Yes, Product Thinking Can Save Journalism. Six Reasons Why News Media Need Product Thinkers.

Last in a series

Knight Lab’s series on product thinking in media started with a question: “Journalism Has Been Disrupted. Can Product Thinking Save It?”  After more than 25 years in digital publishing—and as the editor for the series—I think the answer is “Yes.”

In fact, I would go further.  Product thinking is the most important mindset for media companies to embrace today.  For news organizations, especially, product thinking is the best way—or only way—to ensure that you are reaching and engaging people, and building a sustainable future.

Here are six reasons why news organizations need product thinkers—and a product-thinking culture.

1. Journalists are learning to accept that publications, websites and apps are, in fact, products.

When I started teaching media product development at the Medill School at Northwestern University, I would tell students that I was uncomfortable calling a newspaper a “product.”  That’s because for me, newspapers—and journalism—were my career, my calling and my passion.  To call a newspaper or a website a product somehow seemed to equate it to macaroni and cheese.

“Media product development” seemed dry and not aspirational enough.  That’s why, when we launched a master’s program focusing on that space, I recommended it be called “media innovation” instead.

Slowly but surely, though, “product” is becoming the accepted shorthand for an emerging discipline that’s now essential in media and journalism companies.  The first conference for product thinkers in journalism, SRCCON:Product, was held in February.  And there’s a brand-new organization, the News Product Alliance, that is becoming a home for the people who do this work.

And let’s face it: a website or email newsletter or mobile app is a product.  People have to decide whether to use it, and they have an infinite number of choices.  Every media product competes with every other media product—and lots of other things—for people’s time and attention.

How do you make a successful product?  You understand people’s needs, find ways to meet them that competitors aren’t addressing, make people aware of your product, deliver it to them—and do all of this while figuring out how to bring in more money than it costs to produce.

Just like macaroni and cheese, a media product can be successful only if it meets people’s needs, provides them with value and is profitable.   So let’s be proud that we make media products and that we can figure out how to make them successful.

2. Product thinking isn’t new to journalism.  In fact, it’s what media innovators have always done.

public domain
Poor Richard's Almanack, published by Benjamin Franklin, was a huge seller in the American colonies.

When I started working in newspaper newsrooms in the late 1970s, it was easy to think that our job was limited to reporting, storytelling and page design.  We didn’t need product thinking; our jobs were entirely about the content.

But that’s because newspapers were a fully mature industry by then—the newspaper as a product had been perfected over (literally) two centuries.  From city to city, newspapers were far more alike than different.  And their business models were also mature:  Once a day, assemble a one-size-fits-all print publication, distribute it to as many homes as you can (with subscription prices as low as possible), and watch the money roll in from advertisers who had no better way to get their messages to people in your community.

But if you go back to different eras in media history, you see that “product thinking” was how successful media products were invented:

John H. Johnson created Ebony magazine.
  • Benjamin Franklin built a hugely successful publication in colonial America: Poor Richard’s Almanack, by combining traditional almanac content (weather forecasts, household hints, puzzles) with his witty aphorisms like “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead” and “A friend in need is a friend indeed.”  Franklin’s almanac was one of the top-selling publications in the U.S. colonies.
  • In 1830s New York, the founders of the “penny press”—Benjamin Day (New York Sun),  Horace Greeley (New York Tribune) and James Gordon Bennett (New York Herald)—reinvented the newspaper and established a business model that remained with us for 150-plus years.  Taking advantage of new technology (faster presses and cheaper paper), they were able to offer a paper for just a penny a copy and generate most of their revenue through advertising.
  • In the 20th century, magazine pioneers like John H. Johnson (Ebony), Helen Gurley Brown (Cosmopolitan) and Jann Wenner (Rolling Stone) built thriving publications—and businesses—based on insights that there were media consumers with unmet content needs and advertisers who wanted to reach them.
A Cosmopolitan cover from 1965, when Helen Gurley Brown became its editor.

Over and over again, we’ve seen entrepreneurial product thinkers figure out audience needs, build winning media products supported by viable business models.  At a time when journalism faces both threats and opportunities, we need people who think good journalism is important and can figure out how to make engaging and financially sustainable media products.

3. In the mass media era, product thinking didn’t have to be part of journalism.  But they are closely connected in the digital age.

