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Product management: A primer

Product is the responsibility for balancing diverse (and in some cases competing) interests across the enterprise.

“Product” as a discipline is relatively new in news enterprises, particularly legacy operations. And the role of product can mean lots of things to lots of people. (In some organizations, for example, product staff serve as liaisons between technology and business, and the people who fill these roles often come from engineering or coding backgrounds.)

In this context, however, we’re defining “product” as the responsibility for balancing diverse (and in some cases, competing) interests across the enterprise. This is “mini-publisher” discipline, one of the seven essential “table stakes” for publishers.

For simplicity, we’re using “product management,” “product development” and “product ownership” interchangeably. Of course, these roles/titles can be interpreted differently. So what are the essential roles of product in a news organization and why is it important?

  • Product management can be broad (e.g. owning all aspects of a sub-brand, like a food vertical) or narrow (e.g. building, maintaining and improving a specific digital “thing,” like an email newsletter).
  • Product can also mean owning a “service” instead of a “thing.” For example, a product manager could lead a news organization’s live events business, including content, audience building, marketing, programming, logistics, ticketing and revenue.
  • Product management facilitates connections among once distinct areas of the enterprise (e.g. balancing the needs of digital subscriptions and digital advertising).
  • Product management sets priorities, establishes goals, owns metrics of success (KPIs or “key performance indicators”) and has P&L (“profit and loss” or financial performance) responsibility.
  • Product management accelerates both decision-making and the product cycle (e.g. time to market). 
  • Product management connects what you’re measuring with what you do next, which is especially necessary to institutionalize an audience-centric mentality. 
  • Product management takes the tools of project management, which is solely focused on efficient execution, and adds evaluation and strategic decision-making. The two roles can fall to the same person, but should be understood as distinct. The value of product management is that it can help teams toward goals, rather than running 100 miles in the wrong direction.
  • People in product roles have to be able to take tactical and strategic views of the work (the view from the balcony and the view from the dance floor), with special attention to putting their teammates in a position to succeed, which requires humility and excellent communication skills.
  • Effective product management requires tools and methods that increase transparency and accountability. This is a “solved problem” in other disciplines that teams in media can implement.