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Communiqué 33: The product-thinking journalist
The new realities of the news business and content ecosystem require more journalists to apply product thinking to their work.
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The product-thinking journalist
At the City University of New York, there’s a product immersion programme for journalists interested in using product thinking to serve their audiences better and make their profession more sustainable. Anita, the author of our last newsletter, was selected for the latest cohort.
For the next two months, she will join 24 other journalists to learn about product management and development from facilitators from Stanford University’s design school, Financial Times, NowThis, Vox Media, and Daily Maverick.
Five thousand miles from New York, there’s another programme at the School of Media and Communication, Pan-Atlantic University in Lagos, Nigeria. It’s designed to help journalists understand the impact of technology on their work and the economics of their profession. It takes them through modules about the subscription model, emerging technologies, and monetisation strategies.
These programmes are two out of several global initiatives designed to help journalists develop the skills and frameworks required to keep their profession sustainable. All over the world, there’s a realisation that the news business can no longer exist as it is. Journalistic content now swims within a massive pool, and media companies compete with other platforms vying for the same audience’s attention.
This idea formed the basis for “Communiqué 30:Journalism in the creator economy”. We explored why journalists need to realise how much the environment for content has changed and then adapt to this new reality.
Today, we’ll go a step further to examine what precisely this new reality entails. What do forward-thinking media companies do that others don’t? What ideas are they embracing that others need to? Enter product thinking.
Journalism and product thinking
Product thinking is simply the idea that you first seek to understand your user’s problem, contextualise that problem, and then design products to solve it. To build a successful product, you must first find real-world problems, not invent them. This is where the hard work of user research comes in.
In the context of journalism, product thinking begins with realising that every way people experience the news is a possible product or feature. In the past, this was more straightforward. If you worked for a print publication, the newspaper or magazine was the product. If you worked for a radio or TV station, the programmes were the product.
Times have changed. The advent of the Internet and the proliferation of digital and social media mean there’s much more dynamism and options in how people interact with the news.
Journalism is as much a business as it is a social good. The need for a product approach to journalism has become more obvious as the business models that support it have been disrupted. Meredith Gallo, writing for the Northwestern University Knight Lab, puts it neatly:
“As traditional media struggled to adopt new approaches to content, the business models that historically paid for journalism began to be disrupted. Classified ads, a lucrative and reliable revenue stream for pre-internet newspapers, migrated to websites such as Realtor.com (homes) and Monster.com (jobs). Search engine ads attracted advertisers who wanted to pay only if ads generated business for them. Social media platforms made it possible for small businesses to target narrow audiences at a fraction of the cost of advertising in newspapers or on TV.”
Beyond balancing editorial commitments and business models, product thinking also forces journalists to look beyond the stories they publish and consider how the audience interacts with, consumes, and considers paying for them.
In the past year, we’ve covered a few examples of media companies in emerging markets applying product thinking elements to their work. We’ve looked at Stears Business, Daily Maverick, The Continent, and Big Cabal Media.
Stears is a fascinating example because it’s set up more like a tech company. It has a product team and encourages its writers to apply product thinking to their work. A recent example is in its approach to building an app. Media platforms have been designing and building their own apps for ages. But what makes Stears relevant to this conversation is its approach to developing the app.
Yvette Uloma Dimiri, the company’s Head of Subscription Growth and former Product Manager, says, “After launching Stears Premium, we were focused on understanding our users’ experience. We looked at the data and saw that engagement wasn’t where we wanted it to be, so we started conducting interviews to better understand the ways we weren’t meeting their needs.
“We found out some interesting things. Our customers were telling us how they were consistently missing our emails, our daily briefings, or how they didn’t want to read across the various sectors we covered. Basically, they wanted a lot more focus, and we were writing too broadly for them. They also needed more help from us with retrieving pieces that they cared about and discovering pieces they should care about.”
