Case Study: Building a Media Network

Project Profile 💼

In a snapshot:

  • Time: Winter 2019 – Summer 2021
  • Role: Product Designer
  • Design Methodology: Minimum Viable Product
  • Location: Remote

My main contributions:

  1. Build MVP
  2. Develop data structures / IA
  3. Create product roadmap
  4. Implement growth strategies through digital marketing and tracking mechanisms

The issue of Fake News emerged prominently during the 2016 Presidential Election and continues to be a significant concern for readers seeking reliable information. As a former journalist, I personally experienced the frustration of encountering news headlines that seemed biased and slanted. This challenge was compounded by the echo chamber effect on social media platforms like Facebook, where users were exposed to content reinforcing their existing beliefs, further eroding the authority, authenticity, and objectivity of news sources.

In response to this problem, The Press Enquirer was created as a novel approach to address the inundation of headlines and misinformation. The platform takes a fresh perspective by stripping out unnecessary elements and focusing on providing readers with intuitive experiences to evaluate and rate news stories.

The primary goal of The Press Enquirer is to empower readers with the ability to critically assess news stories and contribute to a more informed and discerning readership. By offering a platform where users can engage with news content and provide their ratings and evaluations, The Press Enquirer aims to foster a more open, transparent, and accountable news ecosystem.

The Process ✍️

The Press Enquirer had its humble beginnings as “Folsom Press,” named after the city where I relocated a few years ago. The motivation behind creating the platform was the difficulty in finding relevant news for the local area. As a solution, I decided to build my own news aggregator tailored to Folsom.

To my delight, Folsom Press gained steady traction and positive feedback, prompting me to explore the possibility of expanding its reach to other cities. Recognizing the potential of the stripped-down format in various locations, I gradually added more cities to the platform. This expansion proved successful, further fueling my curiosity about its applicability to non-location-based verticals.

With an experimental mindset, I extended the aggregator to encompass different niches, such as obstacle course running and blockchain news. Surprisingly, these diverse verticals also attracted readers and garnered interest.

To accommodate the expanding content and diverse interests, I developed a location- and niche-based navigation system. This approach provided users with a more personalized experience, allowing them to explore news from specific locations and niche topics that aligned with their interests.

Through this iterative journey of growth and experimentation, The Press Enquirer emerged as a comprehensive and dynamic news aggregator, catering to various locations and niche interests. By combining location-based news with non-location-based verticals, The Press Enquirer became a unique and versatile platform, offering readers a tailored and engaging news experience.

The Requirements 📋

Building a content aggregation service is a resource-intensive task, mainly due to the continuous influx of incoming data, such as news headlines, Instagram pictures, and city hall tweets. To handle this data flow efficiently, each type of data across each press site is pulled through automated scheduled tasks known as cronjobs.

Initially, the platform was hosted on a highly-optimized shared hosting plan. However, as the volume of data and traffic increased, the shared hosting plan proved insufficient, resulting in a gradually deteriorating user experience and regular bandwidth overages. The cumulative costs associated with hosting the network of sites exceeded the monthly budget, necessitating a more robust hosting solution.

After extensive research, a decision was made to migrate the entire network to a dedicated Virtual Private Server (VPS) hosting service. This migration offered numerous benefits, including improved performance, reliability, and scalability. The VPS hosting solution incorporated vertical scaling, allowing for flexibility in adjusting server size and block storage based on demand.

To ensure optimal performance, the VPS hosting service utilized cutting-edge hardware, featuring Intel Xeon SSDs configured in a RAID10 setup. This cloud server configuration offered enhanced data processing capabilities, enabling the platform to handle the increasing data volume with ease.

Post-POC 📈

After the successful creation of the initial press site, which served as a proof-of-concept, the subsequent iteration of the platform was driven by a singular focus: optimization. Every aspect of the site, from the slider and navigation components to other key elements, underwent rigorous testing and selection based on their performance metrics. The goal was to ensure that the content-based site delivered a highly responsive and seamless user experience.

Numerous slider and navigation components were evaluated, with nearly a dozen options considered for their performance characteristics. The chosen components were carefully selected, prioritizing efficiency and responsiveness to enhance the user’s interaction with the site’s content.

The optimization efforts encompassed several critical factors, and improvements were sought across various metrics, including:

  1. Time to First Byte (TTFB): Efforts were made to reduce the TTFB, aiming for faster server response times to minimize delays in content delivery to users.
  2. First Contentful Paint (FCP): The FCP metric was improved to prioritize the rendering of essential content elements, providing users with a faster initial visual experience.
  3. Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS): Measures were taken to minimize unexpected layout shifts, ensuring a smoother and more stable user experience during page load.
  4. CPU and RAM usage: The platform’s resource utilization was optimized to efficiently manage CPU and RAM usage, enhancing overall performance and stability.

Additionally, the optimization process extended to the hardware infrastructure. The actual hardware was carefully chosen and configured to meet the demanding requirements of the content-based site. Ensuring robust hardware capabilities played a pivotal role in accommodating the increasing user traffic and data processing demands.

As part of the comprehensive optimization efforts encompassing both hardware and development aspects, the upgraded version of the press network included a significant overhaul of the overall design. Departing from the constraints of a fixed grid-based design, the new version adopted a masonry layout. This layout provided greater flexibility in accommodating promotional content, allowing for variable heights of promo blocks and, consequently, creating more visual opportunities for displaying such content.

