Two problematic systems linking dozens of newsrooms within US publisher Nexstar have been replaced by a mobile platform built by the company itself.
In an INMA ideas blog, product vice president Drew Clayton says although a massive undertaking, the process has delivered the features and scalability it had been looking for.
Clayton says Texas-based Nexstar Media’s 100 local newsrooms had been using a “inflexible” cloud-based mobile app platform when it acquired 20 more large newsrooms in late 2019. “It was was serviceable in delivering users a simple feed of recently published stories, but little else,” he says. Mired in inefficiencies, the system had a clunky user interface and lacked flexibility from an editorial or development perspective.
The writing was on the wall following the 2019 acquisition: The product team needed a new, scalable home-built platform for a growing mobile user base, and started by laying out the issues they were trying to solve. These included matching the editorial curation between app and web, conveying quality through design, and allowing for self-determination of the development roadmap.
They also wanted to increase the presence and visibility of video, analytics capabilities, and engagement, and lift revenue.
Working with agency Code & Theory, the requirements and UX came together in a modernised vision of how Nexstar Digital wanted its individual news agencies to stand out against the competition. User research and competitive audits informed the decisions, including a need to improve legibility and accessibility features for users with low vision.
“The result was an elegant experience with clearly defined topic-specific modules that automatically pull the same top stories as stations’ websites while allowing some content and feature differentiation to serve the on-the-go nature of app browsing,” says Clayton.
All this would be built into a single centrally developed codebase and released across the individual apps with CMS-differentiated branding and content. After initial setup, editors would not have to do any separate regular programming of the apps, allowing their focus to remain on publishing news, and letting the systems handle distribution to their websites and apps.
Development continued into 2021 with significant internal beta testing and training of six newsrooms. Beta stations launched in March, with remaining apps launched in three waves, separated by two weeks to ensure time to prepare the editorial staff.
Clayton says the releases were successful, and newsrooms were pleased with the improved channel of reporting and representation of their local brands. Analytics and revenue goals were set, reviewed, and signed off on by all parties.
After the rollout, feedback was reviewed and deep-diving on the analytics insights the updated tagging structure provided to assess how the new platform was tracking.
“Through iterative strategic adjustments to the experience over the following months that created new opportunities for users to deepen their visits, both revenue and engagement metrics outpaced the old platforms within seven months, with a 35 per cent revenue increase and double-digit percentage increase in video views,” he says.
Building a new app platform from the ground up is a massive endeavour for any news organisation. Clayton says building one that serves 116 newsrooms, out-performs the previous platform, serves users and editors alike, and frees an organisation to set its own roadmap instead of depending on external vendors has been a gratifying achievement.
“Orchestration on this scale required strong project management across multiple teams, ultimately leaving the company’s bottom line stronger, technology more scalable, reporting better represented, and newsrooms better able to inform their readers.”