Every week we ask a leading figure in digital news about their work, their career and what it takes to be a journalist in the 21st century.
Our guest this week is Andrew Phelps, product director for messaging at The New York Times. He tells us what this new role involves and why a background in journalism is an asset for product development in the industry.
What is your job title and what does that mean?
I'm the product director for messaging. It's a new role, still evolving. Messaging means all the ways we communicate with our readers. News alerts, push notifications, bots, personalised recommendations, targeted marketing.
We build technology to support our journalists and get out of the way.
How did you get started in journalism?
Though I'm on the product side now, I started as a reporter. Discovered journalism at my college paper (The Telescope), then became a freelancer for the local paper. I moved into public radio (in San Diego, then Boston) as a reporter and anchor. Then I covered the media for Nieman Lab. And then I joined The Times.
In pretty much every job I've had, the bosses were a lot more interested in my digital skills than my reporting skills. Moving into product two years ago was an acknowledgement that I could do more to help journalism from the product/tech side than the newsroom.
What do you most look forward to at the start of your day?
What does a normal day look like for you? In emoji.
What three tools or apps do you use most for work?
Gmail, Slack, JIRA.
I am in a perpetual state of Gmail optimisation that will never be finished. Slack has really transformed communication at this company. I spend a lot of my spare time playing with Slack bots because I think they help us work better.
JIRA is the power tool we use for managing projects. It forces us to approach every new feature or initiative as a story to tell our customers.
What would you focus on if you were training as a journalist now?
The same stuff that was important then. Listen to people, ask why, tell great stories. Be honest. Experiment a lot.
What skills do you think are important to your role and why?
My journalism background is an asset for a product manager at a news organisation. Product and news have to be very closely aligned in order to build great products — so closely aligned that sometimes it may be difficult to see the difference.
I had to start in news to really understand our craft before learning how to productise it.
I also think it's important to be nice to people.
What has your current job taught you about the industry?
It is in a state of permanent change. There is no end state, no moment where we will all be able to finally exhale.
Your competitors are not who you think they are. They are all the people competing for your customers' time and attention, whether that's Netflix or The Washington Post or a teenager who built a great iPhone app.
The journalism business, traditionally, has not put the customer at the centre of products. We are in for a world of pain if we don't wake up and fix that. The user is the new API.
What would you say to someone applying to work at your organisation?
It is going to be hard and sometimes exhausting. You have to want it. You have to be okay with being a small piece of a large company with a lot of legacy and complexity.
But you're going to be doing some of the most important work in the world.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
Fake it till you make it.
Check back next week for a new look into the media industry – in the meantime, you can read through our other weekly interviews with digital media experts.
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