Introducing product capabilities in your news organization

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 introducing product thinking to news organizations, and setting up processes for conducting user research and creating accessible documentation. A group of journalism students wrote up several of the sessions, a portion of which are included below.

ABCs of Product

session led by Mary Tyler March, DCist, and Jessica Morrison, Chemical & Engineering News
article by Tatyana Monnay

There are many different parts to a newsroom with each desk or department coming with its own confusing jargon. At the first annual News Product Alliance Summit, Mary Tyler March of DCist and Jessica Morrison of the Chemical & Engineering News broke down all the product words you never truly understood in ABCs of Product.

“Mary Tyler and I were just hoping to share some of the jargon-y words that you will come across when you’re working with a product team,” Morrison said. “We both have editorial backgrounds and have moved toward product so we at some point have had to encounter these words and learn what they mean and how to use them.”

Here are some of the biggest takeaways from this session:

Make a blueprint

In the product world, this is referred to as documentation. Mary Tyler and Jessica defined documentation as “a record of business policy, procedure, workflow, decisions or other information that includes instructions or references.”

It’s a great idea to make this a habit. Establish a quarterly documentation day in your newsroom so you can intentionally create a record of any new or old process/policy/idea that you don’t want your newsroom to lose. This method also improves the sustainability of your newsroom’s products, projects, and other procedures. The days of only one person having the mental documentation of an important procedure are long gone.

The New York Times made a public documentation library that other newsrooms can utilize, if you need a place to start. It’s also available on a public repository on GitHub.

Feedback loops are important

The earlier you establish feedback loops for your audience when launching a new product, the better. By instilling these feedback loops for your audience at an early stage, they can help guide progress and goals through cycles of testing. This method is also known as an iterative process, where teams take “a series of steps used to build and improve a product.”

Collaboration is key

Newsroom workflows traditionally happen in silos, where only a select few are in the know and those few are cagey about sharing information. Session leaders and summit participants spoke a lot about the importance of building a culture of collaboration within newsrooms. A product team can only be so successful without a collaborative relationship with editorial and other departments within the newsroom.

Be a journalist

Product in news is still a pretty new concept. While sessions like these are helpful in building a foundation in the vocabulary, Morrison recommends using your journalistic skills to learn more about product. Simply, be a journalist. Ask questions and be curiostic like you on any new beat.

A great place to start is looking at what product looks like outside of journalism.

“It was really interesting to go to the conference and learn about how people think about product in organizations that are very very different from mine and whose products are very different from mine in news,” Morrison said. “Our audiences are different, what we’re creating is different but the methods are similar.”

To see how March and Morrison defined the ABCs of Product, scroll through their presentation.

Session participants and leaders also put together a Google Doc with questions and other takeaways from the session.

User research in the trenches

session led by Rebekah Monson, WhereBy.Us, and Alexander Droessler, Nordkurier
article by Meagan Fleming

This session was by no means stuck “in the trenches.” The conversations and insights shared within this lively discussion were so helpful that the facilitators, Rebekah Monson, Co-Founder and COO at WhereBy.Us, and Alexander Droessler, Digital Transformation Manager at Nordkurier, brought the discussion back in a second session on the second day of the Summit.

For me, the most significant takeaways were ideas surrounding conducting surveys and interviews, getting others in the company on board with products, and content testing.

Surveys and interviews are great ways to discover your customer’s needs and wants

Understanding why your audience is motivated to use your product — what need it fulfills or value it delivers — is key to product development. In order to understand audience needs and wants, simply listen.

“Interviews helped us with our decision to develop a newsletter and find a value proposition for it,” said Droessler. During the panel, he and Monson provided a survey guide and user interview guide to help participants set up moderated user interviews.

When looking to expand your audience, it’s important to talk to people who aren’t loyal users yet, said Mollie Leavitt, audience research manager at The Atlantic, who shared how her company reaches different audiences with surveys. “While it’s nice to hear from people who love our work, in order to balance that feedback, we regularly screen for people with lower levels of engagement,” she said. Specifically, she said they target subscribers with a lower likelihood to renew and non-subscribers with little to moderate brand awareness of The Atlantic to understand potential growth audiences.

User testing can be a group sport

Understanding audience needs and behavior is essential to product development, therefore, it’s important to get others throughout the organization on board.

