Should you custom-build an online newsroom—or buy one off the shelf?

Major organizations such as H&R Block, Nissan North America and MasterCard take varying approaches to creating digital newsrooms that attract reporters and fans.

When H&R Block was looking to build a corporate newsroom, it chose off-the-shelf software to run the site.

When Nissan North America created its newsroom, it had a vendor custom-design it.

For most organizations, an online newsroom is your primary bullhorn, leading reporters to your sources and helping fans share content. Yet top companies take a variety of approaches to creating digital newsrooms, whether buying specialized software off the shelf, designing their own or using another approach.

“Company online newsrooms today are for everyone, not just [members of] the media,” says Gene King, director of corporate communications for H&R Block, which uses PressPage newsroom software. “While we target the media in our design and the content, we recognize that our site also needs to be very user-friendly … for all visitors.”

Related: Free download: Is it better to build or buy a solution for your organization’s newsroom?

Nissan’s custom-built newsroom

Nissan North America had its newsroom custom built by a vendor, says Henriëtte James, senior manager for digital communications. Nissan works with a content designer called Wieck, whose staff include former journalists, affording a reporter’s perspective, she says.

Its goal is to get automotive journalists to the news with as few clicks as possible. Yet the newsroom must be accessible to other visitors, such as dealers, bloggers, consumers and car enthusiasts, James says.

“You have dedicated journalists,” James says, “but these days, with social media, a lot of people—bloggers and people who are not traditional journalists—can still share information.”

A contemporary newsroom must be more than just an old-style list of press contacts, offering photos, B-roll and newspaper-style stories. Nissan publishes content such as its athletic sponsorships and a story on how it provided the “world’s largest electric-vehicle fleet ever” to the United Nation’s climate conference in Paris this month.

The custom-built site focuses on the needs of journalists, in contrast to the newsrooms of many organizations, which are part of the marketing or consumer website, James says.

“They just have a page or a little tab that says ‘news,'” James says. “It’s just a static list of their press releases. Not very engaging. Not very rich content. Maybe not very easy to search or to navigate because there’s a lot of the marketing content mixed in with it.”

Bart Verhulst, chief executive of PressPage, says there have been strong developments recently in the use of newsrooms to promote stories for different audiences.

“The modern online newsroom has become a strategic tool for communicators,” Verhulst says.

‘Sausage Nonnas’ and an off-the-shelf newsroom

Recently, Johnsonville Sausage hosted a clever promotion. Partnering with Uber, it brought three Italian grandmothers (“nonnas,” they are called) to Chicago in tiny houses on wheels and offered to deliver meals to lucky customers. (“Sausage Nonnas Sausaged Chicago!” Johnsonville’s newsroom proclaimed afterward.)

The Wisconsin company’s newsroom supported the stunt with heavy posting with an eye to social media sharing—facilitated by its PressPage (a Ragan partner) software, says Stephanie Dlugopolski, manager of PR and social media.

Formerly, publishing was a cumbersome process. “I did not have an option to upload visual content as well as regular content in a timely and simple manner,” Dlugopolski says.

The current software makes it easy for reporters and others to download images. The software makes social media sharing possible—something Johnsonville lacked before—and provides analytics, so Dlugopolski can see what is working and determine how to shape future content.

“It’s got to be easy for me to manage,” she says. “I’m a one-person shop, so the more efficient I can be in getting that content live … and the more accessible and sharing options that I can offer our visitors, that is also critical.”

Attracting journalists and fans with an off-the-shelf newsroom

H&R Block’s newsroom also draws both reporters and members of the public looking for expertise on tax issues, but it does so through PressPage. The company uses a brand journalism approach, publishing articles on the implication of income from fantasy football or news about franchise award winners.

Using an outside vendor was helpful because IT departments are, quite rightly, focused on the business needs of the organization, says King. To complement those efforts, PressPage offered its knowledge and best practices in developing the newsroom, he says.

The design encourages sharing and is responsive to devices beyond the laptop, such as tablets and smartphones.

“We know that consumers are coming to H&R Block because they need information about taxes and tax tips,” King says, “so we have that content readily available for them as well.”

MasterCard’s ‘Engagement Bureau’

MasterCard’s newsroom, which it calls its “Engagement Bureau,” employs several publishing tools, including WordPress and Percolate, says Marcy Cohen, vice president and senior business leader of digital communications.

“The tools allow us to centralize our planning and publishing for our owned channels, including our newsroom, blog, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn,” Cohen says.

The company also works with a design firm to customize the newsroom for its global publishing needs across seven regions and 11 languages. MasterCard says this “omni-channel, one voice approach” boosts its global approach to storytelling.

The newsroom offers subsections such as briefs, press releases, its blog and a video gallery. Stories cover corporate news such as quarterly reports, along with more consumer-oriented offerings, such as the increase in travel spending and the “North American Psyche of Shopping.”

“We provide perspective on our product announcements and on industry news as well as trending topics to add value for journalists, bloggers and influencers,” Cohen says.

Cohen says organizations should make sure newsrooms are easily accessible from the corporate website. Also, she says, they should use tools such as Muck Rack to identify the topics that journalists are writing about, Cohen says.

Most of all, producing “top-notch content that [journalists] want to link to in their stories is a great way to have your newsroom get noticed.”

Building from scratch

Some organizations go the do-it-yourself approach, designing software in-house. Generally, it takes a large organization with huge resources to do it, but Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. went this route, says Jeff Brown, entrepreneur in residence.

The soon-to-launch news cooperative, affiliated with the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Florida International University, found the software unaffordable. Brown has coding experience, however, so he created a program from scratch called NewsBahn, he says. It is not for sale, but it enables Fourth Estate to handle content such as news articles, documents, audio, as video as a news package and export content in real time.

“It’s really ugly, but it works really, really well,” Brown says, adding, “Not everyone is able to architect a complex application from scratch. And make no mistake about it, the NewsBahn is an extremely complex application.”

Building it yourself means you must maintain and update it, Brown says. “Because of that, it’s not the right way to go for most people.”

Related: Free download: Is it better to build or buy a solution for your organization’s newsroom?


This article is in partnership with PressPage.

Topics: PR

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