What the Product Immersion For Small Newsrooms program can do for global journalists


After three cohorts of the popular training, the program’s director, Marie Gilot, says that she’s been struck by “how immediately useful the lessons have been for the participants”

Marie Gilot, J+ Director of Professional Development

Around the world, news organizations are seeing the value of product development and user-centric/data-centric design thinking in their newsrooms. But for leaders in small newsrooms, the challenge of pushing for a new approach and finding the resources to build new products can be exhausting, lonely and demoralizing.

The Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms training is trying to remedy this by hosting three more cohorts in 2022 and 2023 (Applications are currently open for participants in Europe/Middle East and Africa). This two-month program is virtual and tuition-free thanks to a collaboration between the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, the Google News Initiative and the News Product Alliance.

The program trained 75 journalists from 32 countries in 2021 with impressive results: 93% satisfaction, 80% knowledge increase and impact markers including the following. Out of 75 participants, 36 took on a product role inside their newsrooms or saw their job responsibilities expand into product as a result of the program, 33 built a product team, 49 started researching their audience, 40 implemented new collaborative work methods, and 16 launched an actual product. Ten of them improved their revenue stream in the process.

Marie Gilot, J+ director of professional development at the Newmark J-School and head of the Product Immersion program, says she is very grateful to be able to continue offering the training.

“The more cohorts we have, the larger the network they can rely on and the more of a movement it becomes,” Gilot said.

We asked her about her approach and vision for the future.

Tell me about your vision for the Product Immersion program at the beginning.

Design thinking and product development were so transformative for me that I became a bit of an evangelist. I had been a pre-Internet journalist who wasn’t particularly curious about my audience and resisted change. Meeting people like Aron Pilhofer, a product pioneer in news, changed everything for me. Product thinking is not only the key to sustainability but it also makes more empathetic and collaborative journalists.

For years, Aron and I had been looking for ways to put an immersive training program together and when we met Marco Tulio Pires who had a similar vision, the Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program was born.

What was your design philosophy for the program

The program is designed for journalists in local news organizations with little or no experience in product. We hired news and product leaders from around the world, people like Styli Charalambous from the Daily Maverick in Johannesburg and Candice Fortman from Outlier Media in Detroit, to take the participants on a journey through the process of product development.

In addition to the classes, the participants met in small groups with a coach to brainstorm how to apply some of the teachings to their own newsrooms — How to form a product team with little resources, apply collaborative work methods, conduct audience research, design for equity, prototype, use metrics and align revenue, all in a news context.

We stress the fact that no two people have the same definition of product and that not every example will fit every newsroom. It’s a mindset change first and foremost.

Why did you decide to separate the cohorts by region?

It was clear from the get-go that we wanted the program to be international, in great part because we wanted to build an international network of product thinking journalists who could rely on one another for advice and support. We targeted three regions — Americas, Europe/Middle East/Africa and Asia-Pacific — to accommodate live discussions in those time zones.

It’s always a bit of an epiphany when the participants talk to one another and realize they are not alone and share so many of the same challenges. It’s cathartic. We definitely encourage this bond even after the program, mainly through the News Product Alliance Slack and alumni programming.

Has anything surprised you about the program since it started?

From the very first cohort, what has been remarkable is how immediately useful the lessons have been for the participants. We didn’t have to wait six months or a year to see impact inside those newsrooms. Some participants took on new product roles in their organizations, some made their newsrooms more audience and data-centric, others changed the way they organize team work, several actually built news products and many found ways to share learnings with their colleagues and bosses. All during a two-month online program!

Many said the program was life changing or career changing; one participant from Africa described his experience as a “progressive collection of lightbulb moments.”

Even when COVID hit as we were having our pilot class, when we fully expected participants to drop out, they stuck with it and reported that product skills came at the perfect time to help them transition to remote team work and to listen to their audiences’ needs to launch news products like newsletters that answered urgent needs of their communities. As it turns out, product thinking is a great asset in times of uncertainty.

Why is product thinking so important right now for small newsrooms?

It’s about sustainability. Small newsrooms everywhere are struggling. Reporting the news, even telling viral stories, is not enough to keep local news in business going when today’s audiences have so many distracting options vying for their attention. Journalists have to make the news so vital to their audience that someone wants to pay for it, either the audience itself through subscriptions or other sponsors.

To get there, journalists have to be much more inquisitive about their audience’s habits and needs than they have been in the past. That’s the core of the product discipline: A focus on the audience, a mastery of data and tech, and an understanding of available business models. When those things are aligned, you get successful news products like a popular newsletter with a growing subscriber base, or a podcast with a loyal audience and a generous sponsor.

What do you hope to see in the product thinking space in the future?

We need to diversify the field. I hope that in the next few years, we see more news products and product strategies designed by BIPOC journalists, by disabled journalists, by LGBTQIA+ journalists and by non-US journalists. One way that we get there is through training programs like the Product Immersion that have a commitment to DEI, and initiatives like the News Product Alliance that are creating mentorships and peer networks for emerging product managers. Part of promoting product thinking in journalism must be to break down barriers and support all the people who want to do the work.

Our application for the first cohort is open until July 15 and it is reserved for journalists in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. After that, we will open applications for Asia-Pacific in August and for the American continent in November. Check out our website for more details about the program and sign up for our mailing list to get alerts when these other applications open. We’d love to talk product with you!