change, as opposed to putting ourselves in a position where we are just suiting the needs of everyone who has to use our system. It’s important for us to have a seat at the design table, whether it’s designing a product, a CMS or anything we will end up having to support forever.
FOLIO: Some digital-only publishers are building a CMS that is influencing how they want visitors and readers to interact with content. But are you also walking a line where you’re watching how users are engaging with the content and then changing your content layout and display accordingly?
Brundrett: The audience is interacting with the platform and producing content on top of it. It’s a great feedback loop that we have with our users. We marry that together with a lot of data that we use in real time to adjust the functionality for the readers to map their experience, but also to guide our individual brands’ product development. We’ve gotten to the point where each of our sites, we think of them as almost like individual apps and pieces of software, has its version history. All of our brands have open forums to discuss the product and how it’s working for the audience across all the different places that they use it.
FOLIO: David, what approach are you taking to build out or develop how your audience interacts with the content you guys are producing?
Lerman: It feels like a lot more of the more traditional publishers here are pushing toward separating content from design, where on the digital side we’re really trying to go the other way and connect back to the print legacy that we don’t have.
I think that blogging and digital publishing comes from a very data driven, structured viewpoint and we’re trying to go back and get content and presentation more closely aligned, connecting designers and editors and letting them do more interesting storytelling. It’s the kind of storytelling we can do in print, but now we’re trying to get that with digital.
It’s interesting to see everyone grapple with how we tell great stories and use design and use content. But in this new world where we have to do it across a huge number of devices it’s a new kind of problem that we’re all struggling with.
Barber: I almost need two different development teams, one for the front end and one for back end to make sure that my editors are happy and producing and can work efficiently. In addition to that, we haven’t talked a whole lot about consumers sharing data between sites. So that’s a big focus for us, the ability to not only syndicate, but also to take in the data we get back from other users.
Klaif: I want to agree with something that was just said. In my view, the CMS is almost two things. One is a content creation platform and one is a content management platform.
We’re putting a lot of effort into creating a platform to create content and that’s a little bit different in my mind than the platform to manage it or even distribute it.
And the one thing I’d like to add is the demand by our editors and journalists and producers to be able to create that content on their mobile devices. We talked a lot about consumers consuming on mobile devices, but with content creation or content management one of the most important things now is to create a platform where people can do that while mobile.
FOLIO: How are your capital investments going? Do you feel that the support is there? How would you categorize your investment levels these days?
Klaif: I can’t speak for all companies, but if we don’t invest in these things, we’re not going to be able to move over to support the consumer revenue stream. So I find that the investment in the consumer revenue stream, the consumer product stream—mostly mobile—is not a fight and not a challenge. I think that it’s quite clear that those of us who are more traditional print and are doing a transition have to invest in these platforms, and we are.
FOLIO: Jack, would you agree with that?
Goldenberg: Yeah, absolutely. I think we’re flat to slightly increasing our overall investment, especially on the capital side. But I think the standard capital churn is reducing and the number of investment plays is growing. In other words, if you were to categorize the investments, the kinds of investments we’re making are more strategic bets. As opposed to what used to be ‘upgrade this, upgrade that.’
Klaif: With a move to technology and software as a service, call it anything you want—the cloud, whatever—these aren’t the traditional, big investments they used to be. We’re not building $5 million or $10 million platforms every day. So I think the concept of investment, which used to be, “give us $10 million over 3 years” and 80 percent of those projects fail—at least people say they do—that’s not really the way things work anymore. Now we’re asking for investment dollars in projects and initiatives—and some core technology—but it’s not quite what it used to be in terms having to get a commitment to big dollars.
Orban: On the enterprise side in particular, where you would dump a lot of money to put in your SAP financials or your Oracle-this or whatever to help you manage your staff or your operations, the pay-as-you-go model and not having to have a whole bunch of full-time people dedicated to making sure that the system works all the time is more of a displacement of all of those dollars now onto building products for revenue opportunity instead.
FOLIO: Have your development times collapsed significantly?
Brundrett: I get disappointed feedback from editors if I don’t have concept to creation inside of a week with some of these things.
Robinson: Overall, ours have collapsed. We don’t really talk about anything longer than 90 days.