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Translating product management to news organizations

This white paper spans the tactical elements of workflow to team dynamics and testing methodologies, all drawn from a pool of expert product-oriented pro’s assembled by API.

News is a product.

Conceptually, that is a leap for people from traditional reporting and editing roles. We are used to buying “products” in stores or online. We hear tech people describe a new app or service as a “product.” And all that makes sense. But we traditionally did not think of news that way.

“Product managers are responsible for overseeing a news product that is both an editorial success, a commercial success, and is built efficiently and functions well.

The news you publish, in aggregate and over time, is also a product — in its various forms as a physical thing (a newspaper) or a digital service (a website or app) that you sell or distribute to a target market of consumers.

And in the era of the “personal news cycle” — where abundant information and constant connectivity gives each individual control of her news consumption — our news products must be good and targeted to succeed. They must know who their users are, what they need, how they need it, and deliver a satisfying experience.

That is what a product manager does. And increasingly this role, which has long been a staple of the tech world, is emerging in news organizations.

Product managers are responsible for thinking about what users (your readers or viewers) need from the whole of that product; what their experience of it is like; how it could be more convenient or valuable to them. This means they are responsible for simultaneously considering the business and marketing strategy, the technological execution, and yes, the editorial direction of the news. Good product managers weave all three into a single strategy — overseeing a news product that is both an editorial success, a commercial success, and is built efficiently and functions well.

The American Press Institute recently invited more than 40 product-manager types from leading news organizations for one of our Thought Leader Summits, to explore this increasingly vital role. From that day of intimate discussions we have distilled in this white paper the best practices and insights that all news organizations can learn from.

We have organized the insights into several chapters:

  1. How to integrate product management in your organization
  2. How product managers should work with their bosses and colleagues
  3. How to do good user testing and get feedback on products
  4. How to hire effective product managers for a news organization
  5. Making the leap from editorial to product thinking

This white paper is intended to help several types of people: People in product management roles who want new practices and ideas; Managers trying to ensure their organization puts the right process in place to have someone managing the experience and value that users get from your news; and journalists, designers, developers, marketers, or anyone else in the organization who contributes to making content or building products and wants to play a better role in making the products successful.

The ideas, and in some cases the words themselves, are drawn from the few dozen participants of our summit. We don’t imply that every summit participant endorses every idea or view expressed in this white paper, but collectively they deserve credit for inspiring the wisdom it contains.

Sarah Milstein took the lead on organizing the summit and recruiting the participants, as a consultant to API. She is VP of programs at O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, with a diverse background in journalism, lean startup methods, and product development.

The summit participants were:

  • Kelly Alfieri, Executive Director of Special Editorial Projects, New York Times
  • Jeff Anderson, Digital Media Director, Virginian-Pilot / Pilot Media
  • Brett Atkinson, General Manager – ksl.com, Deseret Digital Media
  • Daniel Bachhuber, now Principal at Hand Built, former Director of Engineering, Fusion
  • Katharine Bailey, Head of News Products, Wall Street Journal
  • Russell Banz, Vice President, Content/News Products, Deseret Digital Media (DDM)
  • Jeff Carney, Corporate Director Digital Content, BH Media Group
  • Denise Clifton, Visual Strategy Editor, Newsroom, Seattle Times
  • Laura Cochran, User Experience Lead, Conde Nast
  • David Cohn, now Senior Director of Advance Publications’ Alpha Group, then Executive Producer, AJ+
  • Toni Cruthirds, Product Manager, New York Times
  • Beth Davidz, Product Director, Billy Penn
  • Cecilia Dobbs, Group Product Manager, International, Guardian
  • Michael Donohoe, Director of Product Engineering, New Yorker
  • Trish Dorsey, Digital Production Manager, National Geographic
  • Betsy Ebersole, Sr Product Director, Atlantic
  • Ben French, VP, Product, New York Times
  • John Hashimoto, Sr. Director – Product Management, CNN Digital
  • Jennifer Hicks, Executive Digital Editor, Wall Street Journal
  • Jeff Hobbs, Lead Product Manager, News, Advance Digital
  • Jill Hudson, Director of Content Initiatives, National Geographic Digital
  • John Humenik, VP/News, Lee Enterprises
  • Breana Jones, Product Manager, Fox News
  • Dheerja Kaur, Head of Product, theSkimm
  • Clarence Kwei, VP Product & Engineering, Fusion
  • Matt LeMay, Co-founder, Constellate Data
  • Suzanne Levinson, Head, Digital News, McClatchy Company
  • Aleksander Mielczarek, Sr. Product Manager, TIME Digital
  • Constance Miller, Deputy General Manager, Digital, National Geographic
  • Sarah Milstein, summit organizer; VP of Programs, O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures
  • Demian Perry, Director, Mobile, NPR
  • Lauren Rabaino, Product Director, Vox Media
  • William Renderos, Sr Product Manager, Seattle Times
  • Michael Riley, President and Editor in Chief, Chronicle of Higher Education
  • Sarah Schmalbach, now Senior Mobile Product Manager at the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab, then Manager, Product Development, Gannett / USA TODAY
  • Zach Seward, VP of product and executive editor, Quartz
  • Lauren Shea, Director of Product, BostonGlobe.com, Boston Globe
  • Audrea Soong, Director of Product Development, Forbes
  • Andrea Spiegel, Senior Vice President, Product Development and Video, Forbes
  • Gabriel Stein, Sr. Product Manager, Upworthy
  • Chris Tindal, Senior Product Lead, BuzzFeed
  • Eric Ulken, executive director, digital strategy, Philadelphia Media Network
  • Willy Volk, Director of Product, Huffington Post
  • Carla Zanoni, Executive Emerging Media Editor, Wall Street Journal
  • Ashley Zywusko, Product Manager, Advance Digital, Inc.

Integrating product management

Particularly for “legacy” news organizations, like newspapers, that have evolved and calcified an organizational structure from an earlier era, it can be challenging to find the right fit for product management.

Product people cross a lot of traditional silos — their responsibilities involve editorial strategy, business and revenue success, marketing and subscriptions, and technology. In an organization where those were separate departments, product managers will have to build some bridges and break down some walls to get things done right.

The participants at our thought leader summit surfaced several good points of advice about how to help product people work effectively across the entire organization.

Create cross-functional teams. When taking on a redesign of a website, launching a print section, or developing a new mobile app — your news organization has many internal stakeholders to involve. Your challenge is to have broad involvement, so the end result is on target, but not to bog down with too many people involved in every decision. Summit participants said that teams with representation from all types of stakeholders can be effective at getting this done. When doing this, two things are particularly important: 1) Delegates to the team should have authority to make decisions, not having to go back to their department for signoff on everything, and 2) Team members need to put the project and the users first, not defend their department’s turf. “You want everybody to be fiercely loyal to the team and to the [user’s] problem that you’re trying to solve,” said Ben French, vice president of product at The New York Times. “That loyalty is often in great contradiction to loyalty to their department.”

“It helps greatly for the product people to have frequent, casual contact with the newsroom. This creates familiarity, trust and understanding — the basis for collaborating and succeeding on big projects down the road.

Link product managers to the newsroom. Editorial independence is an important value in newsrooms, and journalists may be wary or at least confused about what a product manager is up to. Several people at our summit said it helps greatly for the product people to have frequent, casual contact with the newsroom. This creates familiarity, trust and understanding — the basis for collaborating and succeeding on big projects down the road.

“You really can’t underestimate the value of having the product team sitting with the newsroom,” said Jennifer Hicks, executive digital editor of The Wall Street Journal. “Physical proximity is extremely important. You pick up things, you hear things, you learn things — new ideas, new problems, new solutions. So we’ve done that at the Journal.”

“I’m in the Time & Life building, we are literally maybe 30 floors, and I think every group I work with is on a different floor, and you have to take different elevator banks — it takes 10 minutes to get from place to place,” said Aleksander Mielczarek, senior product manager for Time Digital. ”We’re actually moving to the Freedom Tower site, and we (print, digital, product, business development, etc.) are all on the same floor. Big, open-concept. I cannot tell you the excitement both teams have around that.”

Breana Jones, digital product manager at Fox News Channel, explained how valuable it has been for her to simply be present in daily news meetings, to overhear what is being covered and even anticipate product-related needs that could tell a story better for readers.

Develop and share “user stories” with the staff. One challenge for product managers is to help the reporters, editors, producers, marketers, and others carrying out the day-to-day activities of news align their work with the grand product strategy. One way to do this is, first use research to understand and define key segments of your audience, and then to project those abstract ideas onto fictional personas with a specific faces and names. This way the education beat reporter can think of “Sally the Soccer Mom” and her short list of concerns, passions, and news habits, when deciding how to cover the local school district today. The personas align the day-to-day news decisions with the user needs and behaviors that your news product is trying to satisfy.

“By making sure everyone knows whenever a suggestion that came from editorial was actually implemented, it helps to prove that your tech team is actually listening and responding.