To further enhance the user experience, in-page analytics tools such as Plerdy, HotJar, Inspectlet, Mouseflow, and Smartlook were employed. Leveraging these tools, specific features were strategically hidden on the initial page load, resulting in a more streamlined and optimized user experience. This approach not only improved the overall usability and navigation but also positively impacted several key performance indicators (KPIs) measured by Google Lighthouse.

The utilization of the masonry layout and in-page analytics collectively contributed to a more user-centric design, enabling the press network to engage users with visually appealing and seamlessly accessible promotional content. Additionally, the enhanced user experience, driven by data-driven insights from the analytics tools, translated into improved Google Lighthouse KPIs, signifying better performance and efficiency across the platform.

Growth Strategies 📈

The initial exploration of the prevalence of belief in fake news among Californians evolved into a broader curiosity about its existence beyond the West Coast and across various demographics. To delve deeper into this inquiry and identify faster growth opportunities, comprehensive research was undertaken.

The research process involved analyzing multiple factors crucial for market assessment. Population count, median household income, political affiliation, and current trends were among the key parameters considered. By incorporating these inputs, potential markets with favorable growth prospects were identified.

Leveraging the research insights, a strategic decision was made to establish several additional press sites, strategically targeting specific markets. These new sites were created to form a network capable of cross-pollination, fostering mutual growth and engagement. The interconnected nature of the network allowed for the seamless flow of content and insights between the various press sites.

This expansion strategy aimed to go beyond geographical constraints and extend the platform’s reach to diverse audiences across different locations and demographics. By tapping into markets with promising growth potential, the press network sought to broaden its user base and engage with readers who shared similar interests and concerns.

The Press Enquirer Publications

New Features & Refinements 📈

With a notable rise in the average number of daily readers and subscribers, the press network seized the opportunity to introduce new features and refine existing elements. The subsequent iteration prioritized enhancements to the user backend, streamlining the process of creating and distributing promotional content seamlessly.

A key addition to the platform was the implementation of a user account management area. This centralized hub served as the backbone, seamlessly integrating various functionalities to achieve the ultimate goal of automation. Users gained access to a unified space where they could manage their accounts, preferences, and interactions with the press network efficiently.

The focus on automation played a pivotal role in optimizing user experiences and operational efficiency. By empowering users with a simplified backend for promotional content creation and distribution, the platform enhanced engagement and strengthened its position as a valuable tool for content creators and marketers alike.

Additionally, the user account management area fostered a cohesive and user-centric environment, allowing users to have greater control over their interactions with the press network. The consolidation of various functions within this area further contributed to the overall user satisfaction and streamlined user interactions.

Data Tracking & Milestones 🧭

In the pursuit of informed decision-making and a clear understanding of the press network’s progress, the importance of data tracking and milestones cannot be overstated. While intuition and gut feelings provide valuable insights, relying solely on them can be limiting. To ensure a comprehensive grasp of the network’s performance and future trajectory, a robust data tracking system was established.

To facilitate seamless data monitoring and accessibility, all essential services supporting the network were integrated into a mobile app. This mobile app served as a powerful tool, enabling stakeholders to retrieve critical data at their fingertips. With a simple touch, growth metrics, usage statistics, and upcoming milestones were readily available for assessment.

The data tracking system provided valuable insights into key performance indicators (KPIs), such as daily readership, subscriber growth, and engagement metrics. This data-driven approach allowed the press network to make well-informed decisions based on empirical evidence, rather than relying solely on instinct or guesswork.

By leveraging the mobile app for data tracking, the press network cultivated a culture of data-driven decision-making, empowering stakeholders to stay informed about the network’s ongoing developments. This real-time visibility into the network’s performance enabled quick responses to emerging trends, opportunities, and challenges.

The emphasis on data tracking also played a pivotal role in setting milestones and objectives for the network’s continued evolution. By understanding the network’s current performance and potential areas of growth, milestones were strategically set to chart the path for progress and expansion.

Results 💪

Overall, the press network has achieved remarkable success, amassing over 20,000 regular monthly readers in less than two years. Despite operating on a tight budget, all essential services necessary for maintaining its functionality have been efficiently managed. The trajectory of the press network is exceptionally robust, boasting an impressive Year-over-Year (YoY) growth rate of 120%.

The success of the press network can be attributed to several key factors. Firstly, a strong focus on optimization and automation has contributed to its efficient operation and streamlined user experience. By prioritizing performance-driven components and data-driven decision-making, the platform ensures an optimal user journey and engagement.

Furthermore, the network’s ability to cater to diverse markets and demographics through the creation of additional press sites has broadened its reach and appeal. The interconnected nature of the network, coupled with cross-pollination of content, has fostered continued growth and user engagement.

Despite operating on a shoestring budget, the press network has demonstrated remarkable scalability and resource management. By leveraging data insights and analytics tools, the network has made informed decisions, leading to continuous improvements and growth.

The impressive YoY growth rate of 120% underscores the press network’s resounding success in attracting and retaining readers. This exponential growth speaks to the platform’s relevance, reliability, and value to its audience.

The Press Enquirer’s achievements are a testament to its strategic approach, data-driven decision-making, and emphasis on optimization and automation. With a steadily growing readership and a healthy growth trajectory, the press network has established itself as a thriving platform in the competitive landscape of news aggregation.