What Keeps Media CTOs Up at Night

The chief technology officer at media companies was, until quite recently, pretty much thought of as a glorified IT guy. But then things changed. The success of most new publications — think The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, etc — is pinned in large part on their technology platforms.

Digiday asked CTOs at various publications to weigh in on what the biggest tech challenges are for publishers. Judging from the responses, publishers are worrying about the content-management system of the future and how to deal with audiences fragmenting across many digital media access points.

Brent Turner, CTO, MIT Technology Review
The same problem we’ve been having for years: It’s our publishing platforms themselves. It’s our content-management systems. CMSs and related technologies are evolving quickly. There have been many great successes, like Conde Nast’s large-scale partnership with Adobe, Vox Media’s beautiful custom-built Chorus CMS or even Bangor Daily News’ WordPress-Google Docs-InDesign mashup. But we are all still doing lots of hacks, customizations and workarounds on our CMSs. We want a highly scalable, immensely customizable, API-rich, budget-friendly platform that support the features that modern publishers need (e.g., cross media/cross device publishing, translation and localization, passive and active personalization). It may always be a moving target; it’s a big challenge, but progress is happening quickly.

Ryan Mannion, CTO, Politico
The biggest tech challenge that we see as a publisher has to do with where we spend our resources. There are many trends that happen from year to year, and you have to be smart about how you decide to spend those resources. We take a close look at our analytics, users reading habits and advertiser needs to help us determine which path to take and where to invest our resources with regard to technology. Another challenge is keeping up with new mobile platforms as they evolve. As a technologist, I have to fight the urge to be an early adopter and instead look at the situation from a more pragmatic point of view. In a perfect world, we will be on each and every platform. The reality of the situation is that we’ll spend our resources on the platforms that have the most users. Perhaps responsive design will allow us the opportunity to bridge the gap.

Tom Cochran, CTO, The Atlantic
The biggest challenge for technology is enabling the rapid pace of innovation while maintaining secure, stable and scalable systems. There is friction between technology and innovation. Innovation is inherently inefficient because it is unplanned, not standards-based, and there is no true repeatable formula for success. Technology is best when planned, enhances efficiency and will scale your operations when guided by standards. That said, the two are also highly symbiotic because technology drives further innovation, which, consequently, creates more technology. You really need to find the right balance between the two to keep driving your business forward. Moving at the pace of the digital media industry, there is a tendency toward technological entropy, so putting the right standards and parameters in place allows you to operate at a high velocity and continue your innovation cycle.

Robyn Peterson, CTO, Mashable
Hands down, the biggest tech challenge for publishers is going mobile. With this many unique devices, the only solution is responsive and adaptive design. In a responsive design, the website responds to the size of the device by simply reorganizing the layout of its content. With adaptive design, the website not only responds to screen size but also adapts so that you have the right functionality for your device. It’s not easy to build a responsive and adaptive site. The key is implementing as simply and as universally as possible. Implement too many special cases, and you end up with bloated code, which means you just killed your mobile experience by burning up the smartphone hardware or making the user wait too long for pages to load.

Pax Dickinson, CTO, Business Insider
The biggest tech challenge I face at Business Insider is finding a balance between scaling the site to millions of daily users while allowing editors to instantly post breaking news and update existing posts with new information. Caching really helps with scalability but also greatly increases the complexity of keeping the latest information in front of our users. We use a complex system of active cache purges and edge side includes to keep our caches hot and our database and application servers underworked. Using a cache to remove load from the backend means that editors can publish directly to the production database and we don’t have to have a scoop-killingly slow migration between separate systems that run our CMS and our front page.

Theo Burry, CTO of NowThis News
For many years now, there has been a lot of talk about mobile platforms and their importance, but it is only recently that publishers have had to truly confront the reality that their users access the Internet from a wide array of devices including phones and tablets. The biggest tech challenge publishers face now is to think through each of these platforms and design an experience that works for each. Users on mobile devices want quick access to content that is easily digestible on the go. Tablet users want an immersive, touch-gesture-enabled UI. In addition to the constraints of smaller screen size, users on mobile devices may have only limited bandwidth to access the Internet, or they may be completely offline. The challenge to publishers is to build an experience that is flexible enough to work well despite these constraints.