Managing Digital Products in a Newsroom Context

By Cindy Royal

Digital media tools provide new ways for media companies to distribute information and engage the public. This study explores the emerging, technology-influenced role of managing digital media products through the observations of innovators and early adopters in these positions. It assesses the attention to, or lack thereof, traditional journalistic standards and ethics in product development processes and offers insight into relevant directions for journalism curriculum.

 

A prominent characteristic of the digital media environment is continuous innovation. New roles have emerged in journalism to support innovation in data presentation and engagement. These roles are often viewed as technology-support functions, on the periphery of the journalism being produced. However, these digital products, often with an audience-centric mission, provide opportunities for constituents to participate, contribute and interact with the media and one another and comprise the primary platform the audience now uses to consume journalism. Those who develop or work on teams in developing these products are often making or ignoring editorial judgments and decisions. How are news organizations assuring that these technology-based roles are exercising journalistic standards in developing digital media products?

This research is intended to help media professionals, educators and students better understand the emerging role of digital product management and to advance the conversation on how to incorporate these concepts in organizations and curriculum.

Background

Studies of The New York Times (Royal, 2012) and Chicago Tribune (Parasie & Dagiral, 2013) observed the emerging role of the programmer-journalist, those newsroom developers who were the earliest creators of interactive, digital stories. This role can be perceived as the precursor to understanding the evolving state of digital development in newsrooms. In February 2016, a panel discussion on product management was held at New York’s The New School, co-sponsored by that university’s Journalism + Design program and the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York. During that discussion, Aron Pilhofer, who previously led the NYT Interactive News Technology team, said, “It was a few years in that it dawned on me that I was actually running a product development team” (The New School News, 2016).[1]

During Nieman Journalism Lab’s annual publication of predictions for 2016, two articles dealt with the emerging role of product management. “The new hot job in those companies will be product manager, who 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” (Herman, 2015, para. 8). Another predicted that “media organizations and journalism schools will begin to comprehend and define product management and embrace it as a relevant and critical career path” (Royal, 2015, para. 2).

Those predictions were soon to be realized. In addition to the New School/CUNY summit, the American Press Institute (Sonderman, 2016) published a white paper that explored the role of product management in news organizations. The paper was the result of discussions convened in a summit attended by “40 product-manager types from leading news organizations” (para. 6). The role of product manager was described as: 

…In the era of the “personal news cycle”—where abundant information and constant connectivity gives each individual control of her news consumption—our news products must be good and targeted to succeed. They must know who their users are, what they need, how they need it, and deliver a satisfying experience. That is what a product manager does. And increasingly this role, which has long been a staple of the tech world, is emerging in news organizations. (Sonderman, 2016, para. 4)

By the end of 2016, an article on the Washington Post’s plan to hire five dozen journalists also discussed integral nature of digital products. 

Now, the Post thinks “product” almost as news. In fact, almost 80 technologists now sit right in the new Post newsroom, in addition to those soon- much more-than-700 journalists. This is the face of a modern newsroom, in which software development engineers, digital designers, product managers, mobile developers and video engineering produce content in real time. (Doctor, 2017, para. 20)

Often project and product management are used interchangeably and are sometimes performed by the same person, but project management is specifically focused on the execution of project functionality. Product management encompasses the broader strategic implications of the entire digital product. The function can also be described as product leadership[2] or development. Those in web, engagement or community editor positions can also perform product management functions. Increasingly, anyone taking on broad responsibility for the execution of a digital platform is taking on a product management role.

Traditionally in media organizations, the functions of technologists are seen as supporting roles. But development of technology products affects user experience and engagement with content. The simple decision of providing social bookmarks on a website to allow users to post articles on social media sites requires one to consider how the function will work, what sites are represented, what the user will be able to do on the site and how the organization will interact with the content and data associated with this interaction (Powers, 2015). For a data-driven news story, decisions must be made about how the application will be used, how the user can customize the presentation and what data and content are to be presented. These activities go much further than simply setting up navigation for a website. Are these decisions being made by individuals who understand journalistic mission, ethics and sensibilities?

Literature Review

Few academic studies have addressed the functions of those who create and manage digital media products. In developing a matrix for understanding the role of technology in cross media news work, Lewis and Westlund (2015) stated that journalism studies have primarily been focused on editorial activities. “The result has been neglect in the literature for socio-technical objects and information technology specialists, particularly when such technologies and technologists operate beyond the boundaries of the organization” (Lewis & Westlund, 2015, p. 20). Where their study identified the discrete functions of journalists, technologists and business people as “actors”—as well as technological actants and audiences—and each one’s relationship to journalistic activities, this study seeks a more integrated understanding of the hybrid editorial and business roles technologists perform in a journalism organization. Product management represents a locus of responsibilities that cuts across a range of departments, including editorial, strategy, advertising and technology.

In his book Engaged Journalism, Batsell (2015) explored the changing relationship between news producer and audience by visiting newsrooms in the United States and United Kingdom. He concluded that for journalism to survive, “news providers must constantly listen to, interact with, and fulfill the specific needs of their audiences, whose attention can no longer be taken for granted” (Batsell, 2015, p. 57). His analysis identified ways to empower the audience with interactive news products—including databases, quizzes and games—and emphasized a need for metrics to measure their impact.

This type of news work has been specifically identified by Usher (2016, p. 3) as “interactive journalism,” which she defines as “visual presentation of storytelling through code for multilayered, tactile user control for the purpose news and information.” Her research found that this activity involved people with unique skill sets as well as specific professional practices and claims to knowledge that are influenced by software development culture.

Other journalism research has addressed the role of digital products in civic life. Coleman et al. (2008) studied how website usability and satisfaction are correlated to positive attitudes toward civic engagement. Others have studied the civic roles of social media (Gil de Zuniga, 2012) and user-generated news (Kaufhold et al., 2010). More generally in regard to engagement, Stroud et al. (2015) analyzed the presence of interactive features, including social media buttons, hyperlinks, polls and comments, on news websites.

Researchers have begun to address innovation as it relates to newsroom processes, relationships and culture (Ekdale, et al, 2015; Gynnild, 2014; Schmitz Weiss & Domingo, 2010). Lewis and Usher (2013 & 2014) performed an early study of the cultural implications of the interaction of journalism and technology through the organization Hacks/Hackers (hackshackers.com)—an international group that provides opportunities for journalists and programmers to collaborate.

The role of product management originated in the software development field. It includes product strategy, prioritization of activities, execution of deliverables, testing, benchmarks and analytics (Nash, 2011; Newman, 2015; Perkin, 2012). Others have discussed its emerging role in media companies (Shaver, 2015; Sundve, 2015). Organizations including Vox and BuzzFeed are lauded for their technology emphases and the ways in which they approach media platforms (Case, 2015; Ellis, 2015; Kaufman, 2014; Rabaino & Mark, 2015; Smalera, 2013).

Journalism schools have long been grappling with curriculum change required to keep pace with the digital environment (Adam, 2001; Bor, 2014; Carpenter, 2009; De Burgh, 2003; Ellis, 2015; Mensing, 2010; Royal, 2005; Wenger & Owens, 2012). But the current state of digital media reflects more than a convergence approach where print, audio and video work together. The digital realm introduces new scale, economics and considerations that come from operating in a manner that is more consistent with a technology company (Royal, 2014). Research projects from universities and journalism funding organizations identified product management as a desirable skill or “superpower” (Stencel & Perry, 2016). Some programs have moved into teaching the data journalism concepts of analysis and coding, but few are teaching product management concepts (Berret & Phillips, 2016). This article helps to shed light on the need to further develop curriculum in this area.

Methodology

The methods employed in this study were structured interviews and online surveys with professionals working in and overseeing these roles at media and technology companies. This approach was selected to gain broad descriptions and insight about this emerging role. In January 2016, a series of questions were submitted to several key professionals for their feedback and initial responses. The results of this round of questions were refined and submitted to a larger number of respondents in March 2016.

Respondents were identified by contacting known professionals in the field and seeking suggestions for others who performed in or influenced this capacity. The survey was sent to 40 professionals, with 14 (a 35% response rate, with eight male and six female respondents) completing the survey or requesting a phone interview. While this is not a large number of respondents, due to the small number of practitioners and the emerging nature of this field, gaining the insight of these key players at an early stage provides an important baseline as the area of product management develops (Besley & Roberts, 2010; Blankenship, 2016). Respondents were assured that their responses would remain anonymous in publication to encourage candid insight, which means they are not identified by title or organization in the responses below. Also due to the small sample size and to further maintain confidentiality of responses, the respondents were not identified by pseudonym. This was done to avoid identification through the combination of responses. Where necessary, responses were edited to remove reference to specific companies and personnel, to also maintain anonymity.

Phone interviews consisted of the same questions as the online survey and were recorded, transcribed and analyzed with the survey responses. Interview questions included general information about the respondent including their specific function and number of years in role and then moved into questions in the following areas: product, process and roles. Question dealt with defining digital products, what processes and methodologies are involved and what roles are affected.

Responses or interviews were received from professionals from The New York Times, Guardian, ProPublica, BuzzFeed, The Atlantic, National Public Radio, Washington Post, Vox Media, Texas Tribune, Austin-American Statesman, Medium and other media upstarts and new projects. Respondents had either director-level or higher responsibility for products or were directly performing in a product-management capacity. Most respondents had been in their positions for three years or less, with two having more than eight years in their current role.

The responses were analyzed using modified grounded theory as an overall approach (Corbin & Strauss, 2014), with an emphasis on thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2008). Grounded theory is a qualitative methodology that supports a systematic way of thinking about actions, events and associated behaviors. It is meant to build, rather than test, theory from “concepts derived, developed and integrated based on actual data” (Corbin & Strauss, 2014, p. 6). It is often used to study new or emerging fields that are not yet thoroughly researched. Themes were generated through an inductive analysis of the survey responses and interview transcripts. This study both describes and explains this emerging phenomenon and its relevance to the future of media and media curriculum.

This research identified themes in the following three areas:

  • Defining Digital Media Products
  • Managing Digital Products
  • Product Management Roles and Skills

Results

Defining Digital Media Products: Examples and Interaction

It is helpful to first define what is meant by a digital media product. As one respondent said, “We used to know what a media product was. It was a newspaper or a television broadcast. Now it’s much broader.”

Respondents most commonly named websites, publishing platforms, content management systems and native mobile applications (iOS and Android) as digital media products hosted by their organizations. Also mentioned by several respondents were blogging tools, revenue, advertising and subscription products, measurement tools, social platforms (including Facebook Instant Articles and Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages), automated bot projects and data archives. Some identified storytelling, slideshow, charting and quiz tools and special story formats (i.e. Kindle Singles) that their organizations had developed, as well as special project sites for sports, gardening, cooking, dating, elections, technology, books and more.

Stories themselves were often considered digital media products, particularly if they demonstrated advanced features of interactivity and user customization. These projects are commonly known as news applications (news apps, for short). The responses presented a broad view of digital products across media organizations that addressed editorial, advertising and business roles and introduced a level of complexity in managing this ecosystem.

Respondents were asked to identify specific projects, either their own or others, that were particularly good at engaging the public in civic action. Projects mentioned included:

  • Political Engagement Platforms: iCitizen, Brigade, Change.org, Purple Politics
  • Journalism Crowdsourcing Projects: Hearken, Groundsource, Crowdrise
  • Education Community Project: Chalkbeat
  • Mobile News Applications: Quartz mobile app, BuzzFeed News app, and SnapChat Discover

Some respondents discussed participation on their own platforms, as well as use of lengthy surveys and projects in which users contributed. ProPublica was identified as particularly strong in this area, with one respondent (who does not work for ProPublica) saying, “Most anything that ProPublica does is phenomenal. They fall into that perfect space of informing the direction of a story and letting a reader explore it.” ProPublica provided surveys to users about patient safety and calls to action requesting that readers forward political emails they had received. One project, “Free the Files,” requested users file public information requests to local television stations regarding political spending on ads, shared the results online and had users help with analyses.

One respondent mentioned Circa, the now defunct but recently acquired mobile application that built stories in re-usable blocks, as an example of innovation in user interface.

Take news apps right now. If you were to say “what problems are we trying to solve?”—if we actually approached our apps that way—our apps would look a lot more like Circa. For the most part, news apps are still manifestations of our printed newspaper. To me, that is the most obvious and clearest example that product management has yet to be fully embraced within media organizations.

This example highlights the limitations of news organizations in offering innovative approaches to solving users’ problems, emphasizing challenges to innovation that are based on legacy and culture.

Respondents were asked to describe ways the public was able to interact with digital media products. Some respondents discussed traffic and page views, while others were more specific about social media participation, commenting and content creation.

