Case Study: Gannett's monumental task -- A content management system for all
(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.
“There was still learning going on while we were managing the beta site,” Gelman said. “We were learning about transitions, we were learning about the performance, we were learning about how to best position the content.”
“There was a lot of spirited discussion and occasional prayers,” he said.
As USA Today settled into its new workflow, Gannett began the even more arduous task of rolling out Presto and the website redesign to each of its 132 daily newspapers and television stations. (The number of TV stations grew after Gannett acquired 20 stations from Belo in 2013 and six from London Broadcasting Company in 2014.) It’s an ongoing process that has gone more slowly than Gannett had originally hoped, already stretching on for almost two years.
Prior to each conversion, teams from Gannett headquarters visit the newspaper or TV station for a week or two of training. Journalists from newsrooms that already converted to Presto often are brought in to help ease the transition for other Gannett properties. The company’s goal is to equip all its journalists to publish and update their stories singlehandedly. Training sessions include such topics as writing headlines, adding photos and videos to stories, categorizing each story to the appropriate website section, and adding tags for search engine optimization.
(In a few cases, practice stories from training sessions were inadvertently published to the Internet, including such fake stories as “Incredible "Presto" training fun” and “900 apes escape San Antonio Zoo.” The description of one story from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle training session reads, “Gannett digital employees tried their best to train a staff of overwhelmed and confused reporters on its new software platform.”)
“We went through a week or two of training, and it was a lot,” said Annah Backstrom, the Breaking News Editor at the Des Moines Register, which converted to Presto March 28, 2014. “It is a completely different way of handling content.”
Like many Gannett properties, the Register carried out its transition overnight to minimize newsroom disruption. But less than 24 hours after switching to Presto and the redesigned desmoinesregister.com, the publication unexpectedly found itself covering a major breaking story, a large fire in a historic downtown building.
“It was a trial by fire, literally,” said Register Editor and Vice President for Audience Engagement Amalie Nash, who helped supervise the staff as it used the new system to publish 18 stories and nine videos the day of the fire.
“It added that extra element of stress as we were learning the new tool,” Nash said in an interview in Des Moines. But in retrospect, she said she was happy the conversion took place when it did.
“Had we known that there was going to be a fire coming, we may have delayed a day or two,” she said. “But it gave us a great ability to do things more seamlessly and show off our new tools.”
Nash said traffic on the Register’s website was six times higher on the day of the fire than on a typical Saturday, and its mobile platforms attracted a record number of visitors – allowing editors to take advantage of Presto’s ability to push different content to its mobile apps and its desktop site. Nash said videos, shorter stories, and information on street closures were played higher on the Register’s mobile platforms.
With the old system, “it would have been very, very difficult to keep everything updated and everything moving around,” Nash said.
After the Register staff got past the initial challenge – and exhilaration – of covering a major breaking story with a new content management system, the newsroom moved into a more typical period of getting to know Presto’s advantages and shortcomings. One early problem forced the Register to briefly take down some of the specialized pages on its new website, such as “Arts and Theatre,” because the content wasn’t displaying correctly.
“We just pulled those off and said we’ll fix that after launch,” said Register Digital Developer Amber Eaton.
Two months after the conversion, the Register’s photo staff still was struggling with what they considered to be a less-than-adequate set of cropping tools, while the Register’s in-house developers were getting used to having less local control of their website and CMS. Developers also had yet to address an important item on Presto’s “to do” list: adding the ability to preview the look of a page before it’s published.
“That’s one of the biggest issues,” Eaton said. “You want to make sure things are wrapping correctly and are going to look right.”
But on balance, newsroom employees expressed a generally positive opinion of the changes.
“I was probably one of the biggest complainers early on,” said Register technology reporter Marco Santana, who initially was overwhelmed by such tasks as writing web and mobile headlines for each of his stories, and categorizing each one into sections such as “politics,” “agriculture,” and“health.”
“But once you learn it, it becomes second-nature,” Santana said.
Gannett executives said the Presto conversions and web redesigns accomplished their goal of attracting more readers. At the more than thirty newspapers and TV stations that had completed the changes by March 2014, the company reported that page views increased 37 percent, the number of unique users went up 16 percent, and digital revenue rose 15 percent from a year earlier.
“The new ad positions in Presto help,” said Register President and Publisher Rick Green.
Gannett anticipates that all of its properties will transition to the new systems by the end of 2014. But development work continues on Presto to fix bugs, address concerns from the company’s journalists, and add features.
In particular, one of Presto’s most important promised benefits – its potential for content sharing – remains largely undeveloped. While Presto makes it easier for local Gannett properties to post USA Today content to their websites, there’s not yet a direct way for papers like the Register to pick up a story from, say, the Detroit Free Press or KARA-TV in Minneapolis.
“We’re not quite there yet in terms of truly sharing all of our content,” said Weiss, the USA Today Executive Editor. “But the advances that we’ve made are huge.”
Gelman – a former reporter who previously worked at CNN, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN – approached the Presto transformation with a journalist’s typical cynicism.
“I started this project with great confidence that it would end up like most CMS projects that spend $15 to $30 million, and then three years later everybody gets fired because it doesn’t work,” he said, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek.
