Here’s a new take on the age-old dilemma of build vs. buy

By Jodie Hopperton


Los Angeles, California, United States


Hi there.

Over the last few months, another old topic seems to have raised its head: build vs. buy. In the past, a few large organisations have built certain pieces of software, but the tide seems to be turning. 

I also noticed some significant updates to the NYTimes mobile app that I wanted to take you through. 

I hope these are of interest. Please drop me a line with feedback and comments. You can reach me at

Thanks, Jodie

Build vs. buy and the gray area in between

One thing I keep thinking about from the recent INMA World Congress in London is the build vs. buy discussion.

I was adamant that media companies should buy. When asked a quick fire question of “build vs. buy,” the CEOs of Schibsted and Bonnier both answered “buy.” But follow-up discussions with a few attendees and speakers made me realise this is a much more nuanced conversation.

I posted this on our Slack channel and want to synthesise some of the excellent points and make a few others.

Clearly an individual news organisation cannot match the resources of many Silicon Valley tech companies even if we wanted to. Mark Stahura of Forum Communications eloquently summed up how many news organisations understandably think about this:

“In a perfect world, we could afford to be vertical monopolies that control all parts of the ‘food chain.’ All but the biggest of us, however, cannot afford the overhead that comes from both inventing and evolving some of these platforms; our limited resources are directed to our journalism.” 

With limited resources, you have to make tough choices. Journalism comes first, especially when there is a lot of existing tech.

At the other end of the scale are news organisations that have built out their own tech and think they have something that can be sold as a software business. 

In the Slack conversation, it was mentioned we could work together and build specifically to create a shared ecosystem. I don’t agree, sorry. I have not seen a case where this has had a successful outcome.

Anyone who has been through this will tell you selling journalism and selling software are very different businesses. I know that not only from the view of the industry in my current role but having seen it first hand as part of The New York Times team that licensed our very first iPad app. It was brilliant. Until other publishers wanted different things. Road maps diverge. And then you have two entirely different teams working on different businesses. 

As with anything, there is not a correct “purist view.” The question isn’t build or buy. It’s when to build, when to buy, and when to adapt. 

As Sarah Pritchet, head of digital publishing experience at NZME, points out: “The balance of build or buy should depend on your product portfolio, internal skill set, business structure, strategy, and being very clear on your needs. It’s a fallacy I think that buy always gets you there faster (in some cases it does for sure). A stack heavy in bought products will have many integrations between those systems and the governance and maintenance of those integrations — especially as we’re moving more and more customer data round between those systems is critical.”

Damon Kiewsow, the Knight Chair in Journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism, is also looking at this topic right now and made the point that “it is not just cost/features/time but also ethics, path dependence, flexibility, etc.” 

There are some clear variables that are valuable to look at:

  • Flexibility: Working with one large tech stack can make you highly dependent and inflexible. A modular approach of buying smaller off-the-shelf solutions and integrating them can be more efficient and give you a more nimble stack to work with.

  • Innovation and staying ahead of the curve: A vendor may not have what you need and if you don’t think it’s going to get built soon, you have to do it yourself. Sarah Wells of Conflux HQ in the UK sent me an excerpt of her new book, which includes Simon Wardley’s curve for maturity of technology. True innovators need to build because the technology doesn’t exist — or at least not in a way that can be brought off the shelf and implemented for your needs. But as I have argued before, is news really the place to innovate?  

  • Experimentation: Sometimes you need to build and adapt to understand what you ultimately need. This may mean disposing of what you’ve done for a long-term solution, and that may be worth it. Hannes Vollmuth, senior editor for digital strategy and innovation at Seudeutsche Zeitung, learned early on from a head of product that “if you first build, you will know exactly what you want to buy.” Wise words. 

  • Core technology vs. differentiating technology: Sometimes your team can build something that’s special to your business. It differentiates you from others and thus gives you an advantage. The “secret sauce,” as one exec told me.  

  • Ability to maintain: Building isn’t a short-term issue. Anything that is built in-house must also be maintained in-house and kept up to date. Do you have the will, and the resources, to do that? And how difficult would it be to decouple the technology if you ultimately decide to outsource?

  • What about open source? This can take you 90% of the way in many cases. It is worth your tech team’s time to develop that extra 10%? See all the points above for the questions you should be asking yourselves.

A big thanks to those who weighed in on this subject.

Date for the diary: INMA Los Angeles study tour 

Did you see we’ve announced the Los Angeles study tour in October 2024? If spending a week with me isn’t enough (ha!), we have a stellar line-up of companies looking at video, creator economy, commerce, and, of course … AI.

Check out the tour and let me know if you have any questions. I’d love to show you around my adopted hometown of LA.

The New York Times iOS design updates

When I opened my NYTimes app recently, I noticed a few updates: two fairly major ones and a small but delightful design update. 

If you look at the bottom navigation of the NYTimes app, you’ll notice it has gone from three options in early 2023 (Home, Sections, For You), adding Games in August 2023, and now settling, for the moment, on five tabs: Home, Listen, Play, Sections, You. Personally, I like the directive language Listen rather than Audio and Play rather than Games.   

Let’s look at the new tab on the bottom nav, Listen, as pictured below. The page features a playlist, which is easy for those who want minimal scroll or decision-making, plus some popular podcasts and audio articles. This could be personalised as they seem to have made some good picks for me, but I cant be sure of this. 

Initially, I wondered whether this may be replacing the audio app, but there are very clear calls to action directing people to the stand-alone audio app. See the last two screenshots below, one at the bottom of the Listen page and the other at the end of a narrated article. 

So while it could be the beginning of the end for the audio app, I have a strong suspicion they are testing to see if different audiences gravitate towards different products, i.e., does the audio app have a stand-alone audience and therefore warrant a stand-alone subscription?

Although The New York Times app has been updated with a Listen feature, it is still directing people to a stand-alone Audio app.
Although The New York Times app has been updated with a Listen feature, it is still directing people to a stand-alone Audio app.

The other big update is to the You tab, on the bottom right of the app. What was For You is now You, but it’s not just the name — it’s much more personalised. This is very similar to the onboarding outlined in the INMA report Best personalisation practices for news media, where a consumer chooses topics and then refines the selection. This page then populates with the popular “card” format, which allows readers to scroll sections and then swipe to look at recent articles. 

The app is also more personalised with its You feature.
The app is also more personalised with its You feature.

Once you have made an initial selection, this can be refined by adding using the “+” in the top right or removing using the “...” at the top right of each card. Those same three dots allow you to rearrange the order of the cards by dragging and dropping, as per the last screenshot below. 

The app can be further visually personalised.
The app can be further visually personalised.

Last but not least, as I was browsing the mobile app in early June, I noticed this live image. It struck me as so simple yet elegant and eye-catching. A small detail, but one that works to highlight something special. 

The app also now features live images.
The app also now features live images.

About this newsletter 

Today’s newsletter is written by Jodie Hopperton, based in Los Angeles and lead for the INMA Product and Tech Initiative. Jodie will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global news media product.

This newsletter is a public face of the Product and Tech Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Jodie at with thoughts, suggestions, and questions. Sign up to our Slack channel.

About Jodie Hopperton

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