Many journalists still flinch when they hear their websites, mobile outlets, radio programs, newscasts and newspapers referred to as “products” — much as they did when people started calling their stories and images “content.” But they better get used to it.
Products need vision and goals and “owners” who make sure they grow and adapt. And our survey and interviews found that people with those skills and experience are in high demand — at least in some news organizations.
Terms like “product development” and, more recently, “product owner” are still relatively new in the news business. Product owner has caught on as media companies have followed other kinds of organizations in adopting elements of the Agile software development process — an iterative, customer-centric way of coordinating multidisciplinary teams and projects best known for its regular “scrums.” In Agile, the “P.O.” can play a specific kind of lowercase-L leadership role as a key stakeholder, priority-setter and keeper of the vision. (In “Spotlight” terms, you might think of Liev Schreiber’s Marty Baron as a product owner to Michael Keaton’s Robby Robinson as “scrum master.” But as anyone who’s ever worked on or with an editorial scrum team will attest, we could argue endlessly about the definitions and boundaries of those roles, so we won’t here.)
The importance of product-focused roles came through in our questionnaire when we asked our news leaders about positions created in their newsrooms in the past year. Daniel Eilemberg, the senior vice president for digital at the Fusion Media Network, and Elizabeth Green, CEO at the non-profit education news service Chalkbeat, both told us about building their product teams. In Green’s case, the new Product and Growth team (“growth meaning audience growth”) included a product director and a product associate, to which she has since added an engineer and community editors. Raju Narisetti, News Corp’s senior vice president for strategy, also talked about the need to designate a “chief product officer in the newsroom” — a role the Wall Street Journal filled with the appointment of a Head of News Initiatives to oversee digital design, development and new editorial products. We also heard from a couple of respondents who said they had a difficult time filling positions like these, especially with anyone who brought an editorial sensibility to the assignment.
In addition to those roles, we found product responsibilities embedded in the duties and requirements for a range of other jobs. A social engagement editor at the Buffalo News in New York, for instance, would be working “with product development teams on emerging platforms,” just as the Gazette’s digital news editor in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, would be expected to be “comfortable working closely with a digital news products manager, newsroom developers and analysts.” And a multimedia editor at the Wall Street Journal in New York “would have their hands in both the print and online products, tailored for a range of devices.” These postings from newspaper companies were a hopeful sign, given the answers we saw for that sector in our survey.
In our questionnaire, experience in “product ownership/development” showed up remarkably high overall, given its relative newness in the editorial toolbox. Just over half of the participating news organizations (16 of 31, or 52 percent) said it was among their hiring priorities for the coming year — the same number, in fact, who prioritized “journalism essentials” (which we defined as “ reporting, writing and editing”). To put that in perspective, that was more the than the number of newsrooms whose leaders prioritized beat reporting and specialized reporting or cross-platform storytelling and editing (both of which got 12 out of 31, or just under 40 percent). It also fell neatly between the tallies for two more widely discussed news industry obsessions: social media distribution (a priority for 17 of 31, or 55 percent) and social engagement/reporting (14 of 31, or 45 percent).
But product ownership and product development were not high priorities across all kinds of news organizations. Only one of the eight newspaper companies among our participants said product roles were on its wish list for the coming year. The number was similarly low among all local news outlets (4 of 15) especially those in small- and medium-sized media markets (1 of 7).
In contrast, product roles were a distant number-two hiring need among the organizations that began as digital publishers (9 or 13, or 70 percent). Coding was the only skill that mattered to these digital-centric companies.
Another indication of the increasing need for staff focused on building new kinds of news products is the frequency with which “project management” showed up in job listings. Product management and project management are different but complementary skills that are often confused. The project part is a more familiar concept to generations of news editors and producers — at least when it comes to setting deadlines and, in some cases, being a key decision-maker on certain editorial initiatives. But now those same editors and producers are expected to “work collaboratively” (as job descriptions often put it) with coders, designers, marketers and other business people. Editorial “partners” with backgrounds like that often come to the table trained in specific, iterative processes for working together on projects in cross-functional teams. Without training in those processes, editorial project leaders can seem disorganized, inflexible and even dictatorial.
In our survey, project management was ranked as a low hiring priority overall. Less than a quarter of the organizations we heard from said that was among their needs (7 of 31, or 23 percent). No newspaper companies or local media of any kind listed project management among its hiring priorities for the coming year. However, project management roles and responsibilities did come up in open-ended answers and follow-up interviews. At WNYC in New York, Jim Schachter and Paula Szuchman both noted that the public radio station had created new or expanded project management roles at the team, newsroom and executive levels. And in Washington, NPR Visuals editor Brian Boyer added a full-time project management position to his team of multimedia and interactive journalists.
We also saw project roles and responsibilities in the job descriptions we reviewed — especially in digitally oriented jobs. U.S. News, for instance, was seeking someone with “proven online project management experience” to steer one of that company’s many ranking initiatives. And National Geographic was recruiting for three digital designers it expected to come versed in Agile process described above. Boston public radio outlet WBUR-FM was in the market for someone to “work with cross-functional project teams to determine and set project scope and project schedules and deadlines.”
Traditional experience in or with newsroom management can be helpful, too, but it also can come with some baggage when it comes working in teams of people who come from different kinds of work experience. “The rapid evolution of the industry means there’s a perverse side effect in which experience means a lot of positive learned lessons, but also some lessons that don’t suit today’s environment,” said Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green. “We need PTSD counseling for people who’ve come from newspapers,” she explained. “If you’d been in an environment where the strategy is crazy and your supervisor is crazy…. How do you unlearn instincts that were born from that environment?”
Vox Media’s Trei Brundrett, the company’s chief product officer, said he thinks the news business could use more hybrids — people who combine the editorial and technical perspectives. As it is, he said, most editorial people “start with too many assumptions about what [the product] will look like.” And then there are the more technical “people who managed consumer products” in the past, whose process can feel “clunky in an editorial environment. It’s too rigid or too methodical…. We need to create people who are in between them.”
In other words, people with a superpower.
Mark Briggs, digital media director, KING-TV in Seattle:
“Most companies have a handful of mobile apps and dozens of sections. You can break them up as products — from coverage of weather to the Seahawks. You have to have someone managing and leading an important area that drives a lot of audience. Traditionally, the journalism version of this is sections. These are the products. It’s not revolutionary but it’s a different approach.”
Elizabeth Green, CEO, Chalkbeat:
“We have all these products that needed owners….They work with designers and developers and do reader research. They are the closest thing we have to a marketing unit. And we like that they are the representative of the reader. They do analytics as well. We need people who are familiar with working with development and have the leadership skills required to get multiple constituencies onboard.”
John Temple, former president, audience and products, First Look Media:
“The product owner wants to put the least perfect product out, to get it into the wild and start learning from users — what confuses them, what features do you need? Project managers can bring all that together. Everyone is on track and knows what they’re here to do. That hasn’t been historically how newsrooms are built.”
Keith Jenkins, former general manager, digital, National Geographic (now with the National Geographic Society):
“If you’re in digital publishing, you’re in the technology business. So you have to be structured in a way that a technology company is structured — having a much more focused approach to creating stories and multimedia and thinking about them as products with a structure around the creation of them. It’s not just a writer and reporters, but a programer and designer. Almost every piece of content is created by a team. And you’ll have multiple teams working on multiple projects. Project management is an important part of that.”