We invite our readers to participate in our journalism well before publication, as well as after, using Facebook groups and callouts inviting them to provide their perspective or to help us separate signal from noise in large document collections.

We encourage interactivity and sharing with our products. Commenting is encouraged, and we’ve started providing project-specific emails so readers can contact us with issues or suggestions.

Others stated specific engagement goals related to their approach to mobile technology:

About 50% of our traffic comes from phone or tablet. When my team designs a product, we tend to think of mobile first or at least foremost.

However we are approaching journalism on any platform, we are optimizing it for a mobile audience first.

Managing Digital Media Products: Problem-Solving, Collaboration, Metrics and Civic Engagement

Respondents were asked to describe the process of managing digital products in their organization, particularly related to how decisions were made about content and user engagement features. The most common response in this area was, “it depends,” which demonstrates the need for the process to be compatible with other factors, including size of organization, size of team and type of product.

It really depends on the size and scope of the product, but for the most part, each cross-functional team makes that decision with influence at key touch points from company leadership across product, editorial and revenue.

It depends on the product, because there are so many. If something is back-end infrastructure it will roll into that team. If it is primarily editorial, there is a small editorial committee, with a small group of people depending on what the product affects—mobile, culture desk, investigations. And they will work with representatives from product and technology. But ultimately the decision about allocation come down to editor/publisher decisions on what the strategic priorities are.

Solving problems, finding solutions and creating value were often articulated as the primary goal of product management. 

Our process is working with a team of designers and developers to figure out solutions to problems. We iterate and move fast and do user testing to help us confirm or disprove our hypotheses.

Another respondent echoed the importance of a problem-solving mentality.

Product management is about solving business problems. It’s not about prioritizing features.

One respondent articulated a vision of value creation.

Ultimately, we are looking to grow high quality media brands that provide value to our users.

 The characteristic that was most prominently discussed in regard to process was collaborating with a team, often a cross-functional team covering editorial, business and technical areas.

Team conversations lead to final decisions made by the tech lead, project lead, strategy lead and lead designer in combination—based on a combination of testing and user need analysis.

We work collaboratively with the editorial teams of our brands and even with our advertising teams. But the strategic decisions are ultimately made by the product team who facilitates the conversations and reconciles everything with business opportunities to grow and be user-focused as a valuable service.

Teamwork was perceived as a relative advantage of product management in several respondents’ comments.

What I think is really important for people entering the industry to realize is how important the existence of people who work across teams is. Coordination among everyone in the newsroom doesn’t always happen, but newsrooms are better off when it does.

Another respondent indicated the compatibility of product management to existing editorial roles.

A good editor is someone who can run a desk collaboratively, very much like a product manager.

Product management introduces a range of tools and processes to help with collaboration, many of which are borrowed from software development practices. These tools help product managers deal with the increasing complexity introduced by digital media products. The respondents commonly mentioned agile methodology. 

The new way of product management is more evolutionary. It fits more into the agile methodology of product management. It’s more about iterative sprints and incremental improvement more than it is about a single thing that you build and launch.

Agile methodology introduces the features of sprints (short development iterations) and scrums (short, effective update meetings), which were also mentioned by respondents, along with application prototyping, design thinking, A/B testing, and the software tools Trello and Slack (both online project management applications) (Alexander, 2017).

But respondents often indicated loose or modified applications of these tools. One respondent emphasized experimentation and the spry nature of working with a small group.

Whatever works! We are currently doing agile. Because we are such a small team, we aren’t really following any strict agile/scrum rules.

Another respondent discussed a user emphasis in employing these techniques.

We use a modified agile process with a heavy emphasis on user-centric design and prototyping. We use tools like Trello, Sketch, Slack and others.

Respondents also indicated an attention to short development cycles to create “minimum viable products” (MVPs) that are continually tested and adjusted.

Lots of traditional UX research: user interviews/surveys, prototyping and user testing. We are agile-ish, mostly working in two-week sprints, but not full capital-A Agile. Design thinking drives our work throughout. We develop minimum viable products.

We have a very loose scrum/agile methodology where our goal is to meet a certain feature set with a minimum viable product, and then we build features on from there until release and beyond, if necessary.

Some did not prescribe to particular processes, but emphasized continuous development and deployment.