During this session, multiple individuals brought up the issue of convincing people in their companies to work with the product team on user research projects. With the mention of this issue, many jumped to share their ideas. For instance, Susannah Locke, Editor of Special Projects at Vox.com, said, “For audience-facing projects, I keep a spreadsheet of folks at my company who are not in editorial or product and are interested in user testing. This list includes people in finance, HR, office operations, etc. A lot of them have chosen to work at a media company because they think it’s interesting, and they really love the opportunity to be involved.” Lower below, you will find many links to resources for other ideas.

Content testing of all types

“Often, we all think our product ideas are the best ideas,” said Rebekah Monson, Co-Founder and COO at WhereBy.Us. Wouldn’t it be great if the first product created was the best one? Rather than simply assume your ideas will work, it is essential to test your product concepts and content ideas with your target audience.

If you have a prototype or an early version of your product ready, put it in front of a real person to see how they use it. You can even test two versions — i.e. A/B Testing — to see which performs better. Some of the most popular routes for doing this type of testing mentioned during this session included usertesting.com and Unstack.

But as some participants noted, there are limits to the effectiveness of A/B testing, and sometimes it can be overused. For example, one person mentioned their editors test three subject lines each day for their daily email newsletter, which creates too much data to make sense of easily. As another participant said, many questions are sometimes better solved with qualitative tests, such as asking a user to perform an action and seeing how they interact with your product to accomplish the task. So, when you’re considering user testing strategies, remember it’s important to choose the best route for the questions you want to answer.

Helpful Links

Breaking Barriers in Documentation

session led by Tyler Fisher, News Catalyst and Margaret Schneider, Alley Interactive
article by Rjaa Ahmed

By documenting technical processes and shared knowledge in the newsroom, we can make the workspace more collaborative and equitable. Tyler Fisher and Margaret Schneider led a hands-on workshop about newsroom documentation, touching on the importance of considering cultural barriers and audience type when drafting a set of instructions. The session was incredibly engaging as it allowed participants to play an active role in the learning process.

Let go of gatekeeping

Before jumping into how newsrooms can make documentation sustainable, equitable and collaborative, Schneider described the “gatekeeping” phenomenon that can exist when an individual fails to recognize the benefit of sharing their particular skill set. In some cases, they may think it will disrupt their own position within a newsroom, as they are the only person who knows how to execute a certain process. What really drove this idea home was her empathetic approach. Schneider did not disparage those who may feel compelled to withhold their skillset and shared that she had also been in that situation herself, explaining why it was not a great position to be in. This need to maintain hierarchies and legacy structures can not only hamper newsroom growth but also, it can be “painful” for these gatekeepers, Schneider explained.

Empathize with your audience

The facilitators empowered attendees to critically think about the importance of an equitable and collaborative approach towards documentation by splitting us into groups and asking us to prepare a set of instructions on how to make tea that a five-year-old could follow. After returning from breakout rooms, participants discussed their thought processes for ensuring that the instructions were easy to understand and execute for the audience assigned to them. This was a thought-provoking exercise because it allowed us to consider how we won’t always be writing documentation for a target audience that we can personally relate to. One needs to develop an empathetic approach that appeals to the audience by considering their particular characteristics instead of alienating them. It is important to take into account the target audience’s current level of expertise and any cultural or linguistic limitations they may have in order to package and document technical information in an accessible way. This exercise enabled me to get in the habit of critically thinking about the strengths and limitations of an audience when trying to engage with them.

Pay attention to accessibility

Fisher and Schneider discussed how documentation language can be made more accessible through considering microaggressions and target audience. I was glad to see this being brought up because newsrooms can sometimes be alienating spaces for people of color and individuals with disabilities. One particularly enlightening point brought up by a participant was using words like “look, see or view” when you mean read. This verbiage can be exclusionary because not all of us use the same visual tools to read. This exercise allowed me to check myself and learn how I can do better even in day-to-day conversations that do not necessarily involve documentation.


  • Rjaa Ahmed

    Rjaa Ahmed is a recent graduate of Temple University. She currently lives in Philadelphia where she works as a freelance reporter.

  • Tatyana Monnay

    Tatyana Monnay is a student at the University of Missouri.


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