In the last 25 years, media organizations have had to evolve from one-product businesses into multi-product, technology-enabled companies. This evolution was born out of necessity, ushering in a new era that requires “product thinking” and the emergence of a new discipline: news product management.
The first conference for product thinkers in journalism was held in February in Philadelphia, attracting 225 attendees, and over 500 people signed up for emails about the event. The event led, in late September, to the launch of the News Product Alliance, an organization for product managers working in journalism organizations.
“News product is an emerging essential skill for the journalism industry because it connects the dots between the editorial content and the business strategies so that you can create both ethical and sustainable models for producing journalism,” said Becca Aaronson, interim president of the News Product Alliance and former director of product for Chalkbeat.
From traditional media to “digital first”
Prior to the internet, many media companies relied on a single product. In most local markets, for instance, there was just one print newspaper, and it was highly profitable. The business model for newspapers was simple: advertising in the local newspaper was the most effective way for local business to reach a majority of their potential customers.
“We were fundamentally a monopoly,” said Prof. Rich Gordon, who worked for three newspapers before joining the faculty at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University.
In this period, a separation between the editorial and business sides of the newspaper became deeply entrenched. This was intended to keep advertising influences out of the newsroom and to maintain the editorial integrity of the paper, but it also created a culture in which journalists were isolated from—and even hostile to—the business of media, Gordon said.
By 1996, at which time Gordon had become The Miami Herald’s first online director, most newspapers had started publishing on the World Wide Web—amazingly early, he said, considering that the digital publishing business model was unclear. “Part of the reason why they did it so quickly,” said Gordon, “was they saw the internet as a place where pages of content were published, and that seemed very familiar.”
Within Knight Ridder, the Herald’s parent company, most newspapers went online without hiring software developers, instead relying on corporate resources, in-house IT departments or freelancers for engineering assistance. Gordon said he quickly realized software expertise was necessary to create the products his team needed to launch, including an online entertainment guide, a service for South Florida tourists and a robust, up-to-date sports section.
“The problem was, we had no idea how to go about creating technology-enabled products,” Gordon said. “Managing these projects was incredibly complicated. It required a level of coordination among editorial, business and technology that we’d never experienced before.”
As traditional media struggled to adopt new approaches to content, the business models that historically paid for journalism began to be disrupted. Classified ads, a lucrative and reliable revenue stream for pre-internet newspapers, migrated to websites such as Realtor.com (homes) and Monster.com (jobs). Search engine ads attracted advertisers who wanted to pay only if ads generated business for them. Social media platforms made it possible for small businesses to target narrow audiences at a fraction of the cost of advertising in newspapers or on TV.
Digitally native media organizations—from Yahoo! to the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and Vox—modeled a different approach to product development. They understood they were technology companies as much as media companies. Through technology development, they were able to build more engaging websites, make editing and production more efficient, capitalize on business opportunities and drive audience growth through search and social media traffic. Reaching larger audiences than websites run by legacy media companies, the digital native publications also were better able to generate ad revenue.
Publishers borrow from the tech industry
To manage product development, tech-centric media organizations looked to the technology industry, where product thinking and product management were already well-established, says Cindy Royal, professor and director of the Media Innovation Lab at Texas State University.
Product management is a weird discipline full of oddballs and rejects that never quite fit in anywhere else.Ken Norton, tech executive, in a 2005 essay
In technology companies, product management developed as a way to ensure that products served customers’ needs while also accomplishing their companies’ business and revenue goals. Product managers in tech have sometimes been called “mini-CEOs,” because they are charged with coordinating the work of software engineers while keeping product development aligned with customer needs and business strategy.
The tech industry tended to hire product managers with degrees in computer science or business, but they also needed an unusual combination of skills, including the ability to motivate teams and individuals, and the capacity to communicate across different disciplines.
