The Evolution of Media Company CMS Platforms: Big Bets on Custom CMS

In our series on media company CMS platforms, we’ve looked at the landscape evolution over the last 5-6 years, from how companies make CMS decisions, to the types of CMSs that companies are using, to the overall industry consolidation. Today we’ll wrap up this series with a greater focus on custom CMSs, and a look towards the future, and burgeoning open source adoption.

Due to escalating costs and scaling development issues, it’s my belief that custom CMS platforms only last a handful of years before they become obsolete, and the efforts to maintain them are terminated. We can see an example of this cycle from the newspaper group Digital First Media (DFM). DFM developed a custom CMS platform, Thunderdome, meant to serve it’s 100+ newspaper titles across the U.S., but then put its newspaper titles up for sale in 2014, subsequently ending the Thunderdome initiative. Digital First Media maintained a blog about the development of Thunderdome which has been archived here, and a technologist on the Thunderdome team offers his learnings from working on the project here. There’s also the tale of BusinessWeek spending $20 million on building a custom CMS platform, only to be tossed out when Bloomberg bought the publisher in 2009.

I’m not sure what technologies The New York Times’ Scoop is built on top of -- Java, I believe -- but regardless, it’s a completely custom CMS and does not leverage open source CMS frameworks like Drupal. The New York Times is a giant in media, however, and can afford to scale their technology team to take on this giant task of creating a CMS from scratch. According to Capital New York, former New York Times CIO Mark Frons and former CTO Rajiv Pant managed a team of about 500 in 2015. The risks with Scoop are the costs associated with retaining top technology talent and scaling the team to build it. In the past year, several key technology executives at the New York Times (beyond the CTO and CIO) departed, including their iOS development lead, and more impactfully Luke Vnenchak, who was spearheading Scoop (article on his Scoop CMS efforts here) up until the summer of 2015. John Niedermeyer, a New York Times deputy editor of digital news design, also left in the same year. Both Niedermeyer and Vnenchak are now leading new media darling Buzzfeed’s product design and engineering teams, respectively.

The Washington Post, while it is NOT building an uber CMS platform, faces similar challenges to those that the New York Times faces in terms of scaling costs and retaining technology talent and knowledge to continue the development of their suite of tools. Additionally, they have other newspaper clients dependent on their CMS suite of tools, Arc, so there’s a lot more at stake. To keep up with their technology development, The Washington Post opened a tech-focused office in New York.

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The thirst for digital media has helped silos collapse at media companies, meaning that a company that holds magazine, TV, newspaper, and radio brands is now sharing digital content across the organization that each of these brands produces independently. For instance, a magazine publisher like Conde Nast is no longer just producing magazines, but is now a leader in producing digital video through it’s Conde Nast Entertainment division.

The thirst for digital media has helped silos collapse at media companies. For example, a company like Conde Nast that made it’s name as a magazine publishing giant is now producing digital video, too, through it’s Conde Nast Entertainment division. Companies that hold different brands across magazine, TV, newspaper, and radio are starting to produce a variety of content across different channels, platforms, and mediums, and because of this, are starting to need CMS capabilities that reach beyond what’s required for publishing in just one media segment.

Hearst Newspapers, for example, is now adopting the company’s custom platform Media OS. In fact, the platform will soon be the foundation for all media divisions at Hearst -- newspapers, magazines, television, and digital-only brands. At the start of 2016, Hearst CEO Steven Swartz announced the further development of Media OS as part of a larger $150 million investment in the company's future. The platform was first launched within Hearst’s magazine division at Cosmopolitan Magazine, and was the brainchild of Hearst’s James Welsh, who created this custom CMS for his former employer, Digital Spy, a technology product and news magazine. At that time the platform had another codename, RAMS. According to Hearst:

“RAMS, The Digital Spy publishing platform, was built with a strong focus on empowering editors and offers the velocity and simplicity the team was seeking. Digital Spy demonstrated that the platform could excel for highly trafficked brands and the fact that the system was built by and for editors underscored the ease of publishing quickly and the options for increasing audience engagement.”

With over $10 billion in annual revenues in 2015 alone, I understand that Hearst’s scale affords them such a luxury to spend on their own "os" for their media properties. There’s not much I can do to compare the investment to other media companies’ plans for platform expenditures, however. For instance, I do not have a price tag on Conde Nast’s custom CMS, Co-Pilot.

Like Hearst, Cox Media Group is a media company with different brands across different segments. Cox Media Group owns TV stations, radio stations, and newspapers in various local media markets across the US. In 2011, Cox Media Group began work on Medley, a single CMS that content producers and editors can use at any of these properties. One of the pushes for the single CMS was the idea that Cox had to create an “all media journalist” or “AMJ” who could report for any of their properties in a market. I understand Medley is built on Django and Python and I have not seen any case studies as to whether Medley has indeed united editorial staff across Cox Media Group’s properties.

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Gannett, another organization with multiple media arms, rolled up it’s television, digital, and newspaper brands onto a custom built CMS platform called Presto. Media watcher Poynter covered the transformation in a case study called “Gannett’s monumental task — A content management system for all.” Ironically, in 2015 Gannett completed the split of its television and digital properties away from its newspaper brands, which were put into a separate company, Gannett Publishing. While Gannett Publishing will retain Presto as it’s CMS of record, it’s unclear what will happen to the TV and digital brands of the new company known as TEGNA. Presto, like Cox Media’s Medley, is also built on Django and Python. It’s important to note that Django is not really a CMS, but simply a framework for coding in Python, a programming language. Gannett is also in the process of trying to acquire tronc (formerly Tribune Publishing), another newspaper giant which too has it's own custom CMS. Obviously one custom CMS will win out over the other in any Gannett - tronc merger.

