The traditional press industry has undergone a phenomenal transformation with the advent of the digital age. Many say that newspapers are dying, and in the face of this scenario, there are many different ways that major media groups have chosen to diversify their business models. The truth is that they all share the same challenge: How do media groups improve reader engagement to increase loyalty and monetisation?
Grupo Vocento is a leading multimedia communications group in Spain. It accounts for 24% of newspaper circulation in the country, thanks to its 14 newspapers with national, regional and local coverage, including ABC.es, the third-largest national general-interest newspaper. As a result of the merger between Grupo Correo and Prensa Española, the group also owns various audio-visual media, production companies, and internet sites.
The group have been no stranger to the way in which the industry has changed, especially in the face of fierce competition from other media to retain its audience. For Vocento's growing IT organisation, this need to modernise as a business has brought with it many technical and cultural challenges.
Application performance: The key to loyalty
User loyalty is a key issue for the teams behind the group's various publications and websites. Ariel Ferrandini, Software Architect, sums it up this way: ‘It's very easy to make users leave, and very difficult to make them come back. This has been one of the most significant technological challenges we have faced. It is perhaps the most complicated challenge, because in the end it is very easy to enter a website, read four news items and jump to the next one. If the user is provided with the information in no more than a few seconds, they will not come back. These are things that you have to constantly measure because they have a very big impact’, he explains.
With multiple platforms running side by side and some 25 million unique users per month across all newspapers and websites, gaining an overview of systems performance is critical for the 13 development teams. However, before 2018, they lacked a single observability platform that would allow them to see, in real time, the health of their applications and user behaviour.
‘It was clear that we had a weakness in monitoring our applications. We didn't know what was going on with them’, reveals Ivan Pérez Palomino, Software Architect and Ferrandini's teammate.
The problem was even more evident when problems with one of the platforms arose, which were often reported by the users themselves. With a highly reactive approach, the different development teams worked in silos and lacked the processes and tools necessary to provide context to certain errors. This resulted in longer problem-solving times and a negative impact on the user experience.
Agile culture, quality and DevOps
The need for greater visibility across applications and the user experience was only one part of a much larger digital transformation driven by business needs. The goal was to reduce time-to-market, which meant improving the performance of different platforms, analysing the behaviour of individual users, optimising architecture to scale in times of peak traffic, and changing the way they worked towards a more agile model. In other words, achieving the goal of having teams spend less time solving problems, and more time developing new features and services.
‘We divided the transformation project into four vectors: agile organisation and culture, design architecture, quality, and DevOps’, says Pérez Palomino. ‘The first thing we did was to create a snapshot of how we were at that moment, and another of where we wanted to be in one year's time.’
One of the key decisions was the creation of the architecture team, made up of Pérez Palomino and Ferrandini. ‘There is always someone who assumes that role within an organisation’, says the architect, ‘but in creating this area, we were able to begin defining guidelines and standards that would allow us to achieve coherence in development. It's not like before, when you saw code from a colleague and said, “I don't even know what he does.”’
Pérez Palomino adds: ‘We have worked hard to document, create framework architectures, and develop a community so that everyone can share knowledge and best practices. On the issue of quality, we focused on training the teams, testing their applications, deploying static code analysis and taking a more DevOps approach by creating pipelines.’
Real-time total visibilty
One of the architecture department's first initiatives was to get teams to start measuring performance KPIs: error rates, response times, and Apdex (user satisfaction index). To achieve this objective, Grupo Vocento selected the New Relic platform, which was instrumented in production environments.
The big revelation came when Ferrandini and Pérez Palomino began to see the traces of the applications in New Relic. Ferrandini recalls that moment: ‘We found errors that we didn't even know were happening. I remember going into New Relic and seeing, almost step by step, what was going on. The platform gives a very high level of detail of what's going on internally, within the code.’