What Product Teams Should Know About Working With Newsrooms
Demystifying the editorial process helps us create the best experience for the communities we serve
As news organizations further integrate technology into their work, journalists are often told to “embrace product thinking.” But is there room for product developers to also embrace journalistic thinking?
Don’t get us wrong: To be successful, a newsroom must understand its product team—who they are, what they do, why they’re here. Product teams know how to build and iterate things in a way that journalists often don’t. But just as integral to the relationship is what product needs to understand about their newsroom partners.
Newsrooms are very different from most other offices, with their own guidelines, traditions, and ethics. These can be tough to understand—maybe even a little mystifying—for product managers without experience in the news business.
We get it. In our current jobs, much of our time is spent managing the relationships between news and product, something we previously did together as mobile editors at the Wall Street Journal. What we’ve learned through the years is that news and product are more effective and impactful when they work together, not separately.
So here’s a guide to help product teams better understand their news colleagues—the pressures they’re under, the unique challenges they face, and why some of them can sometimes be so, um, prickly.
#1: Journalists Work & Live by the News Cycle
Whether it’s a presidential election, a hurricane, or a mass shooting, intense news cycles mean journalists routinely get pulled away not only from the project you’re working on together, but also from their own daily work. Days with major breaking news may mean trainings, meetings, or calls need to be rescheduled—sometimes at the last minute—and deadlines extended. The immediacy of news means that when deadlines coincide, news wins. Try to accommodate these needs where possible and build some extra space into your timeline to allow for delays.
#2. Journalists Keep Weird Hours (and They’re Probably Very Different Than Yours)
Newsrooms often require staffing 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This means members of the editorial team may not work a 9-to–5, Monday-to-Friday. Find out when your collaborators work, and do your best to schedule meetings and other important milestones to be as inclusive as possible. Sometimes this will mean holding important gatherings—like brainstorming sessions—more than once to include those who work on all shifts.
#2a. …And That Often Means Holiday Duty
See previous point. The news doesn’t stop on the weekends, nor does it stop on holidays. Be mindful of this when asking your newsroom colleagues how their holidays were—they don’t all get Thanksgiving or Christmas off.
#3. Journalists Believe 99% Right Is 100% Wrong
Truth, fairness, transparency, accuracy—these are non-negotiable for journalists in every decision about what we publish. There is no journalistic equivalent of “MVP.” A simple mistake in someone’s name or a typo in the spelling of a location can tarnish a story, leaving it stuck with a dreaded correction for all eternity. This mentality may mean more product work or more complicated implementations—but journalists are loath to compromise on trust and accuracy, the most important pact we hold with readers.
#4: Journalists Probably Make a Lot Less Money Than You
Let’s talk about the elephant in the newsroom. The average base salary for a product manager in New York City is about $106,000. And for journalists? The average reporter in New York is paid about $53,000, while an editor makes $58,000. Though the numbers vary by region, the discrepancies persist: In San Francisco, a reporter’s average pay is $58,000, compared with $130,000 for a product manager; in Chicago, it’s $46,000 to $100,000; in Austin, it’s $44,000 to $109,000. Meanwhile, most journalists don’t get fancy things like bonuses. Keep this in mind, especially if planning social outings with the broader team.
#5. There Isn’t Always Clear Logic to the News
Not all decisions in a newsroom can be quantified or qualified according to a logical checklist, flow chart, or decision tree. (OK, theoretically, maybe they can be—but they can also be convoluted, not easily described, and the result of months and years of learning and understanding.) Why did you make that story the top story? Why did you choose to send a push alert on this and not that? We use data to inform decisions, but sometimes you do something just because it’s important or it will resonate with your audience.
#6. Learn Their Work
One of the biggest things you can do to establish a good relationship with your journalists is to read their work—every day! It will help you understand the types of things they’re working on as well as some of the challenges they face. Show that you’re an invested reader: Compliment them on good stories, ask questions about the process, share their work if you’re active on social media.
#7. Learn Their Workflows
To understand why particular pain points are so, well, painful, you have to understand your organization’s workflow. Ask if you can spend a few days shadowing and observing some editors. Watch them use your tools in different scenarios and at different times. This will help you gain an appreciation for how many tools they must use simultaneously, the multitasking, and why certain problems that may seem minuscule are actually outsized annoyances.
#8. Journalists (Often) Don’t Have Product Skills
People who work on or closely with product teams—developers, engineers, project managers—are often technical, analytically inclined, or otherwise well-organized. Journalists are sometimes none of those things (just look at our desks!). Adjust your expectations accordingly.
#9. Learn the Lingo
What is a nut graf? Why are there so many “TK”s and “CQ”s in this story draft? Journalism, like technology, comes with its own jargon. If we start using words you aren’t familiar with, please ask. Most journalists will be sympathetic to such inquiries; we do ask questions for a living, after all.
Journalists see their primary mission as public service: Informing readers, exposing wrongdoing, and explaining important events. Technology, meanwhile, has incredible power to amplify that message and broaden its reach. Showing that product actually shares that mission will help journalists understand that we’re all on the same side. We’re able to do the most good for our communities when we understand each other and work as truly cross-functional teams, collaborating to create the best experience for our end users—our readers.
We want to hear your opinions! Journalists, what do you think your colleagues in product, design, and engineering should know about newsrooms? And product folks: What have you learned from working with a newsroom that you have found helpful for collaboration?
SRCCON:PRODUCT on Feb. 8 in Philadelphia is the first event by, for, and about product and news. There will be lots more to share this year about efforts to make news organizations more audience-oriented, data-driven, and product-focused.
Brittany Hite is newsroom project manager at the Los Angeles Times, and Christopher Chung is managing editor at SmartNews. They previously worked together at the Wall Street Journal.
Brittany Hite is newsroom project manager at the Los Angeles Times, where she helps the news, product, and technology teams coordinate efforts to improve their tools for journalists and enhance the experience for readers. Before fleeing to the West Coast in 2019, she worked for more than a decade as an editor for the Wall Street Journal in New York, Hong Kong, and Beijing, focusing on digital editing/publishing and on the WSJ’s mobile apps and push alerts. She also served as digital editor at Barron’s.
Christopher Chung is managing editor at SmartNews, where he leads content operations, oversees breaking news alerts and facilitates the collaboration between content and product teams in New York, San Francisco, and Tokyo. Until August 2019, he was an editor at the Wall Street Journal, focused on U.S. and politics news; prior to that, he spent six years as an editor on the Journal’s mobile apps team.