The rise of the Journalist Product Manager

The word is out — product management is the new journalism. After some years of increasing entanglement between the worlds of technology and media, perhaps now journalists are finally understanding that product management — product owner, product analysts, etc. — can be a journalistic role. Not only that, but it represents an important paradigm shift in the way journalists see their profession. Here, I want to make a defense of that argument.

First, a distinction on nomenclature. We should think about product management, and not project management, as it was so common. The difference is sound. The first tends to represent ideas and initiatives that have a beginning and an end. We get involved with projects, develop them and then leave them, in order to get involved with the next idea. Even when they aren't, projects tend to be thought of as temporary, whereas products represent an ongoing commitment. As journalists, we should think increasingly about products — both in newsrooms and startups. Historically, features and stories have been treated as projects — we research, report on and publish them, only to wait for the next assignment and so on (which explains why we have so much trouble when considering editorial efforts just the beginning of a conversation). Products, on the other hand, have to be kept, with maintenance, strategy shifts, roadmaps, bugs and what have you. Journalism as a product (thinking both macro and micro) is a notion the industry needs.

But back to the journalist/product manager. The Vox team summarizes the responsibilities of these folks very well:

We have a team called Vox Product. What that word means is just a collection of designers, and engineers, and product managers, and ops, and all the people who get together and figure out how to deliver value to users — whether that’s people who are creating things, people who are thinking about how we get it out to [audiences]….

The thing is, why has this taken so long?

Photo from Peer to Peer University.

The identity of being a journalist is very much around being a reporter, or dealing directly with the story. To some extent, this goes to the old divide between 'church' and 'state' in newsrooms, necessary to keep (some) independence in what is reported on. The idea was to separate the people that worry about business on the other side, so they can't bother the newsroom with their wants and needs. But that ship has sailed, and the world in which to exercise journalism is only reporting is long gone. Every decision on a digital journalistic product should be taken based on some knowledge or sense, and business analysis, or product management, gives us the skills build that. And there a lot of those decisions nowadays. That goes from 'what is the tool we are going to use for our email newsletter?,' until 'which has more priority: a new social feature or more analytics capability in the CMS?'.

When we remember the new forms in which journalism is taking place — newsrooms decreasing, new startups and ventures appearing, alongside with decreasing dependence in advertising — we see that, in this new scenario, journalists should have more preoccupations in mind.

A reporter that publishes a feature nowadays needs to understand how that story gets measured, how it's affected when it goes through a push notification, or when new customization options appear on the CMS. In other words, how does technology and its use affects that story?

Take a news startups with a limited team of five or ten people, for instance. It's likely that some of those people concerned about product strategy are also participating in covering news in some way. Yet, it's impossible to say they aren't working as journalists in both ends.

Alexander Klöpping is one of the founders of Blendle. He’s a blogger and has worked as editor, columnist and freelance reporter on Dutch media, according to his LinkedIn profile. He represents well this transition: he’s been dealing with journalism at the micro level, but some challenges on the job required him to assume the work of a product manager. That means taking on different skillsets and having more broad worries, but doesn’t take the journalistic view away.

The Coral Project is a very important initiative by the New York Times, the Washington Post and Mozilla, to reimagine comments and readers' contributions. Currently, there are open discussions happening around features and the very spirit of the project. The whole thing is being done using competences of a product manager — it even uses a tool for product management, Trello, based on an agile methodology — kanban.

Trello board from Coral Project. Look at all those people leaving journalism behind.

That is a very complex challenge, that deals with the relation to publics, behaviors, technical aspects and the process of journalism. It's impossible to take on this without tools and mindsets that business and product give us: find product-market fit, divise an MVP, check metrics and iterate from that. Only worrying about the journalistic discourse won’t do.

Taking this even further, why are we so eager to say that Sean Penn can be a journalist when he does one interview (to what I agree, to make it clear), but still debate if someone is one if he’s not doing a story, but working behind the front in planning how this journalism is going to be delivered, measured and pivoted?

