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From bridge roles to product thinkers

“A person doesn’t need to have a product title to be a product thinker. Newsrooms already have these strategists in their midsts — engagement editors, growth editors, digital editors — leading change.”

For the past few years, we’ve seen the rise of bridge roles in newsrooms across the country — engagement reporter, designer/developer, digital editor, growth editor, the list goes on. Many of these roles perform the same essential task: They connect the dots between disciplines to enable more strategic work. They are, essentially, product thinkers.

Product thinking is the ability to think across disciplines — most commonly technology, user experience, and business — to define and execute a strategic plan. But it’s not limited to product teams. You could also call this “taking a holistic approach” or “strategic thinking.” In 2019, I believe we’ll see more journalists take on this kind of interdisciplinary approach as we increasingly value the ability to connect the dots between editorial strategy, audience development, revenue, and technology.

We’re already seeing media companies invest in product teams to carve new paths for sustainable revenue and audience development — a mark of how the industry has embraced product thinking. And we’re seeing the work initially created by people in bridge roles cascade across newsrooms.

Vox Media and The Washington Post have built product teams to create scalable, revenue-driving publishing platforms. These platforms modernize editorial workflows by democratizing some of the work of bridge roles — engagement, analytics, visual storytelling.

At the Miami Herald, they’ve changed the position of online producer to growth editor, which integrates product thinking into the editorial process. “We wanted reporters and editors to take ownership of each story, from conceiving it with audience and mission in mind, to how to best present it on digital platforms, to how to make sure it would reach its target audience,” Mindy Marquez and Rick Hirsch told Better News.

The existence of bridge roles shows small and local newsrooms don’t need a product team or swaths of developers, designers, and user researchers to integrate cross-functional thinking into their work. A person doesn’t need to have a product title to be a product thinker. Newsrooms already have these strategists in their midsts — engagement editors, growth editors, digital editors — leading change.

In last year’s predictions, Federica Cherubini said we need to think about how bridge roles, and the people in them, can evolve. My hope is that in 2019, more of these cross-functional strategists will be promoted to positions of leadership. We need leaders across all levels who make decisions that balance the organization’s mission with the needs of their audience and technological capacity, and who can train others to do the same.

These will be managing editors who facilitate communication and interpret perspectives across teams; product managers who prioritize and establish clear workflows for building new products; engagement editors who evangelize for the best audience experience and news delivery possible; and growth editors who apply data to elevate and sharpen editorial strategy. They will be journalists who fight to protect editorial integrity, encourage us to reach new audiences, and ensure that we’re working toward sustainable revenue models.

As the silos in newsrooms continue to break down, it allows us to make more strategic decisions — decisions that are necessary for our industry’s survival. Journalists have rightly been focused on developing a culture of empathy for our audiences so that we can better reach and serve our readers, listeners, and watchers. We need to turn this empathy inward and learn how we can work together, merge our expertise, and create a bridge culture that pushes our industry forward.

Becca Aaronson is the director of product at Chalkbeat.

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