We don’t get super hung up on processes, we are not an agile shop, not using Kanban (a software development approach based on just-in-time delivery). We don’t use scrum masters. We are mostly in continuous deployment and continuous development.

One respondent identified the more traditional, waterfall cycle of application development. This indicates that processes for product management have not yet been broadly adopted nor well developed, but that organizations are experimenting with different approaches based on their compatibility with existing routines. Resources supporting these techniques are widely available online. Both Slack and Trello are available for free or with free levels of usage.

Also related to process, respondents were asked how data, analytics and metrics were used in managing digital products. Several respondents mentioned different analytics platforms. Many indicated approaches that went beyond website traffic measurement and included measurement against benchmarks and goals. 

I’m most interested in user pathways through our news applications, which help me understand if the decisions we made in building out a user interface translated to readers. For long-form stories we do some scroll-depth analysis and goals-analysis in areas including subscriptions to our newsletters, social sharing, etc.

Everything we do is data informed. There are very few decisions that we make in the absence of some kind of measurement. We have data that we have control over on our site. Then we have partners like Fabric and Adjust (both mobile analytics platforms) and other analytics platforms. We have a data science team that turns raw data into insights that the product, technical and editorial teams can use.

One respondent indicated the value of data to their ability to generate advertising revenue.

We actively track data—both about our content and our audience—in real-time in order to create active feedback loops for our editorial teams and our product teams. We take these same ideas and empower our advertising partners.

A few respondents indicated frustration with their overall organizations’ approach to data.

Our team has been working on new measurements for our success, but the rest of the newsroom is still chasing page views for the most part.

Respondents expressed frustration with the effectiveness of their organization’s use of metrics.

We definitely build metrics into all our online visualizations and projects, though that typically means normal metrics like page views, visits, time on site and some social metrics based on share URLs. In a few cases we’ve built in usability metrics that let us know how long someone scrolled down a page or if they utilized a certain toolset or button. We should do more of that, but we should also do more to utilize and act on the metrics we gather now.

Another respondent discussed using innovative means for measuring the impact of their work.

Everything we do is optimized for some type of impact. Impact is an important metric. Did we get someone released from prison, a law changed, legislation brought to the Senate floor, did someone make these recipes or make an informed decision about how they treat their bodies or gained help with depression?

While measuring impact is not as simple as gathering data about traffic and page views, one organization expressed more meaningful ways to build impactful reporting across the newsroom and into the organization’s culture.

This is part of the responsibility of our brilliant public relations team. Individual reporters also get told when their story makes a difference. There’s a pretty good feedback loop on that. We have multiple inputs into making sure we are tracking those kinds of things. A general philosophy of our company is that we get audience feedback on all the channels we are on. People can reply to our newsletters. People will mention us on social. They will tag us in their posts. There are different email addresses that they can use. We’re pretty accessible as far as people letting us know when we’ve made a difference.

The range of approaches described in regard to metrics exhibits particular advantage in using digital media products, with the increased opportunities to use data to make better decisions and emphasize the impact of their work. But compatibility issues were evident in responses that expressed frustration with their organizations’ ability to adopt innovative techniques.

With technology personnel often originating from more technical backgrounds and experiences, how were journalistic insights and goals built into these projects? How were decisions made about the ways in which the audience would engage and participate with the content? The most common response in this area was in having journalists and editorial personnel on product teams or consulted in the process. 

How is journalism represented? By having journalists as part of the process, either with editorial personnel having a place on the team or by having editorial consulted as part of the process.

Another respondent indicated editorial personnel participating in a consulting role.

Editors are apprised of our projects before we begin and have an opportunity to weigh the value to readers versus journalistic mission versus cost to develop. We release products and projects in stages to allow stakeholders in the newsroom and beyond to influence development with feedback and suggestions.

In some cases, editorial personnel have significant power in oversight and approval over digital products. 

Journalistic values are enforced by the editorial team. We have a strict approval process where we have to run everything by them.

One respondent, however, indicated compatibility challenges associated with integrating content into the mission of product management.

How do you get to the point where product management is about content? That’s a tricky thing. It raises a lot of church and state issues. Product managers are generally viewed as commercial side and not editorial, and that’s changing.

The same respondent continued, emphasizing the risk associated with the lack of better editorial compatibility with product teams. 

