We end every year here at Nieman Lab with our annual predictions package, and one of the main themes that emerged out of the more than 100 contributions we received looking forward to 2016 was that product management would prove to become even more important this year.
Product managers “will be the interdisciplinary heart of media organizations where editorial and business come together to create better products, drawing a page from Silicon Valley’s playbook,” Storify cofounder Burt Herman wrote
. Texas State University professor Cindy Royal predicted
that in 2016, “media organizations and journalism schools will begin to comprehend and define product management and embrace it as a relevant and critical career path.”
The American Press Institute also agrees that product management is important, and today it’s out today with a white paper
that attempts to answer that question by outlining a number of tips and best practices. API convened a group of 45 product managers and executives from a number of outlets — both local and national, and digital-native and legacy — to discuss their product strategies.
The five-chapter report, written by Jeff Sonderman, is certainly worth reading in full, but here are some of the main points:
Collaboration is critical
Product people need to work effectively across departments in any news organization. That means that staffers working on a particular project must focus on their work and not get involved in internal politics or turf battles. “You want everybody to be fiercely loyal to the team and to the [user’s] problem that you’re trying to solve,” Ben French, vice president of product at The New York Times said in the paper. “That loyalty is often in great contradiction to loyalty to their department.”
It’s also key for staffers involved in product to be in regular contact with those in the newsroom: “This creates familiarity, trust and understanding — the basis for collaborating and succeeding on big projects down the road.” Aleksander Mielczarek, a senior product manager at Time Inc., explained how Time’s move into a new building was making this easier:
I’m in the Time & Life building, we are literally maybe 30 floors, and I think every group I work with is on a different floor, and you have to take different elevator banks — it takes 10 minutes to get from place to place. We’re actually moving to the Freedom Tower site, and we (print, digital, product, business development, etc.) are all on the same floor. Big, open-concept. I cannot tell you the excitement both teams have around that.
Leaders need to set priorities — and make sure they’re executed
Top leaders need to articulate their goals and then empower their team to go out and achieve them the report said, “Clear decisions and edicts from the top manager can empower the process to really begin — removing debate and resistance about whether we should even do this or not. Make it a question of how to proceed and how to reach the goal.
Jeff Anderson, digital media director at The Virginian-Pilot’s parent company, explained how the paper’s publisher put made the user’s need a priority by mandating that the Pilot build a responsive website despite some objections:
[The publisher said] we have to move to a responsive design, over some objection from advertising who said you’re going to crater our revenue by switching a desktop page with five ads to a mobile one with one ad, and we’re not going to make our goals with that,” Anderson said. “The publisher said, ‘I don’t care, we have to meet our audience demands. This is a long-term play’…[Without that], we would have been on a back-and-forth debate for months over what to do, whether to do it.
What to look for when you’re hiring a product manager
You need someone who thinks of news as a product:
Most people at legacy media organizations tended to think of “news” as just the articles or video packages they produce day-to-day. Product managers have to think about the whole experience of the user — what they should get from that news and how they want to consume it.
Someone who takes on a product role also needs to be an advocate for the user, someone who values readers as an important part of the news ecosystem. The ideal product person is also someone who is able to develop relationships throughout an organization and can also deal with managing conflicts.
And to ensure diversity, the report says managers should look for someone who is a “culture add,” not necessarily a “culture fit.”
One culprit is that managers enter the recruiting process looking for “culture fit” — someone who will think like and act like the rest of the team. This naturally leads to hiring people who tend to also look like and come from the same socioeconomic backgrounds as your existing team. Instead, look for “culture add” in your candidates — the traits, experiences and skills that are exciting because they’re not present in your current team.
The full report is available here.