CNN’s new, proprietary publishing platform helps ‘reduce tech debt’

CNN went live with a new content management system called Stellar on Tuesday, created in-house by CNN’s product & technology team. 

The updated CMS allows editorial teams to publish content faster across different platforms and with more flexibility on the backend, while the product team is in the process of updating the website’s design and functionality on the front end. Eventually, too, the CMS is designed to offer advertisers more options.

The site now loads faster, “slightly exceeding current standards” as determined by Google’s Core Web Vitals report (which currently shows pages should load faster than 2.5 seconds), said CNN Digital’s head of product, Amanda Rottier. Rottier hopes it will improve reader engagement, which CNN measures by looking at time spent, how often readers are returning to the site and how much content is consumed.

The new CMS could help CNN’s business by allowing it to cut back on the money it’s spending with third-party tech vendors and by improving its user experience and engagement to attract more ad dollars. According to media buyers, advertisers look for a good user experience and high engagement rates when evaluating where they’re putting their budgets.

“We had legacy publishing systems and a lot of them. We really felt strongly that in order for us to grow our business, and grow and innovate on our user experience, we needed to effectively migrate all of our systems and our CMS to a new homegrown system that could allow us to do that more effectively,” Rottier said.

Cutting back on ‘tech debt’

CNN reduced the number of third-party tech vendors it was paying for from 50 to 10 by building those components into Stellar, amounting to an operating cost savings of about 60%, Rottier said. She did not say how much money CNN was paying those vendors.

“It’s really reducing that tech debt down a lot more,” she said. 

“Advertisers are increasingly looking for ways to reduce their environmental impact, and [implement] sustainable practices. The design and development of a new CMS can help reduce energy usage, decrease file size and minimize bandwidth, ultimately creating a more sustainable and responsible digital ecosystem,” said Krystal Olivieri, global chief innovation officer at ad agency Group M, in an email.

Improving user experience to draw in advertisers

The new CMS, which took nearly a year to build, gives CNN’s editorial team more flexibility with the design and experiences across CNN’s website and app, Rottier said. For example, content can now be published on multiple platforms in one central place, for distribution onto Apple News, Facebook and CNN’s mobile app, Rottier said.

The CMS was built based on feedback from CNN’s editorial team, she added. In anonymous feedback sent to CNN’s product team and shared with Digiday by a spokesperson, editorial employees said Stellar reduces the amount of time spent programming and publishing content, “from double digit minutes to single digit minutes and seconds” — especially important when dealing with breaking news. Stellar allows them to drag and drop pieces of content for the page and edit collaboratively, according to the comments.

Stellar will also enable CNN to improve the user experience and advertising offerings by giving their product team more flexibility to build content personalization and recommendation features, Rottier said. According to Comscore, had nearly 122 million unique visitors in March 2023.

Rottier did not have details on what this would look like, but noted CNN’s teams are in talks with advertisers to determine product development with marketers in mind down the line. CNN hasn’t built new ad units or features for advertisers with the launch of Stellar yet. Of the four ad agencies Digiday contacted, none of them had heard specific pitches from CNN about its new platform.

“We evaluate publisher partners primarily based on their content, audience, creative units, cost, measurement approach and added value. CMS improvements can absolutely make the experience better for users, which may improve time on site, engagement and number of visits, but we’d expect publishers to be continuously improving those elements over time,” Claire Russell, head of media at ad agency Fitzco, said in an email.

Jared Lake, svp and head of media investments at ad agency Ocean Media, added: “ I think moving into an election year, any product improvements that provide advertisers with better options for targeting and relevancy is a good thing.”

The company is in the process of fully migrating its backend system to Stellar, which is hosted on CNN’s tech stack. Agency executives did not seem concerned that the migration would impact impressions on CNN’s site, an issue that beleaguered Dotdash Meredith’s tech stack migration. To “minimize any possible negative impacts,” CNN’s editorial teams have created content using the previous CMS but displayed it using Stellar templates, according to a CNN spokesperson.

Stellar was first tested by the team behind CNN’s product review site Underscored. The entire CNN Opinion team has been onboarded onto Stellar, meaning several hundred CNN employees are already using the publishing platform, according to a CNN spokesperson. The next teams to be onboarded to the CMS are Enterprise, Culture and Features. Rottier expects all of CNN’s teams to be using Stellar by the end of this summer.

Publishers such as Ingenio, Forbes, Dotdash Meredith and BuzzFeed are updating their publishing platforms to integrate more AI tools. But CNN said this isn’t part of their roadmap yet. “We don’t have anything specific, but we are actively looking at ways to think about how AI can help both our editors and our users as well,” Rottier said.

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