A lot of things go into deferring to editorial. That is the fundamental problem. To the extent it is getting in there at all, it is getting in there in very small doses and usually by the product function abdicating it to editorial. There is usually a small group of people who are fairly junior, who tend to spend a lot of time with apps, tools or content-management-system teams. That’s not editorial. That’s a minimum level of checking and not really core to the newsroom. It’s tangential, fringe. What you end up with is unambitious. There’s not a lot of thinking about how journalistic values fit into the broader product that we are developing. But the only way you can make a product people want is by doing that.

Some organizations are integrating a culture within product teams to more seamlessly build a journalistic mindset into product development, thus encouraging compatibility between the processes.

We think of interactive news presentations precisely as any editor and reporter think about a story. They have a beginning middle and end. They have a lede. They have different styles that are appropriate for different visual stories. We want our readers to take from them something about themselves that helps them understand a national phenomenon using their own situation as the lead example.

We have a very clear mission that we do investigative journalism, and everything we do should be done with that purpose in mind. This is very apparent in the entire culture of the organization, so when we make editorial-side products those are all edited as if they were written works.

Product Management Roles and Skills

While the role of product manager is the position that coordinates the product management processes, there are several other positions that are present in development of media products. These roles vary by organization but include technical personnel, designers and business resources. Respondents indicated varying levels of complexity in the organizational structure for managing digital media products.

We have product managers, full-stack engineers, designers, front-end engineers, data scientists, analysts, graphics reporters, operational engineers and support managers. All of these roles work in small, cross-functional teams focused on a particular product or platform and its associated goals.

A lead UX/UI (user experience/user interface) person. A lead developer. A lead editorial/management person. A lead business development person. Open conversations throughout. Design usually plays the role of leading the “what if” scenarios. Then development usually plays the role of “hey, team…. all that is possible, but it will take us two years to complete.” Then as a team—we arbitrage based on editorial/business development needs first.

What do product managers themselves do? An idealized description was provided by one respondent.

When it’s working well, you have a cross-functional team. The product manager should be the central convener, the connective tissue. But they’re not just the person who invites everyone. They are the ones who are also building consensus. In a media organization building consensus is incredibly important and also extremely difficult. But you don’t get anything done unless you can do that.

 Respondents were asked to identify the desired skills associated with a product manager. Common responses included communication, empathy, leadership, collaboration and technical proficiency. More than any one of these skills, the relative advantage of this approach had to do with the way these skills worked in concert with one another.

We hire people as product managers that have strong user focus, understand the business and are good at facilitating collaboration between design, technology, editorial and revenue. They are team leaders who can make decisions and provide direction, but know how to build the best products by empowering the full team.

Tied in with communication is empathy—hiring people who have the capacity to proactively try to understand things from others’ points of view.

It takes understanding disciplines in organizations, but it also takes a tremendous amount of empathy.

Some respondents expressed the ability to communicate as a mindset or way of life as central to the product management role.

They need to know how to communicate the product needs. It is a mindset.

Another respondent expressed the need for a strong passion for communication. 

They must be incredible communicators. And they should love media if they want to be a product manager in this business.

The emphases in responses regarding the position of product management in curriculum focused on strategic thinking and data analysis and a more holistic mindset about the role of the organization in the technology ecosystem. One respondent indicated that the desirable skills included “more design thinking, user research, consumer marketing, collaborative facilitation and a comfort with data analysis are critical.”

Another emphasized research and market conditions by highlighting “user research including interviewing, surveying and understanding the market, analytics, data and statistics and decision-making skills.”

Respondents also indicated an interest in providing students with experience projects that would mirror what they would encounter in the professional world.

I can’t help but think of the perspective of how to put someone on a task to have my job. How did I get it? What made a difference? The most important thing I realized was working on projects on a team, as you would in the professional world. I would find something like that extremely impressive on the resume of someone who came to apply to work here. More than the technical design part, but more of actually working in an environment in which other people were involved and made decisions.

Technical skills in programming and development were also expressed as desirable, but were not the most mentioned nor identified as the most important skill by any respondent. What was more important was the ability to communicate with a range of technical and other resources.

Some technical proficiency is helpful to further your ability to communicate with the people who are developing. But it’s also important to understand the three components of it all: technical proficiency, design aesthetic and user interface.

Most product managers come from a technical background. Some come from commercial background. Some might have been doing journalism at a media company on the dotcom side. They often start as a developer, then move into product-related roles. Not many come from journalism background that go into product management. It’s an area of opportunity.

