Build or buy: What tech strategy is best for publishers?

08.03.2022 · By Camilla Allen

Last month, The Professional Publishers Association (PPA) hosted an event that tackled a prominent question facing publishers today: should they invest in building out their own in-house technologies or buy in the expertise or SaaS solutions to support their tech stack? As part of the PPA Decodes series, the event, sponsored by publisher technology platform Sovrn, saw a panel of experts at the forefront of the industry join forces to share valuable insights on this hot topic.

The speakers:

  • David Hayter, Head of Digital at Stylist Group
  • Sanjay Ravindran, CIO at New Statesman Media Group
  • Miriam Keck, Digital Director at City A.M.
  • Denis Haman, Executive Director at Glide and former technology leader at Northern & Shell, News UK and Which?
speakers ppa decodes build or buy
speakers ppa decodes build or buy
Didn’t catch the event? Take a look at some of the key highlights in the PPA’s round-up video here

Some key event takeaways:

  • If building in-house solutions, publishers must be prepared to invest long-term.
  • Hiring developers, designers and product managers is expensive and retaining this talent in a competitive market is a challenge.
  • Buying in can be a cost-effective and flexible option as publishers can tap into specialist tech resources and talent for short periods of time.
  • Building can take budget away from what publishers do best: creating high-quality content – the product that audiences ultimately see and engage with.

The event kicked off by discussing the bigger picture. The panel agreed that the first step for publishers facing this question is to clearly establish their goals and identify what their audience needs are. What is the organisation aiming to achieve by implementing new technology? What problems are they looking to solve?

But this discussion should not be limited to finance, product & technology and senior business stakeholders. “Editorial absolutely need to be at the table,” says Keck, Digital Director at City A.M. Ultimately, they will be the ones using these solutions on a daily basis, so their input is key.

Denis Haman, Executive Director at Glide and former technology leader at Northern & Shell, News UK and Which?, adds: “In some companies editorial has a much stronger voice than in others. In companies where editorial has a really strong voice, and a strong editor, they’re very much at the table as to that selection process. But in other companies, we may not even see them.”

Next, publishers should be realistic about the commitments they can make. While building tech in-house may seem like the best option to address specific business challenges, it often requires a disproportionate amount of budget to create, implement and maintain. Rather than a one-off project, building tech within a company should be viewed as an ongoing initiative most solutions take years to develop.

“For me, especially in the age of very expensive tech talent, having to invest in a team that’s going to reinvent the wheel to produce the same capabilities that you can get off the shelf for a fraction of the price seems a wrong direction,” says Haman.

He advises publishers to think about tapping into the world-class expertise of tech companies that can adapt their solutions to meet an organisation’s unique needs. This is especially true for smaller publishing companies with limited resources to dedicate to complex and time-consuming projects.

In a competitive, data-driven landscape, salaries for data science, project manager and UX roles have hit record highs. The rising demand for tech skills and shortage of talent has seen companies having to dig deep into their pockets to keep up with increasing salary expectations for specialist tech roles. This is something that poses a significant challenge for many publishers.          

“We did have an in-house tech team before,” says Keck. “The problem we had was people left and we had trouble filling the roles. They took knowledge with them and it was just so difficult to keep people as we are not a technology company, we are a content company. We might have got the best journalists, but we might not have the best developers. And we just kept having issues until eventually the site just crumbled.”

In order to attract and retain top-level talent, publishers need to stand out from the crowd. Ravindran, CIO at New Statesman Media Group, explains: “You need to make sure [new recruits] are challenged, make sure you’re working in modern agile fashions, and make sure that their values are reflected in the company’s values. Easy to say but hard to do. But it’s those things that really matter with talent: aligning of their values and the company’s values and making sure that the purpose is there.”

A simple and effective alternative is bringing third-party talent into your team. This can be far more cost-effective and faster to implement. “We’re not a CMS company, it’s something we can outsource,” Keck, City A.M.’s Digital Director, said. “We’re a small publisher and when it comes down to the numbers, it’s a lot cheaper for us to outsource. And so far, it’s been a really good experience for us.”

“What we were able to do through outsourcing it to an agency is get access to world class talent, really amazing talent, as well as to innovation and broader market thinking. We couldn’t have done this on our own,” says Keck. This has enabled City A.M. to focus its efforts on building high-class editorial teams that can produce brilliant content that will keep readers engaged.

There is also another favourable option for publishers: software as a service (SaaS). Traditionally, publishers have run on systems primarily housed on their own computers and managed by their own IT department. However, the advent of Cloud-based technology has meant that publishers no longer have the upfront cost and complexity of owning and maintaining their own IT infrastructure   they can simply pay for a service when they need it.

It’s been a game-changer for publishers. This technology has enabled small and medium-sized companies to scale significantly without the eye-watering cost. SaaS solutions are cost effective to implement, automatically updated, and much faster to install into editorial workflows than previous systems. With everything accessible through a remote Cloud network, applications can be easily acquired via a web browser to run alongside technology built in-house and hired expertise to support editorial teams.  

Publishers are already taking advantage of the abundance of specialised SaaS applications on the market. For example, AI-driven transcription tools such as Otter AI are complex to develop but publishers have benefited from paying for this pre-made technology on demand to support and speed up the work of journalists. In addition, the New York Times is one of the many publishers to integrate communication tool Slack into their business, using the Slack live-blogging tool to work alongside its existing WordPress live-blogging software.

Here at LOYAL, we’re developing editorial SaaS tools powered by cutting-edge technology, such as AI and machine learning. With our tools, publishers can quickly and effectively implement our solutions into their business, enabling editorial teams to run more efficiently. For instance, publishers large and small can harness the power of our NLP technology to unlock their content archives to improve internal linking, boost search engine optimisation, and much more. You can find out more about our tools here

Ultimately, deciding whether to build or buy comes down to competence, capabilities, and a publishers’ growth goals. If you have significant resources, time and ability to attract the right talent, then you may wish to build solutions in-house. However, buying in the expert help of tech companies that can adapt to the specific needs of each publisher is a cost-effective, flexible and powerful alternative.

This approach enables publishers to focus on what they do best the tech companies can take care of the rest.

Here at LOYAL, we’re on a mission to help publishers enhance and speed up their editorial operations in order to give them a competitive edge. Get in touch to find out how we could work with your organisation to provide tailored tech solutions to meet the needs of your editorial team.   

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