As a young person entering a journalism career in the early 1980s, one of the things I liked about my job was that I could be idealistic about what I was doing.  I did what I did because it was important that the public be informed, and I didn’t have to participate in the part of the newspaper business that involved selling (ads or subscriptions) or making money.  I thought it was great that there was a “Chinese wall” between the newsroom and the business side.

Most of my newsroom colleagues and I were blissfully ignorant of the company’s finances—until our corporate parents started trying to increase profits by reducing newsroom expenses, and we thought they were being unethical.

Only in hindsight did I come to realize that what I perceived as normal was just a historical accident.  When I started working at metropolitan newspapers, it happened to be a time when most papers were regional monopolies able to keep raising ad prices way faster than inflation—and run up profit margins of 20, 30, 40 and even 50 percent.  Profits were even higher at local TV stations, which also earned monopoly profits by selling ads to businesses that had few options for reaching a large share of a region’s residents.

In those days, journalists didn’t need to worry about where the money was coming from.  It poured into our companies, there was more of it every year, and the biggest threat we perceived wasn’t the competition, but from greedy CEOs who wanted profits to rise even more.

So we journalists were perfectly happy focusing on the reporting and storytelling—and letting departments outside the newsroom do the work of delivering the product, marketing it, and communicating with our audience.  (Truth be told, most of us didn’t much like our readers—even after we all got email addresses, we resisted making them public.)

Needless to say, the world is different now.

News is no longer subsidized by an enormously profitable advertising business. In fact, it now appears that the most promising business model to support journalism is finding readers who care enough to pay for it.

We journalists were perfectly happy focusing on the reporting and storytelling—and letting departments outside the newsroom do the work of delivering the product, marketing it, and communicating with our audience.

Finding and maximizing the audience for our product is no longer the job of other people, like marketing and circulation departments.  Now it’s journalists—social media managers, audience development specialists, engagement editors, etc.—who are doing the equivalent work on digital platforms.

And our companies can no longer thrive with a single product that was largely perfected decades or even centuries ago.  With rapidly evolving technologies, enormous generational shifts in audience behavior, and platforms open enough to keep attracting waves of competition, media companies must learn to understand people’s evolving needs and constantly be inventing or improving products to address those needs.

Which is what product thinking is all about.

4. Proven methodologies for successful product development now exist.

When I was named the first online director for The Miami Herald in 1995, I thought I was going to be the editor of a new publication, the “Internet edition” of our newspaper.  And we thought we could build a substantial audience—and successful online business—relying on the same stories we’d been publishing in print.

We quickly discovered that our content model—a little bit of information about a lot of things, but not very deep—was totally wrong for the World Wide Web.  Every single thing the newspaper offered, with the exception of local reporting, would be done with greater speed and/or depth by a digital-first company.  While the print edition was once a Miami resident’s source of national or international news, the Herald online was competing with The New York Times, Yahoo! or CNN.  And while we essentially had a monopoly on print advertising for cars, homes and jobs in Miami, digital startups quickly were competing successfully with us for that business.

We tried to build and launch new products to fight off those competitors and find new business opportunities: a tourism guide, services for car shoppers and home buyers, an entertainment guide. But there was nowhere to go to learn how to do product development, build technology, or understand the needs of users.

What we needed was a toolkit that hadn’t been invented—three bundles of strategies and tactics that came along later:

  • 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.

These are the pillars of product thinking.  Knight Lab’s series on product work in media includes two case studies (on local news alerts at Newsday and a weekly print publication for the Daily Maverick in South Africa) that illustrate how product thinking works in practice.

5. New product-centered journalism careers are emerging.

Daily Maverick
In South Africa, the Daily Maverick's weekly print edition, was developed with a product-thinking approach.

News organizations now employ design researchers, audience development specialists, software engineers—and, increasingly, product managers.  These job titles have long been common in technology companies (though non-media companies usually label as “marketing” what news organizations call “audience development”).  Media companies are coming to the realization that if they deliver their content digitally, they need to become technology companies.

Product managers are particularly important.  As explained in part 1 of this series, the field of product management developed first in tech companies but is now taking root in media as well.

In a software-enabled business—a category that now includes media organizations—product managers are essential.  They are charged with coordinating the work of software engineers while keeping the product “roadmap” aligned with customer needs and business strategy.

