Busy newsrooms have so much to juggle, between reporting the news and getting it prepped to go out to their audiences.
Providing them a platform that balances powerful editorial flexibility without adding workflow overhead, and which also upholds business needs, is a responsibility Nexstar took to heart when devising a move from an underpowered solution to a new owned and operated system in 2021.
Three years ago, Nexstar’s 100 local newsrooms all used a SaaS mobile app platform that was serviceable in delivering users a simple feed of recently published stories, but little else. The platform was mired in inefficiencies, had a clunky user interface, and lacked flexibility from an editorial or development perspective.
In late 2019, Nexstar acquired 20 more large newsrooms on a different — but equally substandard — app system. The writing was on the wall: The product team at Nexstar Digital needed a new, scalable home-built platform for the company’s growing mobile user base.
Outlining the issues
In a stellar case study of product design, the team started by laying out the issues they were trying to solve in a new system, including:
- Matching the editorial curation between app and Web.
- Conveying quality through design.
- Allowing for self-determination of the development roadmap.
- Increasing the presence and visibility of video.
- Improving analytics capabilities.
- Deepening engagement.
- Lifting revenue.
- Limiting impact to newsroom workflow.
In 2020, Nexstar Digital’s product team collaborated with editorial, engineering, marketing, sales, and programme management to define requirements.
Working through a full design and feature rethink with the 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’ Web sites while allowing some content and feature differentiation to serve the on-the-go nature of app browsing.
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 Web sites and apps.
Development continued into 2021 with significant internal beta testing and training of six newsrooms. With almost 120 apps to be launched, Nexstar Digital set a slow, cautious rollout period for the beta group, giving time for any unexpected surprises to be discovered.
The beta stations launched in March 2021. Once those were live and shown to be stable, the remaining apps were launched in three waves, separated by two weeks to ensure time to prepare the editorial staff. The releases were successful, and the newsrooms were pleased with the improved channel of reporting and representation of their local brands.
From the beginning of the project, Nexstar Digital’s analytics and revenue goals were set, reviewed, and signed off on by all parties.
Efforts pay off
After the rollout was complete, Nexstar set to work reviewing user feedback and deep-diving on the analytics insights the updated tagging structure provided to assess how the new platform was tracking to meet expectations.
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% revenue increase and double-digit percentage increase in video views.
Building a new app platform from the ground up is a massive endeavor for any news organisation. To build 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 is 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.