While communication, strategy and leaderships skills are compatible with those already present in the newsroom, a level of complexity is introduced in having to apply these skills in a technology context.

One respondent indicated the priority of journalism skills.

Product skills are easy to teach in the context of doing the job. The newsroom skills are much harder. I can take somebody with a reasonable aptitude for problem solving and audience empathy and a reasonably analytic brain and turn them into a half decent product manager in a few months. It is much harder with someone who has never worked in a newsroom.

Another respondent was more specific about the potential alignment within academic disciplines.

I think there is a much closer fit with entrepreneurship, business and design than there is with computer science.

Respondents were asked to predict the demand for these skills in the future. Many see this as an area with strong potential, but only if news organizations recognize its importance and set as a strategic priority.

I think what will be the next wave will be people who can communicate between the engineer and everyone else. Not to say engineers can’t communicate on their own, but we need someone whose job is it to communicate the big picture.

I do see a demand for these roles, but I fear that newsrooms don’t see this as a separate skill or job. They expect those skills to be part of other rolls that already exist.

It is my hope that product management will move closer to the core of newsrooms and not further away and be marginalized to the business side.

Conclusion

It is evident, by the proliferation of technology products presented by news organizations, that the role of digital product management is being fulfilled, at least in some of the most innovative news organizations as represented in this study. But the specific elements of these roles are evolving and not very well defined. This study identified a broad range of digital media products—websites, mobile applications, chatbots and data interactives—with increasing complexity as they relate to news distribution and audience engagement. It identified several themes that newsrooms will need to address if they plan to move in this direction, which include the need to work in cross-functional teams, an emphasis on empathy, problem solving and creating value for users, an attention to data and the need to develop resources with a hybrid combination of communication skills and technology expertise.

This project represents an opportunity to better observe these emerging roles and to consider the journalistic qualities that should be present in decisions associated with technology products, particularly as they relate to engagement and civic participation. As digital products mature, product management will need to be understood as a core process and responsibility of media, as opposed to a technology sideline, offshoot or tangential activity. As media organizations receive increased scrutiny for the accuracy and truthfulness of their reporting, the digital projects they create will be expected to demonstrate the same sensibilities. The results of this project can help to inform the direction of journalism curriculum to include media product and engagement management approaches, thus making students more valuable and hirable in this environment.

Future studies of how users interact with and use digital products should be embarked to understand the potential responsibility of digital products in informing digital media literacy, particularly in light of the proliferation of fake news and its effect on the 2016 election. As the field emerges, a broader analysis of this professional role and its responsibilities will be necessary.

Acknowledgment

I would like to thank the professionals who contributed their time and expertise to this project. Their willingness to unselfishly share their experiences is greatly appreciated in helping to understand this evolving field and its potential effect on journalism curriculum.

 

 

Cindy Royal is a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State University teaching digital and data-driven media skills and concepts. She completed Ph.D. studies in Journalism and Mass Communication at The University of Texas at Austin in May 2005. At UT, Royal focused on the effects of the Internet on communication and culture. Prior to doctoral studies, she had a career in Marketing at Compaq Computer and NCR Corporation. She has a Master of Business Administration from the University of Richmond and a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In 2016, Royal founded the Media Innovation Lab and launched a new undergraduate major in Digital Media Innovation at Texas State. In 2013, she received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching at Texas State University and the AEJMC/Scripps Howard Journalism and Mass Communication Teacher of the Year award. During the 2013-2014 academic year, she was in residence at Stanford University in the Knight Journalism Fellowship program, where she worked on a platform to teach journalists how to code, called CodeActually.com. Additional detail regarding her research, education and experience can be found at cindyroyal.com.

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Notes

[1] The entire conversation, which also included Trei Brundrett, chief product officer of Vox and BuzzFeed’s managing editor for mobile news Stacy-Marie Ishmael, with The New School’s  Journalism + Design director Heather Chaplin moderating, can be viewed at http://livestream.com/TheNewSchool/theåß-hunt-for-news-products-of-the-future

[2] Listen to the South By Southwest Interactive 2016 talk given by Shay Howe entitled “Yes, Designer. You Can Be a Product Leader,” https://soundcloud.com/officialsxsw/yes-designer-you-can-be-a-product-leader-sxsw-interactive-2016.