The best medicine against silver bullet syndrome

Anita Zielina on the future of product thinking, the importance of audience-centric work, and why “product” isn’t just a buzzword


Anita Zielina teaches a session on product thinking with the Executive Program in News Innovation and Leadership during the program orientation in January, 2020 at the Newmark J-School. Photo by Jessica Bal.

By Elise Czajkowski

Over the past few years, news products have come to be recognized as a crucial element in the evolution of journalism. The recently launched News Product Alliance aims to “elevate the discipline of news product management” and provide support for news product thinkers across the field.

Anita Zielina, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, is also the inaugural Board Chair of the News Product Alliance that has roots in a Community of Practice (COP) incubated at the Newmark J-School under Jeff Jarvis.

Her work at Newmark has focused on building product thinking into the Executive Program in News Innovation and Leadership, which she leads, as well as supporting other initiatives such as the Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program that is part of J+, the Professional Development arm of the school.

Over the past two years, the Newmark J-School has focused on building its product thinking programs to help newsroom leaders understand what kind of mindset is required to move forward with news products.

But as the term “product” becomes more ubiquitous, many in the field are still grappling with what it really means. Product in news doesn’t just refer to new technologies or product offerings, says Zielina. Instead, product thinking involves changing how newsrooms approach the work that they do, by building audience-centric ideas into their workflows and putting sustainability first.

“If you want to build good digital products, and do it in a product-centric way and user-centric way, it means exactly that — you need to put the user and the audience at the center of your work, and not yourself as a journalist,” said Zielina.

Anita Zielina teaches product thinking in a variety of Newmark J-School programs and trainings.

This kind of cultural change is difficult at all newsrooms, with those advocating for new technological offerings clashing with those invested in legacy operations.

Even in digitally progressive newsrooms, Zielina says, change always brings conflict, and journalists are naturally skeptical of buzzwords and hype. She advises that people working in product need to bring “a certain respect for legacy” and work with existing newsroom people, and that both sides need to find a smart balance between tradition and innovation — with scales tipped towards the innovation side.

Many newsrooms are ready to dive into products but still struggle with how to start. For small newsrooms, finding the budget to dedicate a person to product is difficult. And for a lot of organizations, that means pulling things like money, power and independence away from “legacy” parts of the organization towards these new ideas, which can be met with resistance. Navigating those conflicts — and making sure that those discussions are productive rather than demoralizing — is a key job of modern newsroom management.

Zielina herself started her career as a journalist in Vienna, but found herself drawn to the strategic questions of managing a business and connecting with audiences. After receiving a Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University, she refocused her career on news innovation and industry transformation, and landed at Newmark in 2019.

Building products can be difficult and lonely for small news outlets, with few resources available for someone starting out in product. Newmark is working to fill this gap with trainings and educational offerings, while the News Product Alliance’s focus is on building community, networking and sharing knowledge between product professionals.

These relationships are crucial because product is synonymous with collaboration, Zielina says. Inside newsrooms, it requires cross-departmental, interdisciplinary teams.

“No good product ever has been built by just journalists, or just IT people, or just marketing people,” she added.

And it’s not only people in the newsroom who need to be consulted. Working in conjunction with the audience allows a newsroom to truly understand what their readers, viewers or listeners actually want. And user participation in building a new offering makes the audience more excited about the product once it launches.

While product may seem like a buzzword in journalism today, Zielina says that the mindset behind it makes it not a trend. Instead, it’s the antithesis of the many industry-saving fads that have burned their way through journalism in recent decades.

“I would argue that being strategic about product, and being product-centric and product savvy, actually is the best medicine against that silver bullet syndrome,” she said.

Anita Zielina teaches a session on product thinking with the Executive Program in News Innovation and Leadership during the program orientation in January, 2020 at the Newmark J-School. Photo by Jessica Bal.

Being strategic about product is about developing clear processes about how to build things, when to say yes or no to certain ideas, and whether new products are well-integrated into the larger business strategy and the newsroom’s workflow. These processes should raise red flags every time a new trend arises that is intriguing, but ultimately not the right fit for an organization. And because these processes should include discussions with the audience, outlets can know definitively whether people are interested in a new, trendy product.

“Our industry has such a terrible tendency to always believe that the next big thing is going to solve all our problems,” Zielina says. But a clear, consistent product strategy is the best way to focus on high quality experiences rather than jumping on every passing craze.

Going forward, Zielina hopes that the trends towards audience-centric and data-oriented newsrooms will continue, since newsrooms with this mindset are both more successful serving their communities and more financially viable. By putting community front and center, news organizations can start to rebuild trust and bridge the current disconnect between the public and the media.

When audiences and journalists are in more regular and back-and-forth contact, both sides get a better understanding of each other and the reason for the work.

“Ideally, I think product can fundamentally change the relationship between audiences and media organizations,” said Zielina.

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.