Encourage staff to suggest product insights by crediting those who do so. When BuzzFeed launches a new product or feature sparked by a staffer’s idea, its announcement credits the people who originally suggested it, said Chris Tindal, senior product lead at BuzzFeed. He explained: “Usually that means an email from a product manager to all of editorial saying something like ‘The headline fields of the CMS are now expandable for when you put a lot of text in there. This was the great idea of [editor’s name], and was implemented by [developer’s name].’” This improves relationships and future communication between editorial people and tech people. “A lot of the time people feel like their suggestions won’t be listened to or acted upon,” Tindal said. “By making sure everyone knows whenever a suggestion that came from editorial was actually implemented, it helps to prove that your tech team is actually listening and responding.”

Great product managers distribute the “why” not just the “what.” Another way to say this is, product managers should resist the temptation to see themselves as Steve Jobs, a “solo genius” model where one person takes in all the information, forms the grand strategy in their own head, and issues directives across the organization.

That model has several weaknesses, explained Matt LeMay, a veteran product manager for several technology and media companies who gave a keynote talk at our summit.

For one, there was only one Steve Jobs and you are not him. Your attempt to play the solo genius will likely fail, be divisive, or at least miss the opportunity to tie together insight and energy across the organization. For another, the solo genius becomes a bottleneck for decision making — where progress is slowed while everyone in the organization has to wait for confirmation or direction from the solo genius.

“The entire organization is more innovative and nimble if the product manager focuses on evangelizing and educating everyone not just ‘what’ to do, but ‘why.’

But most importantly, the entire organization is more innovative and nimble if the product manager focuses on evangelizing and educating everyone not just “what” to do, but “why.” Sharing the strategy, the roadmap, the plan and the rationale, empowers everyone to carry it out better and to add their own quick decisions and creative flourishes around the edges.

Lauren Shea, product director at the Boston Globe, added that it’s not the role of the product manager to define the vision, but rather to propose and integrate ideas. Control shouldn’t rest with one person.

Next we’ll discuss how a product manager should distribute involvement and get buy-in across the whole organization.

Working with bosses and colleagues

Everyone in your organization plays some key role in making your products great. The product manager is there to guide, facilitate, and advocate — but not to do it alone.

The participants at our summit had a lot of good advice about how to work with senior managers and colleagues in the process of making decisions and creating products.

Top bosses need to force action. An organization needs a leader at the very top to say “we have to do something on this issue” — to force action. And they have to be clearly committed to seeing it through over time, said Cecelia Dobbs, who manages the international products for the Guardian. Clear decisions and edicts from the top manager can empower the process to really begin — removing debate and resistance about whether we should even do this or not. Make it a question of how to proceed and how to reach the goal.

For example, said Jeff Anderson, digital media director at Virginian Pilot newspaper’s owner Pilot Media, when the top boss makes it clear that despitesome tough choices, this must happen.

“Clear decisions and edicts from the top manager can empower the process to really begin — removing debate and resistance about whether we should even do this or not.

“[The publisher said] we have to move to a responsive design, over some objection from advertising who said you’re going to crater our revenue by switching a desktop page with five ads to a mobile one with one ad, and we’re not going to make our goals with that,” Anderson said. “The publisher said, ‘I don’t care, we have to meet our audience demands. This is a long-term play.’ … [Without that], we would have been on a back-and-forth debate for months over what to do, whether to do it.”

Do your homework before pitching a new idea. One person in a “boss” role, Jeff Carney, the corporate director of digital content for BH Media Group, says it’s important that people present new ideas that have been validated with what the audience and revenue would be.

“I’m on the editorial side, so most of the ideas [for new products] have a news and audience reason first, but if they have connected with an influencer in advertising and have champions in other divisions in the building … it immediately gets fast-tracked because there’s been a lot of homework done,” Carney said. “We love passion and encourage passion, but if that’s three-quarters of the argument or justification for doing something, it’s going to be a really hard sell.”

Breana Jones from Fox News added that product managers should show the boss numbers that back up why your approach will get results. Do a small proving experiment, or find data that suggest what would happen if your idea proceeds. Kelly Alfieri of the New York Times suggested doing some small tests that will give a sense of whether this will resonate. Make some prototypes and put it in front of users, come back with evidence and learning about how to build the real thing.

Product managers need to consult executors, not just bosses. Of course a product manager must get buy-in from the bosses in charge, but to be successful they also need support and guidance from those who will have to carry out the product every day.

“Buy-in at the top is important if you think the top is going to stand in the way of something going forward,” said Cecelia Dobbs of the Guardian. “But otherwise, if you’re talking about actually getting something done, I think the buy-in at the level of the ‘doer’ is just absolutely essential.”

“If you’re talking about actually getting something done, I think the buy-in at the level of the ‘doer’ is just absolutely essential.