This insight, drawn out from user research, prompted the Stears team to develop the app. While this isn’t necessarily new or groundbreaking, it fits into the product thinking model, which more media companies need to apply.
Another example is The New York Times, the media’s poster child for product thinking. For many years, the company was perceived as a fading legacy force, a relic of an era past in danger of usurpation by newer entrants like BuzzFeed. But The New York Times has turned things around and become more powerful than ever.
In 2014, it began applying more digital innovation elements, like product thinking, to its work. It tried a few things: a smartphone app that first failed but is now wildly successful, a cooking app that immediately succeeded, and puzzles, all of which helped boost its subscriber figures.
The New York Times also embraced more experimentation, hiring web developers, multimedia producers, and product specialists. In 2020, it put together a team of editors, product managers, news designers, product designers, engineers and data analysts to create and scale its ‘Live’ product, which “consists of blogs, briefings and chats, providing in-depth coverage for a wide variety of news events”. It now has an internal product design team responsible for building its applications, website, newsletter templates, and other multimedia experiences. Beyond that, the company also documents its product and design thinking processes, making some publicly available.
Several other examples include HumAngle, The National News, Vox, and BuzzFeed.
How media companies can encourage product thinking
Journalism as a profession can no longer produce news stories without first understanding the audience and the economics of the business. This doesn’t mean that journalists must enslave themselves to popularity or profit. No. That leads to duplicity and avarice. It means that journalists and the companies they work for must become fully aware of the modern demands of the profession. What was sufficient in the past is no longer sufficient today.
Furthermore, the burden of adaptation can’t fall squarely on the shoulders of individuals. It must be a collective effort. Therefore, the onus is on the companies and not solely the journalists to create an environment that enables product thinking.
So, how do we do that?
1. Embrace user research
The first step to building a culture of product thinking within a newsroom is encouraging journalists to interact with their readers as much as they do with their sources. Doing this will help them better understand content consumption needs and habits. As we’ve already established, product thinking requires understanding real-world problems and developing products or features to solve them. It is impossible to know what those problems are if you don’t talk to people.
This isn’t to say that journalists must become UX researchers. However, it helps if they can borrow from that toolkit.
2. Promote a system of experimentation and documentation
Product thinking requires a lot of experimentation and documentation. It’s always best to start with small-scale experiments you can easily adjust based on results. It’s also important to document every part of the process. If something fails or succeeds, there must be enough documentation explaining the reasons for either outcome. This provides a body of knowledge that can help improve the results of future experiments.
If, like The New York Times, you choose to make some parts of the process public, that also helps position your company as an industry leader, attracting more prestige and attention to your brand.
3. Consider hiring product managers
Realistically, most media outlets, especially those in emerging markets, can’t afford multiple product managers. Quite frankly, they might not need that many. Often, one product manager is enough. For those who can’t afford product managers with high salary demands (because they’ll most likely land in tech companies), it’s also not a bad idea to hire entry-level PMs. They’ll probably not stay with you for long, but hiring them could be mutually beneficial.
Another option is upskilling a current staff member with the potential for or interest in product management. One of my favourite examples is Jason Von Berg of The National News, a UAE-based publication. Von Berg joined the company as a mobile app editor and then moved to head audience growth. A few years later, he moved into the product manager role, which he’s occupied for the last year and a half. Dimiri of Stears followed a similar path. She joined the company as Growth Editor and later moved into a product management role before her current appointment as Head of Subscriptions Growth.
Product thinking doesn’t guarantee success but always leads to better outcomes, and that makes success more attainable. The forward-thinking media companies know this and are adjusting their operations in response.
There’s a lot more that journalists and news media entrepreneurs can learn about how technology impacts their profession. This is a good place to start. Anyone interested in learning more will find this series of articles by the Northwestern University Knight Lab resourceful. It’s also important to step further out of the media bubble to discuss with product managers and developers in other industries. We’ll all be better for it.
PS: Thank you to Alexandria Sahai Williams for the idea to write this essay and for working with me to develop it.
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