Cultivating innovation and cultural change through product leadership

Insights from the News Product Alliance Summit’s student newsroom

During the first News Product Alliance Summit speakers and participants from around the world shared their experiences and questions about working at the intersection of journalism and product. They shared advice on how to apply product frameworks and processes to guide innovation and cultural change. A group of journalism students wrote up several of the sessions, a portion of which are included below.

How to Cultivate a Culture of Innovation in News Organizations

session by P. Kim Bui, The Arizona Republic and Krishna Nair, CNN
article by Meagan Fleming

“Think about innovation as a cycle where there is no ‘end game’” — P. Kim Bui, Director of Audience Innovation at The Arizona Republic.

“How to Cultivate a Culture of Innovation in News Organizations” was jam-packed with helpful tools and ideas to implement a culture of innovation in one’s workplace. The session facilitators, Kim Bui and Krishna Nair, director of product strategy at CNN, defined what innovation meant to them and why innovation is essential in news organizations and tactics that help news teams work together.

Innovation requires experimentation and adaptability.

To Kim Bui, innovation means keeping an experimental mindset and continually looking to try new things to better your audience.

To Krishna Nair, innovation means adaptability and learning to anticipate the changes that will happen in the marketplace and technology to adapt to those changes. Companies that fail to adapt to changes in people’s behavior will be left behind. They may also lose out on new opportunities. For instance, podcasts are now a big hit, creating a new avenue to reach customers and earn revenue that wasn’t as viable even just a few years ago. Lastly, new companies are popping up every day, creating new competition. If you are reading this, the likelihood is high that you know of a company that got left behind because they did not change with the times.

Core ingredients for building innovative teams

These three ingredients must be present to implement a culture of innovation within your company.
First: Position people correctly within your organization. It is important to put cross-functional teams together so you have a diversity of perspectives. Think of teams as a round table with people from all backgrounds, and when you put them together, give them the prerogative to experiment and try out new ideas.

Second: Speak the “right” language. That means creating alignment among your teams to figure out what problems they need to solve for the customer.

Third: Empower people to make decisions. Leadership needs to trust the team and permit them to fail. “From a fail comes an inside win. If you fail a few times, you’ll end up with a great project,” said Nair.
Bui agreed, saying. “Learn forward. Take failures and learn from them.”

Throughout the session, participants added their ideas and examples of things they’d done to create a culture of innovation within their organizations.

  • Look to hire people that are adaptable and flexible.
  • Products should be shown as an opportunity instead of an issue for other groups in the company. 
  • Create more transparency into new product development. For example, hold an annual workshop with all employees to show them the products you are innovating. This will keep them informed and help them understand why certain things are happening. Plus, if something fails, then they will understand the reasoning behind that a bit better. 
  • Create opportunities for cross-functional collaboration. Some companies have done sprint innovation weeks where employees take a week to bring up innovative ideas, then at the end of the week choose one to run with. 
  • Keep tabs on older projects. Build-in two maintenance days per month to check up on old projects and see if they are still up and running smoothly or should be sunsetted.
  • Prioritize which ideas to pursue together. Use Jam boards or other collaborative tools to rate the best product ideas and focus on the best one.
  • Keep an active parking lot of ideas that you might not have time to do now, but could revisit in the future.
  • Find influential people in your organization and get them excited about product changes. When the product launches, they will likely share their voices and spark enthusiasm. 
  • Find people in your organization who can help you do cool, new things.

Helpful Links

Weaponizing Product Thinking for DEI

session by Tom Horgen, Minneapolis Star Tribune and Ting Zhang, Local News Lab (session slides)
article by Giselle Kowalski

This past year has been nothing short of a learning curve for everyone , as communities engage in long overdue conversations about racial injustice in the United States. Tragic summer events like George Floyd’s murder and Black Lives Matter protests were the jump start to a new era of diversity, equity and inclusion consciousness that extended to newsrooms throughout the world. Ting Zhang, Engineering Lead at the Local News Lab, and Tom Horgen, Digital Editor and Content Strategist at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, led a conversation at the 2021 NPA Summit on how to apply product thinking to build more inclusive and equitable news organizations that serve more diverse community needs.

Product thinkers identify problems and try to solve them, explained Horgen, and for those participating in the diversity, equity and inclusion movement, the problem is systemic racism and the structures that allow it to thrive. By applying product frameworks to dismantle those structures, we can begin to address systemic racism in our news organizations and coverage.

Identify who holds the power

The first step is noticing who holds the power. Who runs your company? Who decides what gets pushed to the forefront of your audience? Who makes the content? Who decides what stories are told?

“Very few people are taking hold of the narrative,” explained Horgen. His proposed solution is to focus on three tenants put forth by the Star Tribune: audience analytics, collaboration and transparency.

“Putting our audience at the center of what we do is a form of disruption,” Horgen said, explaining audience engagement work hasn’t always been hard-coded into traditional news operations. By bringing audience perspectives into the editorial decision-making process, we’re actually disrupting and decentralizing traditional power structures. Disrupting to make an equitable space starts from the top.

He offered some simple examples:

  • Systemic problem: Coverage plans decided by the few. Product fix: Implement audience analytics.
  • Systemic problem: Enterprise journalism produced mainly by white staffers. Product fix: Cross-functional workflows break that pipeline.
  • Systemic problem: Leadership culture defined by unilateral decision-making.Product fix: Creation of Product meetings to hold leadership accountable, engaged.

Use data to inform difficult conversations

“Without inclusive product teams,” said Ting Zhang, “it is impossible to make inclusive products.”
As a product thinker, Zhang developed ways to help their team assess its own inclusivity and establish metrics to hold the team accountable to its values.

Zhang, an engineer, presented a program they built (available for viewing on their Github account) that takes a company’s key values, like honesty and accountability, and measures them against the reality of how effectively they are being put to use. The program scrapes conversation data from the Slack app and evaluates which voices are leading and dominating conversations. In this way, it converts qualitative experience to metrics, giving the team tangible evidence on diversity and inclusion in practice. It’s expectation versus reality taken to another level.

“We need to hard code [diversity, equity, and inclusion] into our process,” said Zhang, emphasizing their overall goal is to make default discrimination visible. Without an inclusive organization and diverse team, there is no chance of an inclusive product.

Consider who benefits and who is harmed by product decisions

To make progress, we must ask, “Who participated in the design process? Who benefited from the design? And who was harmed by the design?” underscored Zhang, borrowing a quote from Sasha Costanza-Chock, a community-led design researcher. For example, Zhang said their team at the Local News Lab built a step into their project processes to assess both benefits and harms of proposed RFPs.

At the Local News Lab, Zhang said they try to hardcode impact assessments into the planning process by kicking off new projects with a standard form that includes a section on potential benefits and harms. The team then has a discussion on how to mitigate harms.
“By asking and keeping this simple question at the forefront of our process,” Zhang said, “we can make steps toward a more honorable, impactful, and diverse news industry.”


  • Meagan Fleming

    Meagan Fleming is an upcoming August grad from Texas State University with a Digital Media Innovation & Mass Communication degree. With three media-relevant internships under her belt, she is excited to hop on board with Rackspace this summer as a Marketing Intern. When not creating, she enjoys traveling and spending time with family, friends, and her pup, Harley.

  • Giselle Kowalski

    Giselle Kowalski, a senior digital media and computer science student at Texas State University, works for the Texas State Philosophy Department as their Social Media Coordinator and Strategist. Having worked as an intern at SXSW, LeadHub San Antonio and the PACE Center at TXST, she aspires to move to Austin, Texas to immerse herself in the tech world.


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