What Product Developers Think Journalism Students Should Know

Learn about the trends in news product development!

Previously, news product development was a vague concept to me. I never imagined I’d one day be pitching a product I developed to the Arizona Daily Star, but I will be by the end of this fall semester (in less than two weeks!).

Additionally, I can now say I have working knowledge of user experience and user experience research, which according to Brian Boyer, VP Product & People at Spirited Media, are some of the key skills needed on product teams like the one he is in charge of

Boyer, who has many years of journalism, UX, visual design and project management experience, is one of three people I spoke to for this Q&A, round-table style blog post. The others include Robin Kwong, head of digital delivery at Financial Times and Elite Truong, deputy editor of Strategic Initiatives at The Washington Post.

I spoke to all three product professionals for one specific reason: I believe news product development is a career that many journalism students haven’t considered — maybe because it’s a vague concept to them too.

Drawing from the expertise of those actually leading product teams, this post will answer the questions many journalism students or recent graduates didn’t even know they had.

Q: What is the current career landscape like for recent graduates interested in news product development?

Elite Truong:

There are definitely more media product management roles available in the larger newsrooms that have the budget to hire for a leader who drives product vision for how readers, listeners and viewers will consume stories, so that’ll likely be condensed in the biggest cities for media: New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco. There are definitely smaller markets where journalists interested in getting into product development should always keep their eyes open and occasionally remote opportunities as well.

Brian Boyer:

If you’re not in Washington, D.C. or New York, there is probably only one place you can work in whatever city you’re in. It’s usually a smaller news organization.

The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington actually has a good technology shop. The Lawrence Journal World in Kansas, they had a good product shop. The Tampa Bay Times — Politifact came out of that team.

With the smaller places or even large metro dailies, it seems to ebb and flow if it’s a good team or not. If you’re in Washington, D.C., there is National Public Radio and Washington Post. There are more opportunities at those places because their teams are huge.

Some news organizations have embraced [product development] more than others. I worked at Tribune Company. I felt like the product team was on a different planet than the newsroom, just the way the company was structured. There was a wall. It was separate versus when I worked at NPR, where the product team was close to the newsroom physically and metaphorically. I felt like the newsroom and product’s needs and interest were better aligned because of their close relationship. The NPR situation is less usual.

There are some companies that do [product development] really well, like Vox Media — the people who do Vox.com, The Verge and SB Nation. They have a strong culture of product and a closeness to the news organization. They have a tightly integrated process. They are asking each other the right questions and helping to solve each other’s problems.

In a lot of newsrooms, [product] is more like an IT department, where there is a programmer or sort of lives in the basement who takes requests from the newsroom and makes a website for them. It’s a different relationship.

Companies like the Tribune and say New York Times have had a long history of having this team of engineers doing this work. Now that the problems have changed, cultures change less quickly than the problems.

Vox is basically a news company that was started by software developers. Their philosophy is that Vox is a technology company that runs newsrooms as opposed to other places where they are a newspaper that happens to have a website.

Robin Kwong:

I think it has become a lot better and easier. News organizations are becoming more aware of the need for product development. The rapid changes caused by digital also means that product development skills are becoming more important not just in the business side of journalism but on the editorial side as well. At the Financial Times, we treat the launch of a big investigation or a big reporting series very much like the launch of a product.

Q: What skills should recent graduates have?

Robin Kwong:

Product development is a team-based activity, so there are many ways to be involved in it, from having specialized skills like coding, design, customer research, business analysis, etc. to being a coordinator and project manager and a team leader.

No matter which of those paths you take, though, ultimately you’ll find that the most important skills are the so-called ‘soft skills’: how to empathize with others, how to listen, how to have conflict and disagreement without it tearing the team apart, how to make decisions, how to coach others, how to be clear about your goals and hold yourself and others accountable to them.

Elite Truong:

Grads should have a solid foundation of reporting, working on deadlines, and working with editors and other reporters to start with; without these skills and experiences, it’s difficult to know that you’re suited to work in product development, where you’re constantly having to represent the reader or user in rooms of folks who aren’t journalists. Secondly, some experience in social media and working with folks on the technology and design side is also invaluable, as you’ll need to understand and speak with these folks to make products better.

