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Editor, Product Manage Thyself

I’m a rookie at product management. But I’m a pretty experienced journalist, and before that, I was a passable designer and coder. My active work with code ended in the early 2000's. It’s still hard to say why I left web development for the world of journalism. I think one reason is the development work, and the tools available to do that work, just weren’t capturing my attention or interests at the time.

Little did I realize that the tools available to coders, especially ones like me, who tried to be holistic about design and code, were about to get way better and way cooler to do stuff with. And that journalism was about to undergo a secular shift away from print to digital, though massively downsizing, trading dollars for dimes along the way. On the face of it, I made a pretty horrible mistake in trading careers. I should’ve buttoned down, learned the languages I needed, and built cool new stuff. But I’m not unhappy with my choices. Here’s why:

1. Content management and product management are converging. You see it in places like The Verge. In GDGT. In The New York Times’ Snowfall. This is the unavoidable reality of the transition to digital media. It’s no longer good enough to blurp a blob of text onto a screen and expect readers to find it. Whether it’s machine-readable metadata that subtly drives readers to engaging content, or intensely pretty graphics and CSS animations, readers are being trained to expect simple yet elegant complexity in their online experiences. Woe to the media company that is not scrambling to deliver both. Therefore:

2. Content editors need to also be product managers. It’s true, today’s editors are overworked and underpaid. And many thought they’d just be pushing copy around, or fixing clauses, or maybe telling a graphic designer how to lay out their page, not deciding how much parity each mobile client should have with the website, or extracting something interesting from a pool of data. Well, tough.

An editor or writer who gets to file her copy into the system and forget about is an editor who is being alienated, in the most Marxist possible way, from the fruits of their labor. That journalist has lost contact with his or her consumer. Editors need to help craft the way their content gets presented to their readers. They themselves don’t have to be designers, coders or even, strictly speaking, ticket-moving product managers. They do need to have a seat at the same table as those other people, and explain the way their content will be most valuable, come to consensus, and then work with those other colleagues to help spec out, design, build and release the code that can bring that value to the reader. But how can they be sure about what will bring their readers value? Well:

3. Digital media needs to reconnect to readers. For the past few years there’s been a bit of “oh, we’ll build the automagic content parsing widget, turn it on, walk away, and slap ads on the page” = digital media revenue school of thought. That’s never going to work. On the other hand, most analytics media companies use today are a big old mess. The don’t out put data in a valuable way. Further, if a big media company has something approaching benign neglect for its online commenting community, it’s actually ahead of the curve. Sure, old media is starting to embrace the conference business as a valuable community-building exercise (see the recent NYT Dealbook) and not just a marketing-budget line-item, but most opportunities to connect with readers online are being ignored or off-shored to Facebook.

For all of the hype around interactivity, big media is still primarily a one-way street. And the rise of programmatic ad-buying will only reinforce that trend. Most old media revenue officers aren’t going to care about connecting to their online audience, beyond understanding their aggregate profile and average value to an ad network. Yet cultivating those reader relationships on an editorial level can unlock all sorts of value, understanding, and yes, even revenue. But only an editor who understands how to demand that data, from a team willing to provide it, will ever get it. Then she has to figure out how to use it. Which leads me to final point:

4. It’s not publishers or companies that have to save journalism, but journalists. Sure, no media titan wants to go out of business, but make no mistake: they will if they have to. Journalists have only a few options here, to keep their masters happy. They are:
-make money;
-be the best, at least in one particular area of coverage;
-be novel.

Achieving any one facet will keep a company listening to its journalists. Two and perhaps the hacks and their hackers even get the chance to try new, innovative things. Three and they’ll never go out of business. But in the media business, let’s be honest, it’s rare that a company comes close to achieving even one of those goals. The competition is too steep, the talent pool too deep, and the costs to achieve even one of those aims are not, unfortunately, cheap.

As an editor who gets to work on the product team, I’m empowered to help determine what I think other editors need to tell the story the right way. And when I’m wrong, I’m empowered to go back and try again. This is all quite new at my company, especially when it comes to the Internet, and there are a lot of other pieces to the puzzle I’m still learning about. But it feels like the right direction.

I feel lucky to understand enough about web development to know what’s possible, even if I wrote my last line of code before jQuery was ever released. And I believe that technology has a huge role to play in keeping real, heavy-duty journalism alive. But that will only be true if we journalists can tame technology to do what we need, and not the other way around.