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The Nation’s Print-Smartphone-Tablet Newspaper

An interview with USA TODAY’s Erik Bursch, Director, Operations and Content Systems

When it debuted some 30 years ago, it was considered a radical and risky idea – a national general-interest newspaper that leveraged new technology for extensive four-color printing (in a newspaper!) and fast nationwide distribution. Today, thanks to the doors USA TODAY opened, even small community papers sport colorful images. When the iPhone came onto the scene, USA TODAY was one of the first news apps available. Same for the iPad. And Android. And Kindle. More than any other publication,USA TODAY has exploited the opportunities presented by emerging technologies. Benchmark sat down with USA TODAY Director of Operations and Content Systems Erik Bursch to talk about news delivery in an always-connected, three-screen world.

Benchmark: USA TODAY was one of the first news apps on the iPhone as well as the iPad. What has the experience been like to be an early adopter of these devices? How has it worked for USA TODAY?

Erik Bursch: USA TODAY's history has been to be at the forefront of technology — you saw that with the paper when we launched. We were the first to utilize color in the daily newspaper realm. Everything that we do, we think of with that sort of mindset.

So from our standpoint, it's a no-brainer to be on these new platforms. Right when the iPhone came out we had this phrase and we continue to use it: We call it "first and best." We want to be the first and the best general news application out on the major platforms. Obviously the biggest driver has been the iOS and Android side but we've had great success on upcoming platforms like Windows Phone as well. But that's the mantra that we live by in our development space here.

As far as what it's been like, it's been great. You can look at the reviews in the different app stores — they speak for themselves. It's just refreshing when I tell somebody that I work for USA TODAY and one of the first things that they tell me is, 'I've got your app on the iPad, I've got your app on my iPhone.' It's very refreshing to hear that. But I think the app store ratings really speak for themselves very loudly.

Benchmark: How has it worked out for you from a business standpoint? Has it been an investment that you feel has paid dividends?

Erik Bursch: Well, yes. I think that slowly the money is shifting to the mobile space. It's obviously not where we or any other media industry would want it to be at this point, but we're all about trying to create a unique platform on every one of these devices to enable the advertisers to be able to have an experience on them.

That's what we've been building. From our standpoint, it's been worth it. We are generally regarded as being one of the top, if not the top general news apps on all of these platforms. So when advertisers are thinking, 'what apps or what brands can I connect with that will enable me to have the advertising experience that I want?' USA TODAY is definitely at the top of that list. So in that sense, yes, it's worth it for us.

Benchmark: What other platforms are you on besides iOS?

Erik Bursch: The better question is, where aren't we? We want to be where our users are — whatever platform they're on, whatever devices that they're using to connect to us. We have made an aggressive approach as any new platform is rolling out to have a very good USA TODAY experience on that platform.

Most recently, the Kindle Fire. Our Kindle Fire app was released the night before Christmas and it's rocketed up to the number one news app on the Kindle Fire.

Obviously iOS is sort of the king right now, but we're on Android phone, Android tablet, the Kindle Fire, HP webOS — we just won Web OS Nation Best of 2011 for our webOS app.

Benchmark: You must keep a lot of developers busy because you’re developing natively for all of these platforms.

Erik Bursch: We are, yes. Our development team is great and that's one of the keys to this. There are two things that it comes down to when you're considering developing for a new platform. One is that you have to have the experience on that platform or acquire that experience quickly, which we've done in a lot of cases.

And the other is to have a consistent way to deliver the data to the platform. We've utilized our API from that standpoint — the USA TODAY API drives every one of our downstream platforms as far as getting data to it.

What that allows our developers to do is to focus on the uniqueness of each platform — how to get the best out of the presentation and other unique things that are platform-specific. They don't have to worry about 'what type of dataset am I getting returned when I make calls out, or how am I going to get this data down to the device?' Our API drives all of that.

Benchmark: Is your development team all internal, external, or a hybrid?

Erik Bursch: Initially when we rolled out the iPhone and the iPad applications, we worked closely with an external partner, but now everything that we do is internal including the iPad and iPhone apps.

Benchmark: How many people do you have on your development staff?

Erik Bursch: We're probably fairly lean from that standpoint. We use a very agile development process around here, so it's hard to specifically target who is full-time mobile. But I would say at any given time we have probably 15 to 17 developers and project managers that work in our mobile team.

Benchmark: It would seem like that’s the minimum it takes to keep up with things.

Erik Bursch: It is. We started to form, to a certain degree, silos with the different platforms because it does require a lot of maintenance. The one thing that you see on almost every platform is that users of native apps are usually very vocal with their feedback — vocal in a good way, saying, 'hey, this is a great app, I love what you guys are doing' or vocal saying, 'hey, I'd love to see X, Y and Z done to enhance this app.'

We try to stay really close to our users. I think that's one of the things that drives your user ratings in the app stores. We take all of the user feedback into account, and communicate back to users. There are always enhancements rolling out that bundle up into new releases that we push out.

Benchmark: Speaking of your users: How are they split between your physical paper, your website and your apps? Is one more dominant than the other? Do they split based on dayparts? How does your readership use all of these devices?

