Understanding the role of product leadership in a 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 and questions about working at the intersection of journalism and product. They shared advice on how to develop your career as a news product thinker, with or without a product title and discussed whether product thinkers should have greater influence among newsroom leadership. A group of journalism students wrote up several of the sessions, a portion of which are included below.
- Product leadership, with or without the title
- How Can Product Lead an Organization (and is it ready)?
Product leadership, with or without the title
talk by Charo Henríquez, The New York Times and recent graduate Adriana Lacy, freelance journalist/formerly Axios
article by Tatyana Monnay
Veteran journalist Charo Henríquez of The New York Times and recent graduate Adriana Lacy of Axios opened the second day of the Summit with a keystone session where they discussed how to lead product workflow in your newsroom even when you don’t have an official product title.
“A lot of the work that we do in the digital realm is connected to product work,” Henríquez said. “But it’s editorial work as long as it’s in service of the journalism and the audiences.”
In her current role as head of newsroom support and development, Henríquez identifies gaps and issues in the newsroom and creates innovative solutions. But when Henríquez first started in the industry over 20 years ago, product thinking wasn’t really something journalists had explored yet.
“I was one of those first journalists that would go into the editorial meeting and be like ‘this is what people are talking about in the forums and chats,’” Henríquez said. “And the reporters were like ‘what do you mean?’”
Here are some of the biggest takeaways on what product thinking looks like today.
News product thinking still isn’t easily defined
Every newsroom and journalist has their own understanding of product thinking. In Henríquez and Lacy’s experience, what news product thinkers seem to have in common is their ability to connect audience and editorial needs to the product development process.
For Lacy, who currently works on the audience engagement team at Axios, a newsroom product should keep the audience in mind. Lacy uses soft skills such as data analysis and audience engagement strategies to inform how she defines and interacts with news products, keeping the audience in mind at every step.
Henríquez uses core product development processes such as Agile and applies an editorial lens to it. These processes are then optimized for the newsroom’s workflow and social media.
Trust and inclusion are essential to leading change
For product thinking and innovation to take off and be successful in a newsroom, one must be intentional about making it an inclusive initiative, Henríquez said. That means finding ways to build a common ground between legacy media and digital journalists.
“If you want to move innovation forward, you have to bring everyone along. It has to be intentional,” she said.
If you’ve faced resistance to product strategizing within your newsroom, Lacy recommends building relationships with those who might be resistant to change. It can be intimidating and confusing for those on the outside of the product team to understand what you mean when you drop jargon like waterfall or Agile.
“Having that trust already there makes people more willing and ready to learn,” Lacy said about her time at The Los Angeles Times.
Becoming culturally collaborative
Product thinking isn’t just about creating something new for your audience. Sometimes the role of product thinkers is to encourage strategic thinking by improving workflows and streamlining communication between different departments in the newsroom.
At the New York Times, Henríquez and her team will embed in other departments to see firsthand what their routines and processes are like. After about six months of shadowing, they will come up with recommendations to optimize workflow or lighten a department’s workload.
“It’s not just teaching the newsroom how product works, but also, teaching product folks and development folks and design folks to sit closer in the newsroom and establish those communications bonds so they know ultimately who they are building this for,” Henríquez said.
In a digital-only newsroom such as Axios, Lacy said many reporters are excited and interested in the product team and product thinking. And that interest is mutual, as the product team is also open to requests from the newsroom. For example, they’ve set up internal feedback loops like Slack channels for journalists to give feedback on the CMS and other products. This is a key part in building that experimental mindset within the newsroom that’s inclusive of many departments.
“Our product team has been really great about communicating changes and communicating things that the newsroom wants to see,” Lacy said, adding the product team’s receptiveness to requests from the newsroom has helped them get buy-in for product changes and encouraging a collaborative environment.
Ultimately, the conversation between Henríquez and Lacy demonstrated the need for news product thinkers — with or without a product title — to facilitate collaboration, innovation and change within news organizations.
How Can Product Lead an Organization (and is it ready)?
talk by John Davidow, former managing director of WBUR, and André Natta, Principal of Urban Conversations
article by Giselle Kowalski
With product management on the rise, newsrooms are evolving to fit a new discipline and asset to their teams and organizational structure. Where does product — from launching a newsletter to redesigning a website — belong in the hierarchy of the organization? Can product become the boss of news in the future?
Both Sides of the House
Two well seasoned newsroom experts, John Davidow, former managing director of WBUR, and André Natta, former journalist and current Principal of Urban Conversations, joined us to discuss the role of product in today’s news organizations. Both speakers have dealt with the roots of building an organization and creating more accessible and inclusive content for their audiences.
“Folks in the newsroom literally need to understand both sides of the house,” explained Natta. Not only do newsroom employees need to be aware of how to build a good story, but they also need to be on top of funding. It’s a full circle process that encompasses each and every position in the organization and each employee’s attention to what makes their content whole and tangible.
What is a Product Person?
“Product managers are the audience’s advocate. They are so involved in the audience’s presence,” said Davidow.
Multifaceted with the way the newsroom ebbs and flows, product managers are keen on finding a better way to solve a reader’s problem. They are integrated and connected to the audience and in turn, their relationship with the rest of the newsroom is such that they are pushing out the best possible product they can.
Along with relating to an audience, product people are responsible for the know-how of their newsroom’s business model, and in that way, are given the tools to lead an organization.
Push for Change
The value of a product manager is furthered by their constant fight for transformation, as a key value for product management is iteration and learning through experimentation. At times, this practice can clash with legacy news traditions and those who push for change often struggle to rise in leadership roles.
But we are at a turning point. Getting an organization focused, being the audience’s voice — those strengths of product leaders could lead to them taking the reins of the newsroom. They are the one in charge of listening and responding to diverse audiences and making sure the products you create are enhancing the user’s experience.
“A product person isn’t just tools and sprints, it’s pushing for inclusivity and serving the entire island. Are we there yet? No,” said Natta.
In order for product to lead, product managers must have a respected position within news organizations. And having more people of color in leadership roles will lead to more diverse perspectives on journalism and current world events and make for a more well rounded, better trusted, and forward thinking organization with products you are proud to consume.
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.
Tatyana Monnay is a student at the University of Missouri.