On Feb. 8 in Philadelphia, I was lucky to be one of about 150 participants at SRCCON:Product, the first conference for “product thinkers” in media. A few reflections on what I saw and learned:
1. A quarter of a century into the digital age, we are finally figuring out how to build media products
In 1995, I was named the first online director for The Miami Herald, with responsibility for launching the “Internet edition” of our company’s newspapers. In those days, we saw the World Wide Web mostly as a publishing medium – another place to distribute the journalism our reporters were already creating.
Quickly, though, we realized that we had to launch new products: a tourism guide, services for car shoppers and home buyers, an entertainment calendar. And we had no idea how to do it – partly because digital media products are software, and partly because our organizations never had to do this before. In those days, media companies could be financially successful with only a few product offerings: A daily newspaper, for instance, or several daily newscasts.
I thought I was being hired as the editor of a new publication; it turned out that I was more the publisher (responsible for both business and advertising) and head of product (responsible for coordinating product development efforts of teams made up of editorial, business and technology staff. But we didn’t know enough about how to understand users’ needs, nor how to build software – which, in fact, is what Web publications are.
Since then, though, we have learned a lot about how to develop technology-enabled media products:
- Human-centered design, or design thinking: Techniques for interviewing and observing users, developing insights into their needs, and testing product concepts and prototypes with them.
- Agile software development: Approaches for building software in small chunks and testing them with users during the development process
- “Lean” product development: Investing resources incrementally as you test and learn, and prioritizing revenue generation in the process.
Attendees at SRCCON:Product play key leadership and coordination roles on the teams that use these techniques to build, test, launch and improve media products.
2. Product managers play a critical new role in media organizations
News and media organizations have begun creating jobs for product managers, who serve as “mini-CEOs” coordinating the development of technology-centered media products.
The job title “product manager” was originally created in technology companies, which usually filled these positions with people who had MBA degrees or backgrounds in computer science. In media, though, the SRCCON attendees demonstrate that these roles are going to people who have media and journalism experience – AND can demonstrate they understand user research, technology and business requirements.
One participant, Marco Túlio Pires of Google News Lab, noted that two years ago, the product track at the Online News Association conference “struggled to gather 20 people” – while SRCCON:Product had to turn away people who applied to attend because of space limitations at the venue at Temple University.
3. Product thinkers need other product thinkers
SRCCON:Product reminded me very much of two other conferences I attended in the early days of a developing discipline: the first Computer-Assisted Reporting conference (Raleigh, NC in 1993) and the second Online News Association conference (Berkeley, CA in 2001).
At all three events, the attendees were often pretty much the only people at their companies who understood the work they were doing. Just getting together in person with other people doing similar work was an important and validating experience.
SRCCON was an ideal event for people like this because it makes room – and time – for people to meet and collaborate. Half the conference sessions were developed, “unconference”-style, on the morning of the conference. There were 30-minute breaks between sessions to meet and talk with others. A long lunch break allowed people to share experiences and ideas.
Those who have been trying to answer that existential question inside of newsrooms but felt isolated just found each other #SRCCONPRODUCT! It felt like what happened to the data journalism community many years ago.— Marco Túlio Pires (@mtrpires) February 10, 2020
4. Product people are diverse
I was struck by the diversity of the SRCCON:Product attendees. Many were women and people of color, and they led many of the conference sessions. Some of the diversity was attributable to the fact that attendance required an application, and the conference organizers made a concerted effort to bring together a diverse group of attendees. But some of what I saw, I believe, stems from the fact that these are non-traditional careers that require skills and outlooks that don’t always come naturally to the kinds of people who have historically risen to leadership roles in media organizations.
While this diversity is a good sign, there were indications that it doesn’t go all the way to the top. At a session headlined “Career paths: How did we get here & how do we create opportunities for others,” there were several observations about companies where product or innovation efforts are headed by white men while the key people doing the product work are women and people of color.
5. Audience development is a key path to product management
A significant number of the attendees are currently working, or previously worked, in the field of audience development and/or engagement. This surprised me a little bit because product development or product management requires a much broader range of skills – in areas such as technology, business, project management and team facilitation.
But upon reflection, it makes sense. For many media organizations, audience development specialists were the first staff members to immerse themselves in understanding the audience and measuring what they found to be engaging. Even in companies without a mature product organization, an audience development person will naturally be collecting and bringing to their colleagues a variety of audience insights gained from experience.
6. Colleges and universities should -- and can -- develop product talent
Just as journalism and communications schools have begun teaching students to run social media campaigns and interpret audience analytics, they have an opportunity to start preparing product people as well. Thus far, most people who’ve entered the product space at media companies have come in through “side doors.” They were journalists or designers or social media managers and their organizations needed someone to help lead product development.
Coming up with a sound curriculum is challenging, though, because product management professionals need to know a lot about a lot of different things. I co-facilitated (with Jessica Morrison of Chemical & Engineering News) a session called “Curriculum for product management: What should we be teaching?” More than 30 of us brainstormed a long list of things that a product manager needs to know or know how to do.
The number of things a product manager should know is one of the key challenges in preparing future product managers. Another is that most colleges and universities are siloed environments, and a product manager curriculum for media would have to include courses from multiple schools and departments: journalism, design, computer science, business, etc.
One participant suggested that it would make the most sense for colleges to try to add “product thinking” to the education of journalists, software engineers, audience development people, design researchers and business specialists – so they are prepared to move into product management after gaining work experience in a more focused discipline.
7. Journalists can make great product managers
Probably the majority of the attendees at SRCCON:Product started their careers as journalists. It turns out that journalism skills and mindsets are in many ways perfectly aligned with product work.
Journalists are good at finding interesting conflicts or problems, and they know how to interview and observe people to get insights into what’s going on. These are all great skills in product work. Journalists also need to be good at storytelling – and product people are always telling stories, to their colleagues, staffs and bosses instead of to an audience.
Where I work, the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, I’m proud to say that we’ve had a product focus in our digital journalism master’s program since it was founded 20 years ago. I’m also proud that there were at least six Medill alums at SRCCON, representing different eras. Their diverse experiences speak to the many kinds of backgrounds that can be helpful and relevant for product people:
- Sharilyn Hufford - an undergrad at Medill in the 1990s who started off as a news designer and is now Deputy Editor, News Platforms for The New York Times.
- Will Sullivan - originally a photojournalist, attended the Medill master’s program in the early 2000s in what we called the “new media” sequence, held a series of positions in digital publishing at media companies and is now a product lead at the United States Digital Service.
- Tyler Fisher - a Medill undergraduate who graduated in 2014, pursued a career as a newsroom developer at NPR and Politico, and is now deputy director, technology for NewsCatalyst, a new initiative to help news organizations transition to digital businesses.
- Brian Boyer - a University of Illinois computer science major and software engineer who entered the Medill master’s program in 2008 with a Knight Scholarship and has since run news applications and product teams for the Chicago Tribune, NPR, Spirited Media and Hearken.
- Elaine Ramirez - a 2019 graduate of the media innovation specialization in the Medill journalism master’s program. She recently accepted an audience development position with a media startup.
- Olivia Obineme - also in the 2019 media innovation master’s class, now working as product manager for the Chicago Reporter.
At least four other alumni of the Medill media innovation master’s program are currently working as product managers – more evidence that journalism and product management are a good fit.