“Product management … combines elements of lots of other specialties—engineering, design, marketing, sales, business development,” wrote Ken Norton, a tech executive, in a 2005 essay. “Product management is a weird discipline full of oddballs and rejects that never quite fit in anywhere else.”
In journalism and news, product management is even more complicated, Aaronson said.
“Product management in news is different than in technology and other industries, because we have the added challenge of integrating journalism ethics and our editorial mission into our overall product strategy,” Aaronson said.
To be competitive, news organizations have to get closer to their audience, said Damon Kiesow, Knight chair in digital editing and producing at the Missouri School of Journalism. “The differentiating strength becomes, ‘we listen better, we understand more, we can react quicker and we can deliver you a better product.’”
Legacy media embrace product thinking
Product management practices came slowly to legacy media, but change has accelerated in recent years, Royal said.
Initially, traditional media didn’t necessarily create new full-time positions for product managers. Instead, staff members who’d proven to be strong “product thinkers” were asked to coordinate the development of tech-enabled products.
Product management in news is different than in technology and other industries, because we have the added challenge of integrating journalism ethics and our editorial mission into our overall product strategy.Becca Aaronson, interim president of the News Product Alliance
Increasingly, though, leading companies—even those with roots in traditional media—have been building product-centric organizations. As of this month, the New York Times had 175 people with “product” in their job titles, according to a LinkedIn search. The Washington Post Co. had 76.
Royal likes to make a distinction between “journalism in product” and “journalism as product”.
“We put journalism in an app, or we put journalism in our podcast and somebody has got to manage all those little products in journalism,” Royal said. “But when we look at journalism as product, it’s about, who are our customers, clients and audiences, what are their needs and what can we do for them?”
Journalism as product is a different way of thinking for many news organizations, Royal said.
“That introduces a power struggle … because journalists and editors have had a lot of power because what they did was at the center of the organization,” Royal said. With product thinkers increasingly at the center, Royal said media organizations are changing who sets the tone, the vision and the mission for their companies.
At Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN), adopting a “product as journalism” mindset came gradually. Jessica Morrison was working as an associate editor and policy reporter at C&EN when she began to notice a missing piece between the editorial staff and the creative, design, development and marketing teams. The teams did not seem to work together, even when they were working on large cross-functional projects.
At the time, C&EN was starting to work on bigger online projects, like multimedia and interactive packages that required more coordination across these teams. Morrison proposed creating a project manager position to coordinate work among the teams, and got the job.
“I started building out a framework for how we would run larger projects, and how we would define our teams working in those projects,” she said. Later, when C&EN wanted to become more product-focused, Morrison moved into a product manager role, tasked with figuring out what a product-focused C&EN would look like.
Morrison has cataloged every product at C&EN, even those in very early stages. She has also worked with C&EN leadership to create a system through which stakeholders and product team members come together to determine which problems the product team would prioritize. Across the media industry, product thinkers, like Morrison, are gaining more responsibility—working on revamping old technology, supporting new revenue-generating products and improving subscription services.
Reader revenue and product orientation
The rise of product thinking in news has corresponded to an increased focus on reader revenue to support the costs of good journalism. The New York Times, for instance, now gets 60 percent of its revenue from readers, up from 30 percent in 2007. Product thinking is integral to a reader-revenue strategy because it provides a framework for identifying audience needs, solving for those needs and thereby increasing willingness to start or renew a subscription.
Becoming product-centered changes the culture of an organization. At the Times, for instance, a stronger product mindset made the organization nimble enough to quickly launch an “At Home” section and newsletter after the pandemic shutdown, said Kellen Henry, who at the time was senior product manager for engagement at The New York Times.
“This wasn’t really something that we could have imagined in quite the same way in January,” said Henry, who now is senior product manager for reader experience at The Times’ Wirecutter publication. “I think staying limber enough to recognize those changing opportunities is great, when you’re able to be flexible in that way.”
This article is one in a series exploring product thinking as an emerging discipline in journalism.