Instead of building a single custom CMS to address all of the newspaper, TV, radio, and digital properties at a media conglomerate, add-on CMS offerings are starting to pop up in the market to address the syndication of content within an organization across its many subsidiary sites and brands. Acquia’s Content Hub is one solution to address the sharing of content across media brand silos.

Is a Custom CMS a differentiator that can drive media company performance and success?

In this final post of our “Evolution of Media Company CMS series,” we’ve primarily been talking about major media conglomerates and their custom CMS development. But two other “new media” giants, free of traditional media products like radio, TV, or newspapers, are very well known for their custom CMS projects: Buzzfeed and Vox.

Buzzfeed’s custom CMS does not have a name, but it’s analytics system does, and that is known as Pound. Vox Media has dubbed its CMS, Chorus. In 2013, media watcher Felix Salmon argued that Buzzfeed and Vox’s custom CMS projects are competitive differentiators, allowing these brands to excel in the market. Media analyst Jeff Jarvis argued that custom CMS is NOT a differentiating factor for media brands and wrote a reaction piece to Salmon’s titled, “CMS as media salvation. Not.” Fast Company magazine, another media site with a custom CMS, posed the question “What’s So Hard About Building A CMS?

This debate about whether custom CMS is a market differentiator kicked off across the blogosphere about 2.5 years ago, and since then these custom CMS projects have become more entrenched. It can be argued that a custom CMS is a differentiating factor, but to build a truly world class custom CMS platform requires deep investments. Keep in mind, just as the media conglomerates have a big cache to spend on custom platform development, their new media counterparts do, too, and Buzzfeed and Vox continue to receive venture capital investments they can put towards their platform development. For instance, NBCUniversal invested $200 million in both Buzzfeed and Vox in 2015. Interestingly, even though it’s investing in Buzzfeed and Vox, NBCUniversal does not share it’s own technology, like it’s NBCU Publisher custom Drupal-based platform, with either Buzzfeed or Vox. It seems counterintuitive that NBCUniversal is not collaborating on media platform technology with two of its biggest investment partners, however some argue (including Buzzfeed executives themselves) that Buzzfeed and Vox are technology companies, further complicating the debate on CMS as a market differentiator for media companies.


In this series we’ve covered the transitions that media companies have made in CMS technologies from about 2010 until today. We see that both radio and newspaper brands are trying to break away from proprietary media specific CMSs that once addressed most of their particular feature requirements. These proprietary CMS solutions are not easily able to handle the growing amount of integrations required to deliver a digital experience that engages, grows, and monetizes audiences. This is where we see some of the biggest opportunity for Drupal and Acquia, with their virtually unlimited capability of scaling and growth.

In the publishing industry, especially newspapers, there is the additional challenge in that many brands are leveraging two CMS solutions - one for print, and one for digital. The movement now for publishing brands is towards a model where editorial and layout duties can be executed within a single CMS of record.

Meanwhile, media industry consolidation over the past several years has resulted in quite a bit of CMS replatforming, as companies combine various media brands. This shift has driven the need to integrate disparate platforms, and shrink the number of vendors they utilize. The industry consolidation has also forced some proprietary CMS vendors to close up shop or merge with their peers. As a result, the market for media oriented CMSs is less crowded, and open source platforms are growing market share in the industry.

Media conglomerates are also trying to cut down on technology complexity, addressing the challenge of having multiple brands across media silos (newspaper, radio, TV, magazines) that utilize multiple specialized CMS platforms. The media titans are doing so with big investments in large custom CMS platforms (often built internally with lofty code names) that will address the needs of all of their diverse media brands. History however has shown that such investments don’t always pay off, and there’s a litany of expensive custom CMS projects that are now dead.

New media brands that are free of traditional media products like TV, radio, and publishing titles are also investing heavily in internally built custom CMS development initiatives. Their efforts are being applauded by the technology and media industry communities as innovative and impressive. However, there’s been huge venture capital investments in these new media brands and most of that capital expenditure is going to technology platforms and not content development. These new media leaders may find that continually innovating on technology is not scalable and comes at the expense of creating more content to grow, engage, and monetize audiences.

Chuck Fishman

Former Director of Industry Marketing and Development, Acquia Inc.

As Director of Industry Marketing and Development, Chuck Fishman leads Acquia's engagements in the industry areas of Media and Entertainment and Retail and Consumer Brands. This includes directing Acquia's go to market approach towards various segments of these industries including fashion retail outlets, consumer product makers, producers of TV and film, book and magazine publishers, broadcast networks and digital media. Acquia enables companies across all industries to develop and manage amazing digital experiences for desktop web, mobile, native apps, digital screens and other internet of things applications.

At Cisco Systems for 5 years, Fishman managed media and entertainment partnerships for the technology giant including developing the company’s partnership with the Warner Music Group. In 2011, after leaving Cisco, Chuck successfully launched the music promotion platform for record labels. His work with partner Rostrum Records led to successful digital releases for superstar rappers Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller.

In his spare time away from Acquia, Fishman also manages partnerships and digital marketing for the legendary George Clinton & P-Funk All Stars, and in the past other major artists such as Blush and Duran Duran. His direct work in both the music and technology industries ensure he has deep a knowledge base of the digital methods content creators can use to grow, engage, and monetize audiences. He also is on the Interactive Advertising Bureau's (IAB) Digital Video and Social Media Committees helping to steer industry standards for digital media practitioners, and participates in the IAB's Native Advertising, Local, B2B, and Mobile Advertising Committees.  

Chuck has broad media and entertainment experience - from 1997 to 2007, he developed and produced new radio programming ventures for iHeartMedia, Bloomberg, CNET Networks (CBS Interactive) and the Wall Street Journal (News Corp).