How product thinking can help the media industry thrive

Making a case for lean journalism.

How would you know if air travelers would be willing to use a hypothetical new electric cab service, instead of traditional taxis, to go home after a long flight?

You would go to the platform outside an airport’s terminal, stick arrows advertising a “newly launched” system to the ground (making sure they are well-designed and well-positioned) and, then, wait to see if people queue up.

You wouldn’t, of course, actually launch the system — that would require far too much money and effort at this point in time. This is just a design experiment, the cheapest and fastest way to test the market.

If nobody stopped, it might be smart to discard the idea. If a few travelers, luggage in hand, started waiting in line, it could mean you were on to something. If a lot of people line up to try the “new service,” well, take a *real* taxi back to your office and start working on it.

That’s an unfair thing to do to hypothetical customers, you say? Well, maybe a bit. But it is better than offering them a real product or service that doesn’t work, or one they don’t need.

I didn’t make this story up. This technique was actually used by an international design company I recently visited as a part of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism fellowship.

The company (whose name I can’t reveal due to a non-disclosure agreement I signed) has spent decades using “lean methods” like this one, design thinking and product management to solve challenges for clients ranging from smaller startups to global organizations.

While this anecdote might seem disconnected from journalism, a similar approach — one that puts together lean, design thinking-and product is being used by media companies with great results.

A case for ‘lean’ journalism

In a nutshell, the goal of the lean approach is this: to create more value with fewer resources, eliminating waste (the features that don’t serve an immediate purpose) and building only products that people actually need.

In terms of management, lean demands a long-term vision that values smaller incremental improvements and an iterative approach.

In terms of thinking processes, lean means that we need to ask ourselves how our work as journalists and editors can be useful to individuals and communities, and how it could bring more benefits and value to individuals and society. Adapting this process to journalism means following what Jeff Jarvis sees as the goal of journalism as a service: “Helping a community better organize its knowledge so it can better organize itself.”

In terms of building media products, lean means being able to do two things:

  1. Identify a problem. What do people in our community need? What are they telling us, that we are having a hard time understanding? Media companies need to catch those signals by asking the right questions, and by learning how to listen (in the comments, on social media, in public events, at the coffee shop… wherever it is possible).
  2. Create a minimum viable product (MVP) in order to gather feedback as quickly as possible. This “build-measure-learn” process helps reduce costs and improve fast: instead of building a fully-functioning app, sketch an interactive wireframe, and observe how potential users interact with it.

For too long, the media industry has applied the opposite approach: we have been building products based on our own perception of the market, without testing it, nor observing users’ behavior, nor listening to readers’ needs.

Sometimes, we worked on ambitious projects, investing time and resources, only to discover that there was no audience waiting for what we were making. I think of tablet magazines that no one wanted to read, fancy website redesigns that ruined the user experience, or shiny mobile applications whose real value people could hardly grasp.

In the media industry, chances of success are slim and profit margins are even slimmer. We can’t afford to make big mistakes. One Google Glass-eque failure and you’re finished.

This is where bringing lean principles and product thinking into newsrooms is helping. Coming from a pure editorial background, I tried to apply this processes during my fellowship while working on my project — Techtivist, a platform about digital activism I launched a few weeks ago.

What the hell is a “product” in media anyway

First, we need to agree on what is a media product. If you ask advertisers, they will tell you that the readers are the product. If you ask reporters or editors, they will tell you that the content is product. Both visions are, to say the least, partial.

Sure, content is crucial to a media outlet’s success, especially in an era where gaining the readers’ trust is fundamental and quality is necessary to make our content stand up. But at the end of the day, content it is a piece of a bigger puzzle.

A good product empowers the content, broaden its reach, strengthen its impact, make it sustainable — while fulfilling the users’ needs through a better digital experience.

Media products are multi-format and multi-platform and, as Espen Sudve of Schibsted Media put it, they lie at the the intersection between journalism, user experience, technology, data and business: the Quartz app, BuzzFeed’s Tasty, Axios’ newsletters, The Outline’s website, the NYtimes Crosswords are all different types of products.