Erik Bursch: It's something that we've been watching really, really closely over the last six months because we want to understand how our audience is consuming news. And in general, it's time of day. So, newspaper, phone in the morning timeframe, the commute timeframes. The PC at work — we definitely get a lot of traffic outside of work, but our work traffic through the PC is a peak point. And then the king of the evening is the tablet.

At a very high level that's the usage we see. The phone continues throughout the day but the tablet rules the evening timeframe.

And so in watching that, we said okay, well, we see people are accessing our platforms at different time frames. On a lot of media sites, the lead on the PC side of things is the same on the phone and the tabloid, with the same exact order of the stories on the page.

We wanted to create a uniqueness to our product, something that we call 'platform programming' that enables our editorial staff to customize a particular platform. You have a lot of users coming to USA TODAY on the tablet in the evening that were not necessarily there at work or wherever. So for us to be able to program specifically to that tablet audience in the evening has been a nice bonus for us.

Benchmark: You indicate pretty unequivocally that the tablet rules the evening. Is your largest audience segment in the evening that clearly on tablets?

Erik Bursch: Yes, it is, on the iPad especially. We saw that really driven home with the Osama bin Laden story — that was a perfect timeframe for the news when that broke. It was a Sunday evening. It was around the nine o'clock timeframe Eastern time, through about 11:30. A lot of people might not have been next to their laptops or PCs at that point, maybe they were getting ready to go to bed or what have you. The scenario that we see is that people carry their tablets whether it's before they go to bed or in the evening, they're maybe watching TV and using the tablet at the same time, sort of that second screen mentality. Our tablet page views were very, very high in that particular instance, for that event.

Not to discount any phone or PC use in the evening, but we're really seeing the tablet explode as a dominant force from that standpoint.

Benchmark: It seems to be a definite trend and it’s only going to be more so as more and more tablets get into the hands of more people.

Erik Bursch: Yes. And, the big news from our standpoint is in December our mobile traffic — this is not broken down between phones and tablets per se — but our mobile traffic surpassed our PC traffic for the first time.

That's not saying that our PC traffic is going down, it's saying that the rate of our mobile consumption every month is just going through the roof, and I don't see those lines ever switching back. I think mobile is here to stay from that point of view.

Benchmark: What about users who aren’t coming to USA TODAY through apps. A lot of users default to, or prefer the browser. How are you delivering to mobile browsers, particularly on the iPad?

Erik Bursch: From the tablet you're going to go to our full site. Most tablets have the screen size, real estate and the browser functionality. We feel that, currently with what we can offer, the full site gives you the better USA TODAYexperience. It is definitely something I think in 2012 you're going to see a change from us, to deliver a more unique tablet experience to that audience. But currently that's not in play.

Our mobile site, m.usatoday.com, receives a ton of traffic and it's a lot richer than what you would get in our native applications. We offer drilldowns to a lot more sections and a lot more data, because we know that somebody's coming there who really wants to use it like a full site.

Benchmark: Is bandwidth a concern for you with people who are accessing the full site on a tablet via 3G instead of Wi-Fi?

Erik Bursch: It’s not a concern right now for us to drive them to the leaner mobile site. We don’t track this number as closely as we do page-view numbers, but the percentage of people that are accessing our site from the tablet are probably skewed heavily towards the Wi-Fi connection versus a 3G connection.

Benchmark: Talking about that experience of the app on the tablet and on the phone, different media organizations seem to have taken different approaches to how they get the content there. For example, some apps make the user wait while it uploads and updates all of the content at once when the app is opened up — ostensibly to facilitate offline reading. USA TODAY seems to update more on the fly, though you offer the option to do a total update on opening. What’s the thinking and technology behind your approach?

Erik Bursch: It’s user experience. It’s like you saw back in 2000 or 2002 with websites. You don’t want to see a big white space before you see the site being rendered. You don’t want to be in an application where you see an empty container, if you want to call it that, before you see objects appear. Our users can recognize what has been served to them before. We show that to the user from the beginning and then refresh it on the fly.

We have container TTLs, time-to-load, they’re cache values on the separate sections, so it’s not trying to refresh a section every time they bounce back and forth between the sections. We feel that’s an experience issue you don’t want users to have to deal with.

So right now that’s heavily used inside of our iOS platforms. We are extending that technology out to the other platforms. Each platform offers its own hurdles when you’re dealing with offline storage or in-app storage. But we have a very good user experience, I believe, on the iOS platform and that’s something that we’re going to look to carry over to the rest of them.

Benchmark: What performance standards do you aim for and how do you ensure that you meet them?

Erik Bursch: We've been with Keynote since the 2003 timeframe, give or take, and over that period of time we have really stressed internally what user experience means to us as a brand. Being able to track and report on the number that Keynote provides to us, both through our own measurements and through the Keynote benchmarking, which compares us against our competitors in a white room-type test, is something that our executive layers get reported on weekly and monthly.

Our execs are very aware of what our Keynote performance numbers are. That has enabled us to prioritize projects internally to say, we need to maximize user experience because this is what is important to us.

