The product management mistakes most media companies make — and what you can do to fix them

Participants of the News Impact Academy in London. Photo: Ben Whitelaw.

Three years ago, I read a piece calling for a revolution in the way product management happened in news organisations.

It was written by Espen Sundve, the newly appointed chief product and technology officer at SVG, Norway’s largest media group. In it, he wrote compellingly about the need for media organisations to embrace product management wholesale or face losing ground to tech companies and, eventually, going out of business.

I was working on the website redesign of a UK newspaper at the time and his arguments really resonated with me — especially his call for a new generation of hybrid product managers with journalism and technology sensibilities. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for a week.

The new generation of product managers

I thought back to Espen’s piece during two days at the ninth edition of the News Impact Academy, a training programme run by the European Journalism Centre with support from the Google News Initiative.

20 product professionals from media companies in eight different countries came to London to share knowledge (and challenges they face) about the product development process in their organisation. Facilitated by Gareth Owen, a former BBC and CNN head of product, they were also tasked with coming up with solutions that they could take back and implement in their teams.

My question was how much had changed since Espen wrote his call-to-arms about taking product management seriously?

Not a lot, it turned out. Here are the key themes from the participants over the two days and some helpful tips if you’re in the same situation.

Common product mistakes news organisations make

1. Paying too little attention to organisational culture

This was the overwhelming theme over the two days of group work and discussions. Participants working from legacy print and broadcast organisations noted that editorial’s “publish when perfect” mindset ran counter to the iterative nature of product development and often caused tension between teams.

At the same time, the daily 24-hour news cycle made it difficult for journalists and editors to understand that it could take several weeks or months for a feature to be tested and built.

Others felt that the product departments in their organisations were not given enough autonomy (see also: decision making), slowing down progress and causing frustration. The issue of cultural change (and how to lead it) is a widespread challenge and one that we also addressed extensively in our Academy in Barcelona just a few weeks ago.

Here’s what you can do: aim for small wins. You may just change the placement of a call to action to increase newsletter sign ups, or add new elements to article templates for better storytelling, but these little changes can generate buy-in and momentum in an organisation.

Gareth also recommended taking an “ask for forgiveness, not permission” approach by making friends with developers to work on new tests or ideas for features. If you’re really brave and sure your idea will work, you could do it while certain stakeholders are away and present back to them when they return. Also, brush up on change management models — start with Kotter’s eight step model.

2. Focusing on the product more than the process

Anita Zielina, former chief product officer at Neue Zürcher Zeitung, talked to the participants on the first day of the Academy and reflected on the challenges of instilling a product culture.

The process, she said, was an important tool to make everyone aware of how things get built but it is very hard “because either people don’t care or they want to be too involved.” Her advice was to have an open conversation about processes and competencies.

Anita Zielina talked about her experience in a product role at NZZ

Academy participants also discussed how product-led organisations (Spotify, Netflix, Facebook) are disrupting the market, not through big launches but working in focused, cross-functional teams to optimise one aspect of their product. Speed to market was their differentiator against their competitors.

Here’s what you can do: pilot a cross-functional team with representatives from different departments. You might want to include existing and potential customers too. A number of participants at the Academy had tried The Design Sprint, a process developed by Google Ventures to help teams learn from end users without any coding. There’s a book that takes you through the process from beginning to end.

Also, get good at A/B testing and make it a part of the product cycle. Tools like Optimizely and Qubit allow teams to quickly decide how a new feature is performing versus a control. In fact, Facebook runs thousands of different tests at once and have their own open source framework to help their teams do so.

3. Failing to set shared KPIs and creating complex decision making

Editorial think they own the product, commercial have revenue goals to hit and marketing want to plug their new initiative. The product team is still relatively new and doesn’t have a proper mandate. Departments start fighting, a stalemate follows and precious time and trust are lost. It was a familiar situation to almost all Academy participants.

The way to get around it, according to Anita, who is currently doing research into culture change at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, is to agree on a clear set of shared KPIs (e.g. increase advertising viewability or subscription conversion by x%).

This helps to focus all stakeholders on a minimum viable product (MVP) that does the job required and helps filter out product ideas that don’t drive business objectives.

Here’s what you can do: get journalists and editors into UX testing sessions. Not only does it make the work of the product team tangible, but it helps them to focus on helping the end users rather than internal politics.

Similarly, allowing product people (some of whom may not have worked in journalism before) to visit the newsroom provides them with insight and understanding about the daily grind.

Another idea was to get data that supported your case but which no one else had. One Academy participant talked about getting pushback from editorial after recommending a change of colour on a masthead. They gathered data to prove that users couldn’t remember the colour of the old one and didn’t care.

4. Communicating infrequently and without real clarity

How a product team communicates with the wider business was another thread that came out over the two days. Despite communication being at the heart of their business, many still felt their stakeholder engagement plan was lacking. Anita said working in “product is about translation between departments” and that clear internal communication is “underrated in news organisations of all sizes.”

Having one or two KPI dashboards that the business looked at daily was agreed to be useful. But without all departments using them, some felt their effect was limited.

Even when everyone used them, it was easy for people to draw the wrong (or their own) conclusions. Some organised weekly stakeholder meetings, product show-and-tells or had a list of upcoming tests, but ensuring people attended was tricky.

Here’s what you can do: over-communicate to the wider business. Tell people what’s coming down the track and how users will benefit. Make clear what data means. Explain why there is a delay or descoping. Anita said this was a key learning for her at NZZ and she wished she’d started doing it earlier.

She also recommended inviting someone from a similar organisation to explain how they made the transition towards a product-led organisation. Hearing how the changes didn’t slow things down or didn’t make things more difficult can help get buy-in from across the organisation.

5. Making it difficult for teams to work with one another

Another challenge for Academy participants was sitting apart from their team at their workplace. Teams often sit on different floors in the same building and, in larger organisations, work with developers and UX designers in a completely different city, perhaps in different time zones.

This can cause strained interpersonal connections and affect trust. One participant said that having the product team sat closer to the editorial team had helped the organisation as a whole become more product-focused.

Here’s what you can do: find a way to co-locate for few months or just for a development sprint. It doesn’t have to be forever, but should be enough time to establish rapport and understanding of your challenges.

The New York Times makes a point of having a cross-functional team — product lead, two developers, a UX designer and one editorial representative — sit together to allow them to quickly make decisions. It also reduces the number of online interactions (something we at the EJC know all about).

Reflecting on two days of learning

By the end of the two days, it was clear that Espen’s assessment of the product management landscape was still valid. But the Academy participants had come up with a suite of tools and tactics to tackle the challenges in product development in their news organisation.

The group went away with fresh ideas about ways of running user testing, using data to back their arguments, and most importantly, a network of new people that they can continue to discuss their new ideas with.


Want to continue learning?

Our next News Impact Summit “Journalism Reloaded: the Network Effect” will take place in Berlin on 3 December 2018. Check out newsimpact.io for all the details and subscribe to our newsletters if you want to stay informed about future opportunities. The participation to the Summits is free-of-charge and you can already sign up at newsimpact.io/registration/summit