Another example of the fundamentals of this can be found here, the second part of a selection of questions on the future of the profession for newsrooms to get prepared. At least half of them could be viewed as product management questions. Also, most of them don't touch in revenue models, demonstrating that this notion is more broad than just that.

It helps to think of the case of the producer. Being a producer at a TV or radio station means, depending on the show you're responsible for (say, if you have less freedom to pick interviewees and subjects), scheduling interviews, receiving guests, putting them on the air, and solving other daily obstacles. If you take these responsibilities at face value, you could (wrongly) point them as from a secretary, when the truth is quite the opposite, because no show gets aired without them and they are guided by news values. However, and more to the point, we have no problem in marking them as journalists, because we see that, even if they are not in the story, they provide a fundamental part of the work.

Discussing this new role in journalism also brings a somewhat awkward point to be made. It's that, sometimes, the most influential decisions to be done regarding journalism in an organization are to be taken at a product management level. Now, we are used to think about journalism at the short-term: decisions at the story level that will make or break a coverage. When discussing what differences they can make in their coverage, journalists tend to think about what sources to use, interview techniques, pitches, and so on. Of course, that line of exploration will only go so far, since there are problems that are more structural at hand. The limitations of a CMS. The system that handles commentaries. Or, as Stacy Marie-Ishmael summarizes:

As Cindy Royal states, those roles in media companies are being fulfilled. Journalists need to be part of that.

An example of the identity of the journalist being connected to the reporter, even in newer ventures, can be found closer from home (for me). There is a Brazilian news startup called Brio. They produce longform stories that you couldn't find in other national outlets. Recently, they've passed through a pivoting moment and decided they wouldn't pursue their previous strategy, which involved building an Atavist-like platform. It was a brave decision, and I admire their courage to follow this new direction. However, I will disagree with them in their view that thinking about technology isn’t journalism.

"Technology should be something apart. BRIO, however, became hostage to codes, tests, specs, security buffers, assets and other terms that have nothing to do with journalism" (my translation).

Well, how can that have nothing to do with journalism, when this produces the basis for journalism itself, without which nothing gets published? Sure, this comes from IT, but the idea that codes and specs have nothing to do with journalism limits the idea of what journalism is on the XXI Century, and of what or who we should dialogue with more often. Of course, this doesn't mean that they, specifically, should be happy to deal with specs and sprints. Maybe they're happier being reporters, or dealing with other parts of the operation, and that's just fine. However, you can't deny the fact of having to deal with these things today, even as a reporter. Decades ago, you couldn't say you didn't have the smallest interest in the ink that went to the newspapers: you had to get your hands dirty at some point. Dealing with specs and sprints is the current equivalent.

The whole pattern for professions in the XXI century is deregulation and blurring lines between roles and skills. We should fight and defend a more broad scope for journalists, not the opposite. A product manager can be a journalist and make first-grade journalism everyday — it depends on how they apply their work, and their competencies.

Perhaps we could take a look a this from another point of view: we understand that PM brings a great value to journalism, but we should be more open to journalists executing that role, not only programmers or business people. Thus, there would be a broader view of journalism when developing ideas and products. Innovation, as a matter of fact, comes from this diversity.

Journalists fit the bill fine for this. They are well versed in dealing with different publics and with information, as well as learning about new realities, which are useful in being a P.O. or P.M. One would just need to taylor its skills and knowledge for the position, as a degree, for instances, is more about competencies than about a profession. That brings two parallel discussions. First, from an identity point of view, journalism professionals need to understand this can and should be a role they are prepared to do, and where they can thrive. Second, from an educational point of view, our colleges need to be better suited to prepare this professional and consider this as a career path. This event is a great positive example. In Brazil, where I come from, we need more of this.

We need to make journalism more open, and understand that its practices go well beyond what we used to define in the last decades. That will help our industry find brighter moments further down the road.

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Digital Journalism Professor at PUCRS. Addicted to bits. I also play guitar.

Digital Journalism Professor at PUCRS. Addicted to bits. I also play guitar.