Digital Innovation Digital Publishing
4 mins read

Media products: When to build it yourself?

Developing in-house digital solutions comes at a cost that is not always paid directly with money

My favorite topic to be angry and disillusioned about when it comes to news products is custom content management systems (CMS). I have yet to meet a media product colleague that hasn’t been through a “we are building a new CMS” phase.

Sure, there are legitimate reasons to build your own system – the old one is dated, you have too many custom features to go for an established option, such as WordPress, and you calculated it is cheaper to build it yourself.

Sometimes a publisher goes on an acquisition spree and the product team suddenly ends up with new verticals that run on various systems.

Other times an outside team is hired to build something quicker. Sure, they might use another system, but the project is greenlit anyway because it is easier to just let the external team do their thing.

Once I talked to a publisher who had different verticals on the site running on seven or eight various CMSs. Of course, some could no longer be maintained as the original developer quit or they severed ties with the company that used to update it.

In early 2020, Poynter published a good series on ​​How to get a new CMS and compared five optionsArc (by Washington Post), Chorus (by Vox Media), GhostThe News Project and Newspack. It is a bit outdated now, but most of it holds up and you can watch a demo presentation for each.

I would love to go deeper on the topic of building a custom CMS vs. choosing from existing ones, but let’s leave it for another time.

Building for new subscription strategies

The problem with the research mentioned above is that the technology and publishing trends are evolving fast and you would have to keep updating it to still be relevant.

At the time, audio and podcasts were not seen as central to the subscription strategy for publishers. With the arrival of paid podcasts on major platforms such as Apple Podcasts and Spotify, and publishers putting audio articles behind paywalls, this is seen as an important feature.

The same goes for paid newsletters or having the option to easily register users to get them into the subscription funnel.

The point being these things move quickly and are usually developed by bigger teams than your newsroom could afford. They also plan ahead for years and have positions you seldom see in a news product team.

Sure, big publishers can afford those, but there is no point talking about the 1% in this regard. Their resources are simply bigger.

The costs of using third parties

Actually, the problem most newsrooms and their product leaders face is a bit more complex than just “build in-house” or “buy from a third party”. It’s also about which features should be in-house and which not.

Moreover, let’s consider the new breed of media businesses being built entirely on platforms such as Substack that handle all the technology, delivery and payment transactions.

The upside is you can concentrate entirely on the content, reaching and engaging your audience. The downside is the more you grow the more you pay for the services (yes, it’s a 10% fee, but 10% out of €10,000 is much less than out of €100).

With a platform like Ghost you pay flat fees but there are constraints to what you can build within the platform. Yes, there are many integrations and they work. But you have to adapt to them.

Checking your own biases

I have met managers whose first suggestion to a new feature is always to build it in-house. No matter how complicated, the answer was the same.

There are many blogs on the internet answering the question whether to build something in-house or choose from existing solutions.

But it’s enough to look at the author to predict their answer. People with the development background are eager to build, experts from software companies want to sell you their stuff.

The most reliable rule of thumb I have come across and tried in action was to look at successful organisations (not only newsrooms) that are the same size and find out what they were using to achieve the task at hand.

I realize this is not a bulletproof solution to the problem but so far has worked quite well when researching tools and products someone wanted to build.

Seldom was an in-house tool the way to go for a simple reason – there was no five year plan for it and more often than not ended up being dead weight that needed to be cut off. Of course, that’s just a limited personal experience over the years.

Building your own tools can be fun, exciting and useful if you can keep them updated.

Coming back to platforms such as Substack or Ghost with fairly limited features compared to a custom-built CMS or WordPress, it turns out having restraints can be good for your media business and your focus. 

The worst thing I have seen regarding overwhelming yourself with product building was to lose focus of the main goals.

David Tvrdon

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.