Becca Aaronson, interim president of the News Product Alliance.

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

Journalism needs great product managers. This series explains the skills, experiences and mindsets – and emotional intelligence – that product managers need, as defined by media product managers themselves.

But it’s not only product managers who can be product thinkers.  There are more than 1,000 people who’ve signed up to be part of the News Product Alliance.  Some are product managers; others are doing the work of product managers at organizations that haven’t created that formal job role yet.  And some are journalists who now see themselves as product thinkers, whatever their title is.

A recent survey of almost 300 product thinkers working in journalism found that they had a wide variety of titles.  About a third had the word “product” in them, but other titles included “audience,” “editor,” “community,” “data” and “Innovation.”

In a news organization, product work is different than in other kinds of companies.  News product thinkers have to understand journalism—its culture, values and ethics.

That’s a key reason why so many news product people started their careers as journalists—and why it can be challenging for product specialists from other industries to move into our field.

“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,” said Becca Aaronson, interim president of the News Product Alliance.

That may be why many news product professionals believe journalism schools need to teach product management and product thinking.  In the “State of the News Product Community 2020” survey, 87 percent of news product thinkers agreed with the statement, “Journalism schools should include product management topics in curriculum.”

And it’s starting to happen. There are a growing number of universities that are offering degrees or courses to prepare journalism-trained product thinkers.  For instance: The City University of New York, Texas State University, the New School and my own school, the Medill School at Northwestern University.

6. Product thinking in news still has a long way to go.

The State of the News Product Community 2020
Survey respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with these statements about product work. While 62 percent said product management is "central" to their organizations, respondents indicated concern about their future career opportunities and growth.

The State of the News Product Community 2020 survey (written up by Prof. Cindy Royal of Texas State University). suggests that product thinking is not yet fully embraced at many organizations where the survey respondents work.  I found that worrisome given the threats journalism faces and the challenges their organizations have to navigate in the digital realm.

The survey findings do suggest that these organizations have evolved significantly. Almost two-thirds of the respondents said their specific positions didn’t exist five years ago.

Among the findings that I found most concerning:

  • The survey respondents are not sure their organizations—or the journalism industry—are a place where they can build a future.  Only 18 percent agreed with the statement “I have a clearly defined path in my organization.”  Only 21 percent agreed, “The journalism industry provides career development support for my role.”  Only 31 percent felt that in their next career move, “I will most likely be able to advance within my current organization.”
  • News product thinkers face substantial challenges, including “not enough resources” (58 percent of respondents), “not enough strategic direction” (48 percent), “misalignment on vision/goals” (45 percent) and “breakdown in communication between departments” (44 percent).
  • Product thinkers want to learn more.  Almost six in 10 listed “career development” as their top need for additional skills.  The next two areas listed were “organizational management” and “cultural change”—which I see as indicators of frustration with the challenges of getting their organizations to fully embrace product thinking.  
  • Organizational structures are not mature.  While more than half of the respondents said their organizations had a dedicated product team, 13 percent of respondents didn’t answer this question and another 13 percent chose, “Not sure” or “I think people are doing this work without the titles or resources.”
  • At a time when news organizations clearly need to connect with all kinds of users, news product workers are overwhelmingly white.   Seventy percent identified as white, with Black, Asian and LatinX respondents each making up less than 10 percent of the survey takers. The respondents were about evenly split between men and women.

The report concluded:

“Product management introduces a profound shift in the mission of journalism, from a culture of reporting and editing on limited platforms to one that is focused on building trust by representing communities and solving problems across products.”

I agree.  Product thinking can be transformative for journalism.  This transformation is desperately needed if journalism is to survive and thrive.

This article is the last of a series exploring product thinking as an emerging discipline in journalism and media. We appreciate the contributions of the other authors: Medill MSJ alum Meredith Gallo (part 1, part 3, part 4 and part 6), Ryan Restivo of Newsday (part 2) and Styli Charalambous of the Daily Maverick (part 5).

About the author

Rich Gordon

Professor and Director of Digital Innovation

Richelle “Rich” Gordon launched the school’s graduate program in digital publishing and is the leader of the Media Innovation and Content Strategy Specialization. She has spent most of her career exploring the areas where journalism and technology intersect.

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