2021 Visions: How Should News Product Evolve?


Instructors and coaches working with the Professional Development and Executive Education programs at the Newmark J-School share what they hope to see in newsroom product development in 2021.

Home Office by Mariana Gonzalez Vega.

By Elise Czajkowski

This is the third of four posts in our “Visions 2021” series. Here, we will focus on newsroom product development.

In this series, we asked members of the Newmark J-School community what they hope to see in newsroom leadership, media entrepreneurship and product development in the new year.

Here are the other posts in the “Visions 2021” series:

How should product in news evolve in 2021?

Marie Gilot — Director of Professional Development, J+, Newmark Graduate School of Journalism

Product goes local. A newsroom doesn’t need an army of developers and the budget of a modest DoD contract to benefit from a product approach to news. Teaching product development and management to local journalists this past year, we learned that: adopting an “audience first” ethos helped build loyalty in their community; agile work methods allowed small teams to respond to a rapidly changing work environment, improving internal communications and project management as they started working remotely; and, being able to launch news products that met their audience’s needs, including newsletters, events and membership programs, opened new revenue paths.

This year, we will witness more local newsrooms with limited staff and resources embrace the product culture — audience-first, collaborative, experimental and iterative — as a vehicle for digital transformation, weathering crises and reaching long-term sustainability.

Mariano Blejman — Instructor, Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms

Nobody is born to be a product manager. We need new “aha” moments in the world of news consumption. We need to help journalists, designers, programmers and entrepreneurs to think about consumer experiences. The explosion of experiences that flourished to try to understand the coronavirus both in portals and in small scientific enterprises gave encouraging signs. To generate new forms of communication, new formats are needed. Accustom users to consume content over and over again. Reinvent the way news sites take and the way users connect. Give one reason to arrive, another to return and one more to stay.

The problem is that product managers are not superheroes, and there is no tradition of product owners in the media industry. The content is only part of the experience, and the product is an intrinsic part of the content. The medium is the message, the content is the product. But if the tradition of product owners is still incredibly incipient, much more incipient is the evolution of tying the mission of the product to the mission of the environment. Stay focused on your mission and your vision and your content and your communities will survive.

Andrew Losowsky — Instructor, Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms + Lenfest Constellation News Leadership Initiative

Product needs to be focused on the needs of communities, and supporting/improving the ways that community members already meet them, instead of competing with what already works.

Jeremy Caplan — Director of the Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program, Newmark Graduate School of Journalism

Some news products that address underserved communities should in 2021 be viewed as valuable public goods. Many small news providers are creating costly intangible goods whose economic expense isn’t manageable through purely free-market forces alone. There is a role for community support and philanthropy in this realm. Producing international coverage in remote areas, for example, is so costly for small media organizations that they’re unlikely to do it if their small pool of readers have to shoulder the cost burden alone. Until the masses are clamoring for news about the climate-caused travails of people in remote regions, traditional market forces alone may not be sufficient to sustain excellent long-term coverage of that.

The question really is whether we as modern societies want to let crucial information and civic organizations — which help form the backbone of an informed society — live or die by their market competitiveness. Or would we rather acknowledge that we need quality news and information for civic life to flourish. Consider where we would be if we lacked quality coverage of the pandemic, for example. We have to look beyond pure market solutions, just as we have to ensure clean water and air, safe roads and electricity are widely available.

Even so, niche news organizations need to focus on being as savvy as they can about identifying their core value, their unique strengths, and the underserved needs of the communities they serve. They need to keep innovating in terms of the products they develop in terms of formats, styles, frequency of publication, tone, etc. And they need to consider new partnerships, new distribution channels, and creative modes of monetization.

Styli Charalambous — Instructor, Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms

Data-driven audience-centricity. Four words that get my vote as the north star for product and the news media as a whole.

Valerio Bassan — Coach, Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program

This past year sent a huge heads-up to media companies of all sizes. The marketplace has changed, now you have to reimagine the way you do business.

