Here’s a new take on the age-old dilemma of buy vs. build — and the gray in between

By Jodie Hopperton


Los Angeles, California, United States


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.

The discussion

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 Kiesow, 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.” 

Variables to consider

  • 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.

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About Jodie Hopperton

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