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April 29, 2019, 10:32 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Product teams have taken national news organizations by storm. What’s happening locally?

“We’re trying to create great experiences for both our friends in the newsroom and our audiences whom we never meet.”

When you’re trying to pilot a newsletter/build out a membership program/tweak the calls to action on your news organization’s website, it often helps to have one person (or team) in charge of making those calls — and not overinflate your own to-do list. Enter: the product manager, the role emerging in newsrooms of all sizes as the business-tech-editorial tricorn.

In a nutshell, journalism is now firmly a product that needs humans to carry it out. The deep integration of a distinct product role — something that shares characteristics of both editorial and business-side — is a years-old story at many of national news organizations, like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Vox Media. And more have rightfully built out teams of product thinkers fiddling with the sites, goals, and strategies to get there — because, well, they can afford to.

Bu the story is different in local news. Nonprofit local news startups tend to put as much money as possible toward editorial, which leaves the business side underresourced. And product often gets shortchanged the same way, whether nonprofit or for-profit.

At the local level, product management is still mostly done by people in non-product roles who may be overly (but nobly!) multitasking. But distinct teams have emerged in some of the local newspaper chains, digital nonprofits, and more, often driven by reporters who’ve transitioned to product roles and leadership that’s prioritized hiring for it.

“Product managers are the ones trying to think holistically and bring people together on how to move forward with a big idea,” Becca Aaronson, Chalkbeat’s director of product, said. “Anyone in a newsroom can do product thinking. It’s really about trying to think holistically about the needs of the audience, the mission and business interests of the organization, and technically how you’re going to get things done and bringing that together in a holistic way to create a comprehensive strategy for your organization.”

So…easy peasy, right? Aaronson transitioned from being a health reporter at The Texas Tribune to a senior developer/designer to the Tribune’s first product manager over a span of nearly eight years. She joined Chalkbeat last July and is coleading a course at the Knight Center on product thinking in newsrooms. (Which starts today — it’s not too late to sign up!) She followed out a path co-pioneered by others in newsrooms: shifting from data-driven stories to data that could help point to more revenue streams, audience engagement, and hopefully a stronger organization.

“The must-have new hire for publishers,” Digiday called product managers in December. The New York Times has been consistently hiring for product roles, data from Thinknum Media shows, with as many as 40 open roles since July. While Vox Media has usually had one or two product manager openings at a time over the past few years, product-related openings hit a high of 12 in early 2019.

Nieman Lab’s year-end predictions packages have for years brought forth arguments for the importance of product teams, including a 2016 duo conveniently followed by a report on best practices in product management. (It was a theme this year, too!)

But in many newsrooms, still, there isn’t enough bandwidth to plan out a strategy for the next month, let alone a quarter or a year. Thinking ahead gets shunted aside for more immediate needs, especially in underresourced local newsrooms. What can smaller newsrooms learn from product managers at local outlets that can fit product into their teams? How can national teams see the influence of their work in local product squads?

One outlier is the Lenfest Local Lab, a team of five product managers, designers, and engineers experimenting with new products geared toward local innovation. We’ve shared their findings in these very webpages, but the Lenfest Local Lab’s aspirations are higher than what product managers are dreaming of in local newsrooms today. (Again…money.) But the products built in local newsrooms are unique in their power to, well, make the most of being local.

For example: McClatchy’s Sports Pass, a sports-only digital subscription, is a product launched last fall highlighting local sports journalism in 10 of its 30 markets.”It’s about changing McClatchy’s approach to the customer and recognizing there are certain customers who are interested in topics where we can offer a product that better suits their need,” said Leanne Gemma, the chain’s director of product leading a team of soon-to-be 20. (She entered journalism as a product manager from the software world: “McClatchy has a business of working in silos — product is helping to pull that together.”)

Sports Pass launched in just one week, remarkable in regular product timelines, to catch on at the beginning of football season. “That’s a big deal. That [agility] is exactly what the media industry needs to be doing to survive,” Gemma said. And so far the $30/year (or $2.50/month) option is not “cannibalizing” regular subscriptions, she added.

McClatchy’s product is trying to increase its relevance to readers this year and Sports Pass is one part of that. The product team is currently working on payment flexibility (PayPal, credit card-less options, Subscribe with Google, etc.) and content pertinence to deepen reader relationships. Simultaneously, as a chain, Gemma’s team is balancing relevance across 30 markets and newsrooms of quite varying sizes, from The Sacramento Bee to the Belleville News-Democrat. So when building a newsletter template, for another example, they will build in automated curation that can be adjusted based on how much time a larger or smaller newsroom might have to add to it.

Gannett’s 15-person consumer product manager team faces a similar challenge in creating products for 109 sites. “We’ve grown the organization quite a bit, in part as an acknowledgment that one size does not fit all when we think about the scope and shape of the markets we serve,” Kara Chiles, Gannett’s senior director of product management, told me.

The team is currently focusing on consolidating its niche sites and native apps, such as incorporating a series of smaller sports apps in the Cincinnati area and adapting it for Packers News (Gannett has 11 papers in Wisconsin, including in Milwaukee and Green Bay). They are also testing newsletters in local markets to get at broader audiences using templates for event coverage with the Coachella-area Desert Sun and The Tennessean in Nashville. And since USA Today is national, too, Chiles said they can play around with national products and see what works locally, like a new recirculation feature.

“We’re trying to create great experiences for both our friends in the newsroom and our audiences whom we never meet,” Chiles, who started out in editorial like Aaronson, said. “But for local in particular, it feels like it has much passion and cause. We’re trying to give our audiences relevant information through the devices in their hands.”

Over at the chain-free Minneapolis Star Tribune, Amy Sanders has been working in product for around 10 years; she’s now part of a team of six. “We used to think of it as the divide between consumer and commercial. The lines are blurred now because it’s tied to subscription sales and advertising,” she said.

But the small team allows for small, smart fixes: A four-person mini-team spent a year working on a different product tweak each month a few years ago. “At the beginning of each month, we said, what would we like to do? We think of the impact it would have, we do A/B tests and shared results, and moved on. In a year, we were able to focus on rebuilding our navigation system, improving recirculation, and getting more traffic,” Sanders said.

Her current priority is email, overseeing a portfolio of 25 newsletters including the recently added home-and-garden Floored. Working with an editorial colleague, they drilled down their goals and Floored ended up with a format of five visually-driven stories sent out each Saturday morning — bucking their popular weekday traffic in favor of “an audience who might want to look at it on their phone when they wake up,” Sanders said. Its open rate is 50 percent.

Aaronson, The Texas Tribune’s first product manager, helped build out that organization’s membership program and website redesign to highlight its events, sponsorships, and donation opportunities. She’s trying to replicate that at Chalkbeat, which recently launched membership across its seven bureaus (and at the national level). Since Chalkbeat focuses on education, the product themes are a bit more unified across its network than a newspaper chain, but as local outlets, they can focus on more intimate products between reporters, teachers, and parents.

Specific product teams can significantly contribute to local newsrooms — though chains and networks seem to have the most resources to centralize it. But that doesn’t mean this type of work can’t exist in smaller newsrooms.

“A lot of local newsrooms think doing this work is beyond their capability because they don’t have the resources to hire a product manager or build out a team,” Aaronson said. “I’m of the belief that this job of product thinking needs to take many shapes and forms in newsrooms, whether it’s a managing editor or reporter who approaches their work in a way where they’re thinking about it in a way that provides value.”

Illustration by Oksana Grytsyuk used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 29, 2019, 10:32 a.m.
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