In terms of broader value for the organization, though, what matters isn’t much what a product is, but the processes we adopt to build it.

Product manage the news

Product thinking, and product management, are not about web developers and journalists “sitting in the same room” — a mantra that was on everyone’s lips some years ago (including mine). That idea was a good starting point, but physical proximity proved to be not enough in itself to change the way we build new things in media.

Similarly, building a media product doesn’t mean repackaging the content we already have in a fancy way; it means building something from scratch by a team that operates as a system, as a whole.

Good products are not pieces of software, data and content glued together; they are hybrid creatures, designed by equally hybrid, truly cross-functional teams.

Product development starts with “identifying a community or use case for news and listening to people to discern their needs and goals, then and only then returning to the office to work with a small, cross-functional, fully empowered team representing editorial, commercial, technology, data, and design to formulate ways to meet those needs,” wrote Jeff Jarvis. I share his view.

Product managers bear responsibility for outlining the product’s vision and for making it viable, desirable, and feasible through teamwork. Their job, said Josh Elman, former product manager at Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, is “to help their teams (and companies) ship the right product to their users.”

In order to achieve that, PMs bring into the newsrooms sets of new skills and concepts the whole company can benefit from.

  1. Listen to users’ needs and empathize with them;
  2. Create roadmaps, user stories, and customer journeys;
  3. Set a product vision;
  4. Build agile teams with cross-functional resources;
  5. Launch MVPs that “get the job done”;
  6. Set the right KPIs, and measure them correctly;
  7. Observe, pivot, deliver, and repeat.

Launching MVPs and being able to observe, measure and iterate is crucial, I think, and we haven’t seen nearly enough of this in the media industry yet.

A lean approach to product can also help to make ends meet. Given most media outlets’ financial struggle, the ability to test effectively before putting all the resources into place can literally help us saving — or making — tons of money (as in the electric car example mentioned at the beginning.)

The good news is there today are several free ways to do customer research for products that have not yet been created: paper prototyping, wireframing and landing pages come handy — all great ways to observe the user’s journey and gather useful feedback. With tools that are so cheap even local newsrooms or small teams can use them.

Social media is also a terrific resource to test early products. Using Facebook’s sponsored posts, The New York Times experimented with what they nicknamed “provocations”: they ran an ad campaign for a product or a feature that didn’t exist, and “use the engagement with the ad as a proxy for measuring potential interest in the product concept.”

If the campaign reached a set KPI (such as a certain click-through rate, or post engagement rate), then the team moved further and started building an MVP that could then be tested with a selected group of users.

This approach — where a first iteration process is followed by a second one, and son on — makes developing successful products easier and faster. There is no real end product: it’s a lifelong learning process, where product teams try to adapt quickly to their users’ feedback, instead of try crystal ball gazing to predict future.

“It’s an ongoing process of continued development and iteration to make it better,” wrote Josh Elman in 2013. “The best product managers are the ones who simply roll up their sleeves and help their team through this journey.”

So, how can media companies benefit from product thinking?

Bringing more product thinking into newsrooms, I believe, has overall benefits for the entire media ecosystem. Here’s why:

  • If we learn to listen and empathize with our readers, we can produce products that actually serve their needs, and save us money and time.
  • If our content reaches the right people, in the right place, at the right time, our journalism has a bigger impact.
  • A viable product can help sustain our work, ultimately leading to stronger editorial independence.
  • If we learn how to own technology, we can make sure that technology doesn’t own us.

To make this happen, we need to follow the right approach — like Quartz (whose workflow resembles that of a tech, not a media, company), The New York Times (whose Beta team is running public reviews every other Friday) or Storyful (which teaches every new employee the basics of the Agile methodology).

Bringing product culture into the newsroom might not be easy, but after years of stagnation, it looks to me like the only way to move on. Our audiences are already asking for more. Will we learn how to listen?

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Thanks for ideas, inspiration and enlightening chats over coffee to: Hong Qu, Jeff Jarvis, Priya Ganapati, Jeremy Caplan, Matt Kiser, Michael Rain, Emily Ingram and all the Tow-Knight 2017 cohort.