'The master conductor': product management in journalism

My fellowship at the Knight Lab has been a deep dive into news media product development. I have spent the past year helping create tools such as twXplorer, which helps reporters leverage Twitter as a research and reporting tool, and Untangled, the Lab’s network analysis research initiative. I believe that digital innovation can drive social impact and that news media product teams are uniquely positioned to change the course of journalism's’ development and sustainability.

So what exactly does it mean to work in product at a news organization? Though the job and title differ from place to place, a person in product development always juggles a job at the intersection of three aspects of news—business, content and technology. To be a product manager at a news organization is the to be “master conductor,” said Mark Stencel, the former Managing Editor of Digital News at NPR.

In an attempt to more clearly define this role, I spoke with nearly a dozen people who currently or previously worked on product teams in news organizations including NPR, the Tampa Bay Times, The Seattle Times, Gannett Company, Inc., The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and Vox Media. I’ve distilled the wisdom and expertise of the people I spoke with into six primary areas of focus for a news product manager.

1. Reader First: There are a number of skills that a product manager in a newsroom must have that transcend the journalism industry. Putting the reader first remains the foundation for any strong news product.

A product manager at a mission-driven organization may need to place the readers’ needs before business needs. For example, The Boston Globe’s mission is to disseminate news as widely as possible under the premise that the more people that interact with and read the news, the better the community will be.

Regardless of size or structure of an organization you have to care about readers and serving their needs first, said Damon Kiesow, senior product manager at the Boston Globe.

2. Demos not Memos: PolitiFact creator Bill Adair credits Matt Waite, former senior news technologist for the Tampa Bay Times and principal developer of PolitiFact, with the phrase “Demos not Memos.”

As the corporate cousin to “Fuck it, Ship it,” this phrase embodies the same passionate approach to doing, not talking about, projects. There is a tendency for people to say “We’ll let Marketing handle that or we’ll let IT handle that,” said Adair. People developing media products need to just start building.

3. Prioritize: Constant re-prioritization is foundational to good product management. NPR’s news application editor Brian Boyer likens this process to the inverted pyramid style of writing. “Kill your darlings,” said Brian, “chop of the stuff you don’t really need.”

Ryan Sholin, director of UGC and site solutions at Gannett Digital made the same analogy to the inverted pyramid. “Probably at least half of product management is making lists and viciously prioritizing them.”

4. Communicate: It does not matter if you know 15 programming languages and worked as a reporter for 10 years if you are not able to effectively communicate within your organization.

The historical legacy of a strict separation between editorial and business in newsrooms is a major factor in the current lack of communication between different departments in newsrooms. As the nexus between business, content and technology a good product manager is more than a set of technical skills.

“Communication and trust is the only thing that allows product to move forward,” Kiesow said.

5. Keep Learning: Former ONA President Christine Montgomery stressed the importance of learning the language of the people you’re working with. Montgomery started her career as a reporter in the early 90’s, so she is well-versed in the words and perspectives of journalists. She can think in-terms of stories, ledes and grafs. But she also acknowledges that she has to be able to understand web technology enough to determine realistic possibilities and make the right decisions. That knowledge has to be constantly updated, she said.

Product managers translate concepts into a reality and have to be able to speak the right languages to do this successfully.

6. Use Analytics: An understanding of analytics and measurements is very important. Tools such as Google Analytics have broadened the accessibility to tracking across verticals, said Trei Brundrett, of Vox Media. The ability to quicly put link trackers on things and constnatly deploy and tweek something allows for anyone on a cross-functional team to have a handle on analytics and allows for a tighter feedback loop in product development.

This role is important. Yes, a good product manager can build awesome things, but the role of product in a newsroom may be an integral part to the sustainability of news organizations.

“The news organization will cease to exist if we can’t find a business model that works,” said Seattle Times product director Eric Ulkin. “The business side will also cease to exist without a vibrant, functional editorial product. So getting this right is crucial to survival.

About the author

Jessica Soberman

Graduate Fellow

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