“Being in the media industry currently is … challenging, [but] it’s also exciting,” said Erik Bursch, Vice President of Product Technology for media giant Gannett.

Erik Bursch, VP Product Technology at Gannett | USA Today Network, onstage at FutureStack18 with New Relic CEO and Founder Lew Cirne.

Meeting those challenges was the focus of Erik’s appearance in the opening keynote of FutureStack18 San Francisco, where he joined New Relic Founder and CEO Lew Cirne on stage. Erik’s leadership portfolio at Gannett includes the USA Today Network, which was created in 2015 to unite USA Today, the company’s flagship nationwide daily newspaper, with its local media-business holdings that span more than 100 markets and whose digital media brands reach about half of the U.S. population.

The goal of USA Today Network, Erik said, is to transform this immense set of local and national media resources into a single, highly efficient, and tightly coordinated business unit—one that can raise the bar with its ability to engage subscribers, serve its audience with a truly exceptional digital media experience, and above all, compete and succeed with a business model that moves beyond traditional revenue streams.

Watch the video of Erik’s conversation with Lew here, or read on below:

USA Today Network’s 3-part strategy

To reach its goals, Gannett has developed a three-part strategy that leverages its long-time partnership with New Relic in sophisticated new ways. The strategy includes:

  1. Application performance. “First and foremost is engaging and expanding our audiences and the impact that our audience has on our brands,” Erik said. “And that starts with performance.  We’ve taken a lot of effort in 2018 to really fix the plumbing, the foundation layers to our products. I really look at 2019 being the time when you hear about USA Today and our local brands being the most performant media sites out there.”
  2. Content transformation. As a part of USA Today Network’s digital transformation, Erik said, the organization was also rethinking traditional approaches to content. “The second [goal] is reinventing what a story is, what content is. It’s not just a headline and a photo and text anymore. It’s engaging with our users, presenting a media story much differently. You think of Instagram, you think of Snapchat and the story aspects there, how rich that is. I think that’s another hurdle for us.”
  3. Business model reinvention. The third pillar of Gannett’s digital strategy, according to Erik, involves building a strong and sustainable revenue model. “How do we go beyond display advertising in the media space? We joke internally about, ‘What’s our Amazon two-day shipping hook?'” Erik said, referring to a key innovation that helped secure the success of Amazon Prime. “What’s going to be the hook for the media side of things to be able to bring those users back and have them engaged past just display advertising?”

New Relic’s crucial role in Gannett’s digital journey

Once Erik set the stage by sharing USA Today Network’s transformation agenda, the conversation turned to New Relic’s essential role in enabling these efforts. “We first came to New Relic because of the product suite that you offered at the time,” Erik recalled, “but really what’s made the relationship [grow] is the partnership.” Today, he stated, one of the most interesting aspects of the companies’ partnership is the way in which it transcends the boundaries that often define where and how New Relic creates value for its customers.

“When we came on New Relic, the dev and ops teams came together pretty quickly and said, ‘Hey, we understand the value that New Relic presents to us.’ But it was sort of in your traditional sense of, ‘Hey, webpage is loading in 5 seconds. That’s bad. The webpage is loading in 2 seconds. That’s good.’ Or, ‘We see that there’s over 80% CPU utilization in the stack. That’s bad.'”

New Relic’s full potential, however, became apparent when other teams began to experiment with “layering” USA Today Network business and customer data as custom events into “the rich data that we had from New Relic,” he said.

That’s when the light bulb really went off, Erik said. Now, he added, “our SEO teams are consuming SEO dashboards and our ad teams are looking at the different advertisers’ performance on our site. … Literally, walking up and down the hall, you’ll see New Relic dashboards up of folks who didn’t even know what New Relic was a year and a half ago.”

USA Today Network combines New Relic with its own business data to generate unique insights into business performance.

Erik also walked the keynote audience through examples of how USA Today Network is turning its combined technology and business performance metrics into practical insights. With New Relic, he said, it changes the conversation to, “Okay, if we do have an outage—hopefully we don’t, but if we do—what did the outage actually cost us from a revenue perspective?” USA Today was already doing operational postmortems, Erik noted, but now it can address what it means from a revenue standpoint.

“We can ask questions like, ‘What does an outage really cost us from a revenue standpoint?’ and ‘What did a new product or platform release give us in terms of revenue benefit?” Similarly, if a new functionality release bumps up page views, he can see what that release contributed to revenue. “It’s opening the game to something much wider,” Erik said.

The path to Kubernetes: GKE and New Relic FTW

Turning back to the technology side of the relationship, Erik focused on a topic that defined many of the most interesting conversations at FutureStack18: Kubernetes. “2016 is when we started venturing down [the Kubernetes] path,” Erik said. USA Today Network was already seeing the benefits of containers, he said, as they helped his team “shrink our footprint, deploy faster, fail faster, scale faster, and cut down the cost.”

Adding Kubernetes, he said, amplified these benefits, especially when USA Today Network began building its own large Kubernetes clusters in 2017. Along with the benefits, however, Erik pointed out that there are overhead costs associated with maintaining a Kubernetes ecosystem, and USA Today Network was looking for ways to bring down those costs.

So recently, USA Today Network took a step towards Google Kubernetes Engine (GKE), Google’s managed Kubernetes service, Erik noted. Instead of having to devote resources to managing Kubernetes itself, turning management over to Google “has been a massive win for us,” he said.

The other key ingredient for the company’s success with Kubernetes, Erik said, was using New Relic to maintain visibility and monitor the health of its entire technology stack. The USA Today Network has some 7,000 containers and 3,000 pods, Erik noted, all inside of GKE. And because “Kubernetes at its core is an abstraction layer, you can’t just say, ‘Hey, I’ve got great Kubernetes monitoring!’” he said. “You have to know what’s going on at the container level and at what’s happening at the system level beneath it.”

“With the bet we’re putting on GKE and containers and Kubernetes as a whole,” Erik concluded, “we need a holistic solution for visibility. For us, availability and performance are going to drive us to success, so we needed that tool.”

Gannett and New Relic: A winning formula for digital transformation

USA Today Network’s ability to engage a mass audience gives it a major advantage in winning advertisers and investing in technology infrastructure. And its ability to deliver superior content and a modern digital experience is also a big differentiator.

As Erik and Lew both pointed out, technology innovation plays a critical role for Gannett and USA Today Network. By partnering with New Relic to gain new visibility into application performance and support its work with Kubernetes and GKE, Gannett hopes to achieve its vision of building and deploying high-performing digital media applications and meet the challenges facing modern media organizations.

Matthew McKenzie is a Senior Content Editor at New Relic. He's a veteran writer, editor, content strategist and IT industry analyst with more than two decades of experience following the evolution of cloud computing and related technologies. View posts by .

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