That means, for example, if you want to design and launch a news product, you need to be sure the news team can and will produce the right content for it and understands the product strategy.

On any given product change or development, it’s wise to involve all the stakeholders defined up front, so no back-seat drivers jump in at the end. Make sure they stay involved — for example, by having stakeholder checkins or demos every two weeks. It at least keeps them informed and bought-in, and may even improve the product with iterative feedback, said Kelly Alfieri of The New York Times.

If you’re developing an internal product (a CMS feature, an analytics dashboard, etc.), then this principle is even more essential — the executors in the organization are also the primary intended users, and you must design for their needs and workflows.

Build trust through small successes that help colleagues. To get buy-in for your product decisions, ideas and requests from colleagues in the organization, start by building trust over time through simple successes make things better for them. Execute on one of their good ideas. Fix an internal system that was a pain point in their workflow. Do these little things to get colleagues to trust and understand your product management process, so they will give you some slack to try other things they aren’t sure about, said Cecelia Dobbs of the Guardian. John Hashimoto, senior director of product management at CNN, echoed that in his experience when a product manager can give people quick wins that fulfill their requests, it builds trust and earns some favors over time.

Doing good user testing and getting feedback on products

Eric Ulken, executive director of digital strategy at the Philadelphia Media Network, says they see product managers as the “voice of the user.”

Everyone inside your organization can speak for themselves — advocating for what editorial, business, marketing or other departments want in a product. But users aren’t in those meetings, and a good product manager makes sure the product discussions and decisions consider what the users need and want.

To do that well, a product manager needs a process of actually knowing what the users need and want. This is often accomplished through processes of testing and gathering feedback. The participants at our summit offered important best practices for doing it well.

Before any kind of user testing, decide if you are looking for “discovery” or “optimization.” Both are valuable, but each leads to very different processes and goals so you have to be clear about which you’re seeking at any given time, said Matt LeMay, the veteran product manager who spoke about where the field is heading.

“A product manager needs a process of actually knowing what the users need and want.

discovery-focused exploration would ask people about their lives, about their needs, about their decisions, in an attempt to hear some new idea or perspective you didn’t realize. It leads toward new products or new approaches.

An optimization-focused exploration asks people to react to details of your existing product — does it work well, is it confusing, what could be better? It makes your existing product more valuable.

An everyday example of an optimization testing process is the refraction test a patient takes at an eye doctor — the patient looks into a machine and chooses the better of two prescription strengths each time. By the end, the doctor has determined the optimal lense prescription. But here you’re only narrowing options within the set of already available prescription strengths for lenses. If you wanted inspiration for designing a new line of eyeframes, or inventing a whole new approach like the bifocal lense, then you need a discovery-oriented process to probe how people feel about the look of their frames and how vision affects their lives.

As a product manager, you need to match user testing processes to the type of insight you’re trying to get — discovery or optimization. Both are important, but distinct.

User feedback isn’t just for design. Although user testing is great for studying how the design of a product affects a user’s experience and interactions, it shouldn’t stop there.

“It’s pretty difficult to isolate ‘product’ user testing, and separate that from content, advertising, other aspects of the business,” said Jeff Anderson of Pilot Media. “Users don’t want to just give feedback to where things are located and size and design, even though everybody in the organization would champion ‘Let’s build products around our users,’ there was no appetite to change content from a steady stream of vegetables to mixing in some candy, there was no appetite to loosen a pay meter, there was no appetite to reduce number of ads on page, regardless of what the users had to say.”

“It’s pretty difficult to isolate ‘product’ user testing, and separate that from content, advertising, other aspects of the business.

This doesn’t mean pandering minor decisions to every little thing a user says they want, but if feedback sessions repeatedly say there are too many ugly ads on the website, or the news reports don’t feel relevant to them — there’s a warning flag there you should seek to further understand and fix.

Get bosses to directly observe feedback sessions. The types of direct feedback you get from users testing your product are most persuasive when heard or observed firsthand, said Kelly Alfieri, executive director of special editorial projects at The New York Times.

“What I’ve found in user feedback is that it’s really valuable for people who are there the entire session and hearing firsthand from the people who are being interviewed, and it loses value as somebody hears it as part of a presentation from the research team or hears it secondhand,” she said. “It has so much value when people really see people and hear what they’re saying — it really gets everyone on the same page.”

If you can get the core project team and even some top-level managers to sit in on some of the feedback sessions, or view the raw recordings of them, the bosses are more likely to develop empathy for what those users’ felt and said. It also creates more understanding and respect for the role of user testing in product decisions.

