(This case study, the fifth in an occasional series, was underwritten by a grant from the Stibo-Foundation.) Note: CCI Europe is a subsidiary of Stibo, whose foundation made a grant for this series. The funder had no editorial input on the study.
In 2011, Gannett Co. owned more than a hundred newspapers and television stations – each with its own website. To publish its online material, the company was supporting about a half dozen content management systems.
Journalists in most of the company’s broadcast newsrooms wrote and published their digital stories through a homegrown CMS called Newsmaker, while almost all of Gannett’s newspaper websites were powered with Saxotech. But the Arizona Republic had its own system known as Enigma, and the Des Moines Register posted some of its content through WordPress.
Meanwhile, Gannett’s flagship publication, USA Today, maintained its site with a proprietary system it simply called “CMS.”
The assortment of software left Gannett no easy way to share web content among its properties, and some systems lacked basic functions such as the ability to embed hyperlinks or multimedia into articles.
“None of these digital systems was far enough along or modern enough,” said Mitch Gelman, Gannett Digital Vice President/Product.“ Gannett was so far behind the CNN’s and the MSNBC’s of the world.”
So Gannett embarked upon a massive digital overhaul. It set out to design and build a content management system that would replace the existing systems and serve every Gannett newsroom – from USA Today to KHOU-TV in Houston to the Fort Collins Coloradoan – allowing them to post and share material more easily.
At the same time it was revamping its back-end content system, Gannett chose to update the user interface for its more than 120 local and national news websites, bringing them all onto one company-wide design that would more prominently feature photos and multimedia and allow editors to customize the user experience for computers, tablets, and phones.
“What we’re doing here at Gannett is relatively unprecedented,” Gelman said in a May 2014 interview at Gannett’s northern Virginia headquarters. “The objective was to publish an interface that had never been done before.”
Plunging into one of the largest CMS transitions ever attempted by a media organization, Gannett hoped to succeed where other media companies have stumbled. Time Inc. and the BBC are among the media organizations that suffered through CMS transitions that didn’t meet their goals, ran over budget, or failed entirely.
“Everyone’s CMS gives them pain,” said digital media consultant Elizabeth Osder, who’s worked with AOL, The Daily Beast, and other media clients.
In the web’s early days, some media companies struggled with simplistic content management systems that forced them to retype or cut-and-paste every newspaper story or broadcast script.
New systems typically eliminate those annoyances. But they can introduce fresh problems as news organizations expect them to meet modern challenges, such as streaming video and audio, serving up fancier ads, and displaying specialized content on phones and tablets.
“There is no shortage of horror stories,” Osder said in a phone interview.
In the three years since Gannett began its transition, it has had its share of delays and hiccups. But it has avoided the catastrophic problems that doomed some of its competitors’ transitions. As it nears the end of the process of converting its properties to its new content management system, the company is generally pleased with the results.
“We didn’t get all the things we wanted,” said USA Today Executive Editor of Content Susan Weiss. “But what we did get was a much easier, faster, simpler publishing system.”
Gannett is a publicly-traded $6.5 billion company that claims its media properties reach more than 110 million people every month. Perhaps best known as the publisher of USA Today, the nation’s second largest newspaper by circulation, the company also has grown into a major force in local television. After several acquisitions, it now owns or operates 42 TV stations. Gannett owns more NBC and CBS affiliates than any company other than the networks themselves and ranks fourth among ABC owners.
It reduced its newspaper holdings over the past decade, but continues to operate 81 daily papers and 443 non-dailies in 30 states, including the Arizona Republic, Detroit Free Press, and Indianapolis Star.
Gannett says its digital division reaches more than 65 million unique visitors every month through USAToday.com, the websites of its local newspapers and TV stations, and a variety of other products, such as CareerBuilder.com, Shoplocal.com, and the coupon site Dealchicken.com. Gannett content also feeds a handful of unconventional news platforms, such as large touch screens in hotel lobbies and a digital portal called “The Point,” which is available to travelers who access the in-house wifi networks at Hilton hotels.
Gannett’s acquisitions left it with a conglomeration of media properties that employed various digital strategies and relied on different tools. Some of Gannett’s properties were saddled with older content management systems that required a good bit of manual coding or other workarounds to post content.
In addition, Gannett executives feared that many of their properties had by 2011 fallen off the cutting edge of technology and design. USA Today – whose flashy colors and bold graphics transformed the look of print newspapers a generation ago – maintained a website that was adequate but hardly groundbreaking. The design of USAToday.com hadn’t changed since 2008, and a 2011 Poynter analysis of comScore data concluded it was the tenth most visited news website in the U.S., well behind such sites as CNN, the New York Times, and Huffington Post.
By 2011, Gannett had experienced several years of disappointing financial results. 2011 was its fifth consecutive year of revenue losses, as newspaper advertising fell drastically. In addition, digital revenue, which analysts consider a key driver of media companies’ growth, increased slower than hoped – only about five percent in 2011. By the end of the year, Gannett’s stock was down 85 percent from its 2004 high.
As it embarked on redesigning both the user experience and the back-end of its newspaper and TV station websites, Gannett set ambitious goals that Gelman said were intended to “leapfrog” the competition:
- On the user side, Gannett envisioned an interface that was more touch-friendly and “swipe able,” even for readers who were accessing the site on desktop computers. Unlike most desktop sites, which required users to click around menu bars and do a lot of scrolling, Gannett wanted a more horizontal design that emphasized photos, graphics, and headlines. “The objective was to publish an interface that had never been done before,” Gelman said. “What we wanted to achieve out of this was a more tablet-like experience.”
- Gannett sought to customize the experience for users who actually did view its sites on tablets and phones. It wanted an easy way for editors to serve up device-specific content. For instance, a user of a TV station’s iPhone app might see different information from somebody browsing the station’s website on a desktop computer.
- On the back-end, the company desired a content management system that would allow its publications and broadcast stations to better share stories. For years, Gannett had attempted to leverage the combined resources of its local and national newsrooms, but found that the lack of a unified platform hampered those efforts. “There were many different attempts to bring Gannett content together, and they did not meet expectations,” Gelman said. “That connective tissue that would bring everything together had to be established.”
- The system would have to work for a variety of news organizations, from the large newsroom at USA Today to small, lightly-staffed newspapers and stations in places such as Staunton, Virginia and St. George, Utah. Furthermore, Gelman wanted it to be remotely accessible to field reporters – an attribute that was lacking in some of the company’s earlier content management systems. “You had to be able to open up a computer on a hood of a police car outside a hostage situation and be able to file and update your coverage in real time,” he said.
- To drive revenue, Gannett wanted its redesigned websites to accommodate “high impact advertising”– larger, more colorful ads that would be integrated into the site design and harder for users to ignore. In addition, the company wanted its new back-end to support better “semantic tagging,” so that it would more accurately match advertising with the content on each page.
- Finally, the company set an ambitious timetable to develop and roll out the new systems. The target date for the first conversion at USA Today was September 15, 2012, which was the publication’s thirtieth anniversary and also the date the newspaper planned to unveil a new design for its print editions. That gave Gannett about a year to develop, test, and implement both the back-end content management system and the new USA Today website.
OPTIONS AND DECISIONS
During a two-day meeting in August 2011, Gannett began the process of remaking its digital personality. Early on, it made several key decisions.
First, it decided to start fresh by developing a totally new system for its back-end content management. It determined that none of its current content management systems – nor any existing off-the-shelf product – would do the job.
“Almost invariably, you’ll find in the industry when these projects get going, you’re forced to start with something that was in existence before,” said Steve Kurtz, Gannett’s Vice President for Product Development.
“We were afforded the opportunity to start from scratch,” Kurtz said in an interview. “And that really allowed us the opportunity to do it right.”
Second, to narrow the scope of the project, the company limited the technological revamp to only the digital side of its operations – the functions that directly involve feeding content to its websites and digital apps. There was no change in the software Gannett uses to publish the print editions of its newspapers, a program from CCI called Newsgate. Likewise, Gannett television stations would continue to produce their newscasts and feed their Teleprompters using AP’s ENPS software.
That decision had its pros and cons. On the negative side, it meant that every Gannett newsroom would simultaneously be using two software products to manage content – Newsgate or ENPS to produce their newspapers or TV newscasts, and the new CMS for online publishing. That would create an extra burden on editors and producers to assure that stories were properly loaded and updated in each system. But the decision also helped Gannett avoid a challenge that’s vexed other news organizations – trying to build an all-in-one content system that’s expected to do too much.
After the August 2011 meeting, a team of developers, journalists, and executives went to work building the new Gannett CMS, which they named “Presto.” Meanwhile, Gannett worked with the digital design firm Fi to overhaul the interface readers would see when they visited a Gannett newspaper or TV station web site. While the CMS transition and the website redesign were separate projects, they were inextricably linked because Presto would be the only CMS with the necessary functions to provide content to the new websites.
“It was an intense effort for about six months,” Kurtz said.
To help build newsroom support for the new system and assure it would meet journalists’ needs, a handful of editorial personnel were temporarily reassigned to work with the Presto team and provide feedback on the system as it was being developed. Reporters, editors, photographers, and others were embedded with the development team for stints ranging from two weeks to several months.
“I just really started banging on the tool and talking out the process with them,” said USA Today Mobile Editor Emily Brown. “Everybody’s workflow is just a little bit different, and when we were able to bang on the tool in our own special way, we were able to find things that needed to be tweaked.”
For instance, Brown was concerned that early builds of Presto wouldn’t handle breaking news well. The system’s design was oriented toward posting complete stories in which all the text and photos were ready to publish. Brown said the embedded journalists helped the designers better equip Presto for fast-moving news situations, when stories often are written and published one sentence or one photo at a time.
Gelman wouldn’t put a cost figure on the transition, but wrote in an email that Presto represented “a healthy investment” in Gannett’s digital future. He said the price was “less than most companies end up spending” on their content management systems, and he said part of the cost was offset because Gannett no longer will pay to use and upgrade its existing systems.
IMPLEMENTATION AND RESULTS
As planned, USA Today began publishing content with Presto September 15, 2012. At the same time, the public was invited to beta the redesigned USA Today website. For two weeks, the newspaper operated both its old and new CMS and both its old and new website. The old systems were turned off September 29, 2012, and USA Today transitioned entirely to Presto and the new site design.
“It was really hectic,” Brown said in an interview. “Work flow was changing. The tool was changing. The website was changing,”
USA Today switched to the new systems without any catastrophic problems, though the transition wasn’t painless. Brown describes a “war room” environment, as journalists struggled to report the news – less than eight weeks before the 2012 election – while also becoming familiar with Presto and its quirks. Read more