Brian Boyer:

Programming for the web, HTML, JavaScript, Python, Ruby on the Rails; being a great visual designer, Adobe Illustrator; UX is a field of study itself. You can get a degree in it. Some of the best I’ve worked with don’t have a degree in it. Of the programmers I managed, only two have had computer science degrees.

We need more people who understand user experience and user research. News organizations are catching on to that now that this is a field they have ignored. The smart ones are doing it really well. Some of the best user research you can do is literally following someone around for a few days. See how they do their job and see how they read the news. Empathy for the user and communicating well but also empathy for your team and stakeholders.

Q: What tips do you have for students who are still in school?

Elite Truong:

Spend time with students majoring in business, computer science and graphic design as much as you do with other journalism majors. This is going to help you get a head start in understanding how you’ll work with these folks in future, and also show you other parts of the newsroom that might appeal to you (e.g. figuring out how to tell a story visually, building tools for journalists, etc.)

Brian Boyer:

My overall tip is to take a statistics class. No one takes stats, but everyone needs stats. You need stats for user experience research. You need stats to be a good data journalist. Understanding statistics helps anyone in their job. It’s kind of a boring class, but a necessary skill.

A lot of the work I do is a lot like data journalism. Downloading the analytics from our website and being able to look at that data, to interview that data and learn something from it, which is very similar to a reporter downloading a spreadsheet from the city and trying to understand that data. They’re different datasets, but it’s the same skill. Statistics helps you with that.

If there are classes available on human-centered design or human-computer interactions, take them.

I’d rather have people on the team who are multi-functional than people who have a tight focus.

Robin Kwong:

Make stuff and take risks. Don’t worry about perfection — finishing 50 small, not particularly impressive, not particularly good projects is way better than agonizing over doing that one big, difficult, high-profile one.

Q: What’s the best way to get into the field?

Brian Boyer:

There are a lot of different paths to technology and journalism. At one end, there is a reporter who is a real badass with spreadsheets, the NICAR or data journalism crowd. At the other end of the spectrum is the product designer who is focused on your website, your email and whatever other else products. There are other things in the middle.

My path in this I was working as an editor in a newsroom where I was building our election website, which is driven by data and the needs of the politics team. But at the end of the day, it’s a product to serve our customers election results. In different newsrooms, different teams build that election results website. Sometimes, it’s the data journalists. Sometimes it’s people in the middle like I was on a data team.

Q: What are the roles and responsibilities of news product development teams?

Brian Boyer:

Product teams are interesting. You’re trying to solve a problem for your stakeholders — the newsroom in this situation. This is really important — the product team also needs to be an advocate for the user.

There is balance there. Sometimes, your sales team or your editor have an idea — they think it’s a pretty good one, but they haven’t necessarily thought about that idea from the perspective of the user. That has to be part of the conversation. If we deter our users, then the short-term idea has long-term negative effects.

Within those teams, there are a handful of roles. There are folks focused on front-end and backend programming; visual design — what something looks like; user experience design — a UX designer may not be a visual designer at all. They may be a design researcher, someone who talks to users. Their output may be a hand-drawn sketch how the homepage should look and a lot of research documentation to back up why. That’s a job role that not many people get unless they have worked in the software industry where there are lots of jobs like that.

You might have someone who does all three of those jobs, or you might have three people who do those jobs individually. The depends on people’s interests. Each of those are areas of study to focus on.

The other big role is project manager, which is a discipline entirely separate from the other disciplines. It’s about facilitating and catalyzing a team so that they are executing, doing the right thing at the right time and staying on schedule. On any large team, it’s necessary. On my team, I wear that hat. I’m often the UX designer and the project manager.

The other large role is product management, which is determining the direction of the team. The product manager is the person usually working with the newsroom, having the conversation about what should this be, talking to the boss, making decisions about — hey we’re going to change the website to make it better at X.