Combine user testing with broader data evidence. The personal feedback from individual user testing can be very powerful and memorable, but it can also be dismissed as anecdotal by those who don’t want to follow the findings. It helps, then, to back up that user testing with quantitative data that suggests similar behaviors or patterns among all users. “It’s very easy for executive stakeholders, in particular those that have a strong point of view, to ignore that user feedback, even when a session has been recorded and is being presented to them,” said William Renderos, senior product manager for audience development at The Seattle Times. “The only approach is to continue to provide additional data, whether it be [Google Analytics], customer or subscriber feedback from our customer service representatives” or other sources.

“Back up that user testing with quantitative data that suggests similar behaviors or patterns among all users.”

Test the interest for products before you build them. It’s relatively simple to test what users think of a product you’ve already built. But some at our summit also found value in testing ideas for products, to determine the level and type of interest people might have in them.

One creative approach from The New York Times was called “provocations” — the essential idea is to run an ad campaign for an imagined product or feature, and use the engagement with the ad as a proxy for measuring potential interest in the product concept.

We’ve also seen others do this through small-scale content experiments like a new blog or Twitter account — to see if those can grow quickly as a sign that a bigger investment in a full product is warranted.

One thing that is essential in any of these approaches is to set in advance the benchmarks that determine success. That means looking at comparable data and setting a precise hypothesis — that the test ad campaign should get a 5% click through rate, or the new blog should gain 5,000 readers in one month. Without doing this in advance, people are free later to distort and debate whether the small-scale experiment was a “success” or not.

Hiring effective product managers

Whether your news organization is looking to create its first product management role, or add to an existing product team, finding and recruiting the right person can be difficult.

For one, it is a field like developers that is in high demand, including from technology startups and large corporations who may offer a higher salary than you. For another, there are few people with direct experience in both product management and news.

So you’ll need to anticipate what kinds of people would be a good fit, even if they haven’t done the exact job before. The people at our summit offered some guidance on what to look for.

Find people who at their core have empathy for customers / users. A journalist who thinks the public is a mass of bumbling fools might not be a great fit as your next product manager. However, someone who is already excited about involving and serving your readers or viewers in new ways probably has the right mindset to become a product manager who studies those users’ needs.

Look for culture “add” not culture “fit.” Recruiting pools and finalist candidates often exhibit lack of diversity. One culprit is that managers enter the recruiting process looking for “culture fit” — someone who will think like and act like the rest of the team. This naturally leads to hiring people who tend to also look like and come from the same socioeconomic backgrounds as your existing team. Instead, look for “culture add” in your candidates — the traits, experiences and skills that are exciting because they’re not present in your current team.

“Effective product managers often need to wield influence without authority.”

Identify the “connectors” who naturally build relationships across the organization. A lot of being a product manager is about aligning and persuading people in different parts of the organization. For this reason, product managers are sometimes described as “mini CEOs” — with broad responsibility for their narrow product. But they’re not actually CEOs, so effective product managers often need to wield influence without authority.

Find someone who handles conflict well. The product manager’s job is rooted in conflict, notes Lauren Rabaino, director of editorial products at Vox Media, so you need someone who can handle that diplomatically and get to resolutions. Laura Cochran, user experience lead at Conde Nast, said product managers need to be “the ultimate negotiator.”

Listening is important. Product managers need to really hear both what people say and what they mean, and make them feel they’ve been heard. Look for people who are able to listen carefully, withhold their own judgment (at least temporarily), and clearly capture and express other people’s viewpoints.

Making the leap from editorial to product thinking

Many of the people performing product management roles in news organizations have moved over from traditional editorial roles. That shift requires some changes in mindset and work habits, as they find producing daily news content is a quite different responsibility from managing the long-term growth and usability of the product.

Several of the people at our summit who have made this transition described the key differences you need to be prepared for.

Seeing news as a “product.” We described this in the overview section as well. Most people at legacy media organizations tended to think of “news” as just the articles or video packages they produce day-to-day. Product managers have to think about the whole experience of the user — what they should get from that news and how they want to consume it.

Product management moves at a different speed than news. News decisions and activities happen by the day or minute, noted Jennifer Hicks, the executive digital editor of the Wall Street Journal. Taking on a product management role required her to take a longer term view, setting priorities and decisions about how the serve the audience over time.

Product people need to be more data-driven and analytical. News is often created by collecting anecdotes, speculating about “trends,” and applying subjective news judgment. But in a product management role, you are usually required (and rightly so) to base your decisions on rigorous research and data, noted Eric Ulken, executive director of digital strategy at the Philadelphia Media Network. To be an effective advocate for the needs of users, you need to defend positions and theories with data.