Digital experiences, I think, will play a central role in this shift. The big pivot towards direct-to-consumer models will force news outlets to re-center their editorial, marketing, business and tech strategies more around funnels, and less around reach. Metrics change, but also what’s being measured is changing, too. This means that good news websites and apps must be optimised not just for consumption, but for the entire journey of discovery, acquisition and retention — with every floor of these buildings designed to solve a specific user need.

To achieve this, UX is obviously key. Our audiences’ quality expectations in consuming content are getting higher. This is not just true for big, generalist media companies, but also for nonprofit, local and niche news outlets. Regardless of your size, your content can’t be in any way hard or unpleasant to find, read or watch..

Innovative features are good, but most successful products will need to achieve three basic goals: be easy to use, load fast and fulfill the user’s expectations. Make your products as effort- and frictionless to use as possible, and you’ll be off to a good start. Don’t forget to ask people what motivates them in consuming your content, and try to re-map their consumption habits: you’ll be surprised at how much you’ve been taking for granted.

Finally, consider writing down a “manifesto’ not just for your content, but also for your product strategy — and see if and how they align. Your brand must communicate the same values across all touch points. In an age defined by a lack of trust in newspapers and a shift towards a business model based on relationships more than attention, what is the “story” you want your products to tell?

By Alexandra Borchardt — Coach, Executive Program in News Innovation and Leadership

Make it around service! Service journalism has always been regarded as a lesser part of the trade, much less important than features, commentary and, of course, investigative journalism — by journalists, that is. Audiences have always liked it. Now with all the information needs evolving around Covid-19, they crave it. So think about how to fill these various needs and longings with products, ideally those that not only fill information and explanation gaps but also bring communities together. Note: Entertainment can also be a service.

Andreas Gebhard — Coach, Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program

Focus back on exciting story telling. All the focus on data journalism is fine but captivating storytelling seems to have fallen by the wayside a bit.

Michelle Young — Instructor, Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program

I would love to see a backlash against algorithms and their domination of how people consume content. Much has been discussed in terms of how this technology has polarized society, but it has also been destructive for the media industry. We need to find a way to sustainably support initiatives with a purity of mission, and enable them not to sell out. How can we fight what is happening not from within, but from the outside?

Paty Gomes — Coach, Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms

In 2020, the pandemic forced media companies the opportunity to rethink what they deliver to their subscribers, and how they do it. Why is building a digital product in journalism a more different challenge than it is for our peers in other industries? Below are five answers to that question, and how we can overcome them in 2021.

Notion of readiness In journalism we are taught to only publish a story if all facts are checked and all sides are listened to. Once the story is ready, it is done. From a digital product standpoint, perfection does not exist and the product is never finished — you become responsible, forever, for what you deliver. Changing it requires the adoption of this different concept of readiness.

Collaboration mindset While in newsrooms competition is highly encouraged, in a digital product company you won’t go far without collaboration. Scoops are no longer the maximum proof of success — solving user pains is. Agile values are fundamental tools to help frame this new way of working together.

Audience The relationship between journalists and their audience is regulated by an ethics code, as it should be. In a user-centric approach to business, however, it is important to know the subscriber as if she was a close friend. Drawing a clear line between the ones who produce content and the ones who build the product, even if all of them are journalists, is the key.

Experience Media companies in general are not offering as good of a digital experience as their peers in other industries. Here, the benchmark will come from tech companies, not from legacy media.

Business models The news industry is still stuck on the “subscriptions-ads-events” discussion instead of debating strategies to bring in monthly recurring revenue. Media companies would benefit if they adopted the Software as a Service approach, adapting it to their contexts.

Elise Czajkowski is a writer/editor who regularly writes about the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism’s executive and professional education programs. Based in New York, she was previously a Tow Knight Fellow in Entrepreneurial Journalism at the Newmark J-School. She launched a non-profit called Sidewalk News, which uses outdoor advertising to distribute local news.