Photo: Obi Onyeador

The Product Problem of Journalism

Newsrooms are struggling with cultivating a product-driven mindset. Here are some of my thoughts on why this is the case.

Since March 2021 I work as a product owner for Additionally to the official certification, I also exchanged with other POs in the media industry. In the process, I realized that many colleagues are struggling with the same issues.

I also remembered an insightful listicle by Konrad Weber about the missing product-driven mindset in journalism [German].

Weber synthesizes his findings in six key reasons:

  1. Lack of product understanding
  2. Lack of opportunities for cooperation
  3. Lack of communication between publishing and editorial
  4. Lack of methodological knowledge
  5. Lack of leadership to support product management
  6. Lack of trend and needs analysis

I fully agree with Weber’s analysis, but I want to highlight specific elements and add to his aspects with my thoughts.

Difficult Product Definition

Most publishers and media companies have a rich historical background. They started as printed newspapers. They also owned the print and distribution infrastructure, and therefore, were in charge of every link in the chain.

The product itself was pretty simple. What mattered was first and foremost the content, the layout, the style – and not the paper. The newsroom was the driving force of the most significant chunk of the product.

Today, I feel the balance has shifted because of the increasing importance of digital infrastructure and the highly specified skills required to maintain it. No longer is the newsroom deciding solely to change the website’s layout, but there needs to be a close collaboration between developers and the editorial department. However, the reasons for visiting a news platform are still driven by the content.

Therefore, it’s hard to build a product-driven mindset and organization. Unlike platforms like Instagram or Twitter, where the content is user-generated, a journalistic product in the digital realm consists of two parts: content and infrastructure.

Organizational Challenges

The duality of journalistic products reveals enormous challenges of media companies since the two parts are separated in the organization. The editor-in-chief is ultimately responsible for the content while the CPO steers the product.

The setup might work but requires intense communication and continuous alignment. A level further down, these requirements get more challenging. For example, journalists don’t have time to think about the product as they have their daily business in their minds. But, on the other hand, the product team works at a completely different pace, thinking about the subsequent developments. These different speeds create tension between the departments.

Therefore, the alignment often goes up the hierarchy and potentially creates silos between product and editorial.

And if the alignment stops, bad things can happen. A tabloid news platform that looