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Do you feel comfortable viewing your news as a 'product'?

Product-focused roles and teams have been around in journalism for a while now, but not all newsrooms embrace the concept wholeheartedly.

In a world of 'pivots' to short-lived tools and platforms, that much is hardly surprising. Editorial teams may also be concerned that the product discipline - borrowed from technology companies - strays too far from the goals of journalism to serve communities and hold the powerful to account.

Feli Carrique, the recently appointed executive director of the News Product Alliance (NPA), sees the role of the non-profit organisation as promoting product discipline. Like any discipline, that starts with understanding what "product" is, knowing its benefits (and limits), and consistently applying its practices.

The product is not the news itself, it is generally how the news is served or delivered. In a digital newsroom, that could be an editorial series, newsletter, podcast platform, news app, membership programme, and so on. Product workers are needed to create, maintain and iterate existing products, improving the overall user experience.

Products perform best by incorporating product thinking, a technique designed to understand user problems and then provide a solution. That is not exclusive to just the product team either, a newsletter editor can, for example, alter the delivery time, the domain address, the click-through landing page, or the sign-up process, for better results and engagement. Product work is therefore collaborative; when technology, business and editorial teams work together towards shared goals.

"Technology has brought us the opportunity to work in a different way, basing decisions in data and proven techniques. Product offers us a more formal setting of tools and frameworks that can make that easier," says Carrique.

"What product professionals do is use tools and frameworks to facilitate strategic decision-making and develop products within different teams."

These tools include audience research methods, iterative agile frameworks, product roadmaps (with timelines and allocated responsibilities or 'owners') and feedback loops.

Audience and product

Product-focused roles have some overlap with audience development roles, but there is a distinction.

An audience editor is typically responsible for identifying user needs and ensuring content reaches the right audiences: specific tasks might include SEO editing; social media management; speaking directly to users through surveys, comments and social media or analysing audience data - and feeding back the findings to editors.

A product manager is responsible for one or more products, and they will coordinate teams in planning the creation and launch of the product, usually using systems such as agile sprints, retrospectives, and feedback cycles. So while the audience editor acts as the 'voice of the user' in meetings, the product manager takes responsibility for developing products in a way that meets user needs as well as business goals.

For Carrique, the benefit is obvious: using these frameworks correctly will save time, money and resources by focusing on the work that adds the most value to the organisation’s audience.

Diverse perspectives

The case for improving the diversity in editorial teams is that it can result in a more inclusive range of stories for your audience. The same is true for diversity on the product side of an organisation.

Having a diverse product team will surface the different needs of users that may have otherwise gone under the radar. This could include anything from accessibility to language use.

And in both editorial and product teams, diversity means being able to hire the best people regardless of what background they come from.

Change management

"I see product as pushing transformation to the next level - and the media industry desperately needs something to push it forward," says Carrique. "We are past digital transformation, that was 20 years ago. But what's next for us, how do we put in place and implement systems that allow us to constantly innovate? That's product."

In an industry where workers are often over-stretched as it is, introducing any change is hard. Carrique says that unconscious resistance is just as great a challenge as conscious resistance to innovation.

She opts for an analogy. Let's pretend switching which hand you brush your teeth with would result in long-term health benefits. People would struggle to commit to that because their habits are too deeply-ingrained, or in those moments when they are tired, they fall back to the default option.

This is the reason for networks like the NPA, to champion the discipline itself and support the people already working in it (or keen to get started) so that they are not a lone voice in the newsroom. It also offers a community for knowledge-sharing, hosting events, creating and sharing resources, and runs training, mentoring and coaching workshops.

Becoming a product thinker is not necessarily about learning brand new skills or re-training, but learning how to use specific frameworks, and adapting existing tools in your toolkit.

"Interviewing and reporting are not that far from conducting audience research; writing a nut graf is like clarifying your proposition; managing an editorial calendar is not that far off managing a product roadmap. You can go from owning a beat to owning a product. You learn more about it and get better at it," says Carrique.

Key skills

  • Technical skills: Because product is at the intersection of business, audience and technology, some level of technical skills will usually be required - but the specific skills needed would be defined by the products you will work on and the size of your team. 

  • Communication skills: Similar to other bridge roles which involve working across teams, product work requires particularly strong listening capacity, both to understand audience needs and the needs of different team members.

  • Curiosity: Is there any role in a newsroom where this trait is not desirable? For product workers, it is all about seeing each problem as a challenge; researching possible solutions and presenting creative approaches.

  • Analytical skills: Be data-informed decisions rather than data-driven. A good product worker will be able to weigh up data from different sources with their own gut instinct.

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