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Understand the product lifecycle, know that ‘sunset’ is a verb and other tips for maintaining your news products

Coaches from American Press Institute and News Product Alliance’s product development sprint share best practices.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole.

This piece features tips from Shannan Bowen, Nation Hahn, Nunzio Michael Lupo and Eric Ulken, who coached in the American Press Institute and News Product Alliance’s product development sprint for Table Stakes alumni, which took place from February to June 2023. The organizations in the cohort were Arizona Daily Star, Bangor Daily News, The Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Keene Sentinel, Sumter Item and Times Union (Albany, N.Y.).

News Product Alliance is a community of support and practice for news product thinkers. Its mission is to elevate the discipline of news product management and expand the diversity of news product thinkers in decision-making roles. It believes news product thinkers — those with the ability to strategically align business, audience and technology goals while integrating journalism ethics — are key to building sustainable and ethical news organizations.

The product development sprint for Table Stakes alumni, a partnership between American Press Institute and News Product Alliance, challenged six newsrooms to each develop a product that addresses problems for their communities. 

Over five months, the cohort learned about the fundamentals of product development and design under the guidance of four coaches with deep news industry experience: 

  • Shannan Bowen, a product and audience development strategist based in North Carolina who also leads the NC Local News Workshop
  • Nation Hahn, chief of growth for EdNC.org
  • Nunzio Michael Lupo, digital media consultant and executive; most recently with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as the senior director of emerging products and experimentation
  • Eric Ulken, vice president of product at The Baltimore Banner

Here are three major tips from the product sprint coaches on how to maintain and nurture budding news products.

Customizing your product lifecycle

Illustration with stages of product lifecycle: ideation, discovery, development, growth, maintenance, sunsetting

Coaches highlighted the maintenance phase of the product lifecycle. (Illustration from a piece by Susannah Locke in News Product Alliance’s Product Kit)

The product sprint guided alumni through the initial phases of a typical product lifecycle: ideation, discovery and development.  The “middle” of the product lifecycle can look more like a series of sprints, each one bringing the product closer to becoming a better fit for the intended market. Iterations of testing, learning, getting feedback and revising assumptions are essential for a product’s success, coaches noted.

“The takeaway that I would hope people leave this program with is the notion that the product process is really about removing uncertainty, building confidence and gaining those insights and wins that will help you build better products,” Ulken told the cohort during the sprint’s closing session in June 2023.

Ulken emphasized that a product’s lifecycle can be visualized in ways that align with existing systems. Each organization can create its own plans and protocols depending on its management style, the resources available, intended goals and the news product itself. When a news organization customizes its product lifecycle process, team members are able to gain confidence when product ideas inevitably evolve. In the long-term, this knowledge will help reduce risk and make decision-making easier, especially when there’s a need to assess which ideas are worth further investment. 

Tell your product’s story with quantitative and qualitative data

Nation Hahn spoke about how to move forward with a “product sprint mindset” after an official launch. He noted the importance of learning how to tell the product’s story by identifying the tools that will help illustrate its value within the organization. 

“It’s not just about pitching your product to your community or your subscribers or your audience. It’s also about pitching it internally so you can continue to attract resources,” he said.

Nunzio Michael Lupo outlined the concepts of quantitative and qualitative data as “two main ways to pay attention” to your product’s progress. Qualitative information is descriptive – feedback, comments and experiences, for example. It can help refine the product at different stages. 

Quantitative information uses data from analytics and tools to help benchmark product performance. Piecing together conclusions from multiple metrics like subscriber conversion rates and page views can be complex, Lupo noted, but it’s important to work with the data you have.

“It has value even if you can’t have the perfect data,” Lupo said.

‘Sunset is a verb’

Coaches addressed the reality that every product has an associated cost, noting that evaluating a product’s value over time is an integral part of a sustainable business.

A compelling case needs to be made in order to “sunset” a service or offering because choosing to stop work on an established product can be an understandably difficult decision for any organization.

Try to quantify the “opportunity cost” of production, coaches advised. This includes the time and effort individuals are devoting to content creation, fixing bugs and overall maintenance. Common strategies for measuring the “opportunity cost” include calculating a product’s return-on-investment and identifying the difference between “sunk” costs — the investment you’ve already made on your product — and “ongoing” costs — what it takes to continue day-to-day operations over time.

With enough consideration, products can wind down in active, intentional ways that also honor the work and people involved. 

“Sometimes, sunset is an opportunity to celebrate,” Ulken said, referring to how The Seattle Times held a “celebration of life” ceremony before retiring a newsletter product.

If a product is headed towards being “sunsetted,” consider what needs to be done to navigate the path forward. Ask: Can alternatives be offered in place of the service? 

Then develop a plan that communicates the phase-out process to stakeholders like staff and readers: Who needs to know and when? How do you prepare for change internally and externally?