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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Can media companies be successful software vendors?

April 28, 2016 | By Ron Miller—Independent Technology Journalist @ron_miller

Let’s face it, the core technology for any media company is the content management system, which drives everything from organizing, writing, publishing and advertising. When a media company is sufficiently large, the build versus buy CMS debate can often tip towards build. After all, who knows more about your requirements than you. While it’s not easy to build your own system, that hasn’t stopped the likes of Vox Media and The Washington Post from doing just that — and even selling what they’ve built.

Of course it’s one thing to build a platform, it’s another entirely to sell it. Transforming your organization from one that delivers media content to one that markets and sells technology, an entirely different set of skills.

These companies believe that they can export their technology and help other similar companies build their own media empires on top of the technology they’ve developed.

Vox Media, a modern online publishing company and The Washington Post, a venerable publishing brand both saw a need for building their own systems and are looking at selling at least pieces of it. In Vox’s case, Ad Age reported that it has started selling Chorus for Advertisers, a platform for creating, managing and analyzing branded content. The Washington Post is attempting to sell a more complete newsroom management package.

Rolling your own CMS
For companies that opt to build their own systems, the most compelling factors are control and flexibility. There’s no way an off-the-shelf CMS can adapt to the rapidly changing market requirements of a modern media company, says Pablo Mercado, VP of technology at Vox Media.

“By developing them in-house and tailoring them specifically to our needs we foster a “technology company” culture as well as a “media company” culture. This is key to building truly valuable solutions, and the key to thriving in an ever-changing marketplace,” Mercado explained.

He says this ability to hack the system to meet your needs is just not something that an off-the-shelf CMS is well suited do and eventually that would catch up with them. It’s similar reasoning for The Washington Post, which also made the strategic decision to build its own system, rather than get help from an existing vendor.

“I think if you asked our CTO, it’s not a specific capability, but the flexibility to take it where we need to go quickly. You can take something strategically core and what you can excel at and make it part of what you do,” Matthew Monahan, product and sales lead, for Arc Publishing (the Post’s CMS brand) at The Washington Post said.

Many obstacles, but worth the effort
It’s never easy building your own complex software system while trying to keep the old system going and taking into account the complex and varied needs of various stakeholders in a newsroom workflow process.

The Washington Post took a modular approach building various pieces of the system over time such as writing/editing, planning/scheduling/workflow and APIs and integrations into print systems.

“The key thing is that this wasn’t all pre-planned. We didn’t sit down and say we would have our own system. We built solutions to problems we had and integrated them together. It was an iterative, dynamic approach. We had a specific problem with site rendering, so we built a solution and started iterating on it. People start banging on it and you realize what it should become,” Monahan said.

This modular approach helped as they uncoupled from the older system, and allowed them to overlay and work out the kinks in the various pieces in a similar manner.

Vox faced a similar problem trying to avoid mangling its workflows while putting a new system in place. “The key to navigating these challenges, particularly the platform challenge, is again, the successful blending of a technology company culture and media company culture. Which is to say that rather than disappearing for 9 months and then suddenly re-appearing, flipping a switch and changing everyone’s day-to-day workflow and tools, the team must fully engage with the business and its users,” Mercado said.

It’s a different world
The fact is that transforming from a media company to a software company is much harder than it looks. While it may be true that every company is in its own way is becoming a software company, it’s not easy to actually sell software and all that entails, according to DCG analyst Robert Rose.

“They are ill prepared for the customer service aspect of being a technology solution provider. There’s no doubt that their solutions would work well for select clients, especially those looking to get into more media-centered operations (e.g. content marketing). But once they start hearing about things like “implementation” and “channels” and “service contracts” and the complexity of actually operating a “software business,” most companies rethink entering into the market as a solution vendor,” Rose said.

Without a doubt, media companies that make the decision to sell their CMS do so with the hopes of recouping some of the investment made in developing the system. And it is possible that a CMS purpose-built by a media company will better meet the needs of others in the industry. However, while it is clear that diversification is desirable, the software business is a complex one, and time will tell if these companies are up to the task.

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