So we have very aggressive performance and availability alerting on our measurements and our operations team watches that very, very closely in several different ways. It's a number that is not treated lightly here at USA TODAY. We regard performance and availability as the user experience as a whole, and it's really the number one thing that everybody looks for around here.

I cannot overestimate the importance of what we get from a monitoring perspective.

Benchmark: Are all of your platforms are being monitored that way — desktop and mobile?

Erik Bursch: Yes, but mobile’s a tad of a different beast. What we care about from the mobile space is that what we can control is working optimally. We have started recently to engage mobile services from Keynote, but there are things that are out of your control from a carrier standpoint, as far as what your measurements look at. We use that for an analysis point of view, but what we watch very, very, closely is what we can control being delivered to the user, whether it’s over mobile or over PC. That is our measurement — how fast our response time is from what we can control.

Benchmark: You had mentioned earlier the breaking news about Osama bin Laden. Obviously big events happen, Michael Jackson dies, whatever, and that would create a huge spike in traffic for sites like USA TODAY and for your apps. What sort of proactive planning or load testing do you do to prepare for such a surge?

Erik Bursch: It's very hard to predict. Michael Jackson was more of the 7 to 10x, Osama bin Laden, especially on the mobile platform, was probably almost a 15 to 20x type of surge for that timeframe. It's very hard in a news organization to say, okay, what level am I actually going to load test to from that standpoint? We do a lot of load testing on every one of our platforms. We utilize as much cache as we can through a CDN, through internal caching, to optimize performance so there are more resources in the event of a big worldwide news event, so we do not get flooded from that standpoint.

All of those factors go into making sure that we're doing our best to stay online with an optimal experience during a news event like that. There's no secret sauce to say, if I scale to this percent I'm going to be able to stand up in any type of news event, because every news event presents different challenges on every different platform that you're on.

Benchmark: What trends do you see shaping the future of online news? It’s constantly evolving.

Erik Bursch: Yes, it is. It's hard to even go a year down the road in the digital side of things. But I think what you're really seeing now is — we internally called it 'the year of the swipe.' It's the app-like experience that you see in the tablet to have penetration all throughout every platform that you're on.

It's very close on the mobile side of things or the phone side of things, but even on the desktop layer I think presentation and being more of that app-like presentation is going to be something that we're going to see develop in the next year or two from the news side of things.

Then secondly— and you've already seen it to a certain degree but I think it could really have a chance for exploding — is the user-generated content that you have out there, and seeing more and more news organizations incorporate user-generated, user-uploaded content on their sites.

News agencies can only have so many reporters or photographers out on the scene. There are so many events that are being captured from users directly that I think you could see that being a key part of our strategy in the near future.

Benchmark: So the year of the swipe is obviously a nod to the tablet and what that’s done and how that’s been extended out into other platforms. Do you see 2012 as the year the tablet really takes hold?

Erik Bursch: I think actually it's already taken hold. I think maybe 2011 was the year of the tablet to a certain degree. We see users really engaging with our app at a very deep level on the tablet. From an advertiser's point of view, from a presentation point of view, you can do a lot more from a tablet. I think that that's playing out in how rich applications are in the tablet space. In general people have started to have this mindset of, okay, I can just swipe across the screen to get the next article or pinch my fingers together to expand it out. That's carrying over to other platforms — it's already there on the phone side of things, but to the desktop side of things — the PC side of things. I think that you could really see that morphing within the next year or two.

Benchmark: Right, well, Windows 8 is a touch optimized-platform, and Mac is already there with Lion on the desktop.

Erik Bursch: Windows 8 will be there and Mac’s there already, but how many different websites or news sites offer an experience to that platform? Not many right now. And I think that’s the next layer. It will be interesting to see how quick that adoption is.

Benchmark: What's your most important piece of advice for content owners that are concerned about the three screens that they need to get their content onto?

Erik Bursch: Going back to the most important thing for us right now from development, and what has enabled us to be on all of the different platforms that we're on, and that's our API.

Really having a solid backbone to deliver data to these different platforms is the key. And you heard me say it earlier — first and best. To make a big splash on any of these new platforms that are rolling out, you need to be there at the start or very close to the start of that platform rolling out to really make the splash that you want to.

We've done that. The iPhone, iPad, Kindle Fire — we were there and that's what we plan to do. To be able to have that speed to market, you need to have the consistent backbone or consistent dataset that you're able to get down to the device.

And then after that, it's a great development team like we've got. You can't underestimate the value of having that team that is very knowledgeable on the platforms, their uniquenesses and the differences between them. If you want to have your brand across multiple platforms, to be able to do it right and to optimize per platform, you have to have a great team. We're very lucky from that standpoint.

About Erik Bursch

Erik Bursch joined USA TODAY in 1999 and is currently director of operations and content systems. The operational team focuses on application performance and availability of the USA TODAY website and all mobile and tablet products; the content systems team focuses on optimizing workflow tools for editorial, along with the maintenance and enhancement of the USA TODAY API. Erik graduated from the University of Mary Washington in 1998, lives with his wife and kids in Northern Virginia and is eagerly awaiting his Dodgers to return to their 1988 form.

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