Gelman said a number of factors helped Gannett avoid that fate:
CLEAR GOALS: First, Gelman said Gannett started the project not by shopping for and demo-ing content management systems, but by making a list of what the company wanted its new system to accomplish. That made it more likely the system would meet its newsrooms’ needs, rather than be loaded down with flashy functions that looked good in a demo but served little purpose.
“We had a clear, simple endgame in what we wanted to achieve,” Gelman said. “We established the objective first and then put the plan in place to develop the design, create the code, and establish the back-end that would get us there.”
Gelman said his most important piece of guidance for other media companies considering CMS transitions is that they proceed the same way.
Of course, Gannett is the nation's largest newspaper chain. Smaller groups or individual newspapers are unlikely to have the in-house expertise to build all or most of a new system on their own.
But even when dealing with vendors, Gelman suggests the same general principle holds. Before managers select a system, they should put serious thought into what functions are most important – whether that’s displaying multimedia, simplifying the newsroom workflow, improving tagging functions, or something else.
“Really know your content going in to know what the new system needs to be able to do,” suggested Eaton, the Des Moines Register developer, “so you don’t build something and then go, ‘Oh wait, it doesn’t have this piece.’”
BUY IN FROM MANAGEMENT: The team that developed Presto received a strong mandate and endorsement from Gannett management. After several years of declining newspaper revenues, Gannett considered the development of the content management system essential to its future.
“The timing was very good because the company as a whole had realized that transforming into a digital distribution entity was necessary,” Gelman said.
“Once that was endorsed by the company’s leadership, they gave us two things that most companies don’t allow: the resources to do it and the time to get it done.”
… AND BUY-IN FROM THE TRENCHES: By the time the Presto project started, veteran Gannett employees had been through several initiatives that had some of the same goals, such as developing mobile platforms and increasing content sharing. Gelman said few of the previous efforts achieved their goals, and he knew that would be an issue as he presented Presto to the newsroom staff.
“The biggest challenge was gaining the trust and confidence of the editorial leadership,” he said. “Perhaps because I had come up through that side of the organization, they gave us the benefit of the doubt.”
The development team presented Presto to journalists not just as something new they’d have to learn, but also as an elegant tool to better display their work. Presto is equipped with templates to create attractive web build-outs of major articles, and it provides more tools for writers and editors to add charts, video, and other elements to stories.
“They got so excited about the level of presentation of their work that it helped speed the adoption,” Gelman said. “Once people grasp it, it speaks for itself.”
Managers also helped sell the new system by talking up its eventual ability to distribute content throughout the Gannett chain.
“Part of our strategy to implement Presto was, ‘We’re going to make it easier for your good work to be shared,’” said Green, the Des Moines publisher. “Presto in my mind is about taking really great meaningful work and getting it in front of audiences not only in Iowa or the Midwest, but around the world.”
A COMMITMENT TO TRAINING: Gannett developed a standardized Presto training program for its newspapers and TV stations, sending staff from the company’s Virginia headquarters to local properties to conduct seminars. Editors, producers, and other managers from each property were brought into the process early – typically weeks before their local training sessions began – to prepare for the transition.
Gannett created an extensive online resource site for its employees, including a comprehensive Presto user’s manual, training modules, and cheat sheets with instructions for common functions (“How to create a story,” “How to insert a hyperlink into your text,” etc.) Employees were encouraged to join an internal corporate bulletin board to post questions and answers about Presto-related issues, and the company adopted a “peer-to-peer” training model, in which journalists and digital staff from properties that already converted to Presto helped train their counterparts in newsrooms that converted later.
“By having people who successfully launched the last site sit down with people preparing to launch the next site, we were able to share best practices across the properties,” Gelman said. “To have peers who had mastered the system come in and show they were able to do it, there was no question that the people who were attempting to learn it were able to do it.”
Gannett also made a commitment to “continuing education” for its Presto users. An in-house support team is available by email and telephone – not only to address technical questions, but also to provide guidance on how to most effectively use Presto’s tools to tell stories. They consult with local writers, producers, and editors on layouts, graphics, and other design elements.
IT’S NEVER DONE: After working intensely for months or years to install a new CMS, developers and their bosses might be forgiven for wanting to flip a switch, turn on the new system, and move on to the next project. But unlike a new printing press or studio camera, a content management system likely will require almost constant upgrades as technology advances and readers’ needs change.
“It’s a platform, and by definition, a platform is a thing that you build upon,” Kurtz said. “The platform will never be done.”
That meant Gannett kept its team of developers in place even after Presto went live. Initially, much of their work centered on fixing bugs and addressing concerns from newsroom users. For instance, one early system update addressed the problem of Presto “timing out” and losing stories if writers wandered away from their computers without saving their work. Another added a warning message if two users tried to edit the same story simultaneously.
“We worked closely with the newsroom to make improvements,” Gelman said. “It was a very different tool in its first weeks than it is now two years later.”
Even now, users continue to find bugs, and Gannett’s digital team continues to push out code updates.
But developers also have turned their attention to enhancing the system. They’re planning features like a message function that will help journalists at different Gannett properties communicate. And for the long term, they’re looking at ways Presto could provide content to new kinds of consumer devices, such as smart watches and other wearables.
“Like the tech companies, you’ve got to invest so you can change out the tools quickly,” Weiss said.
“Things are moving so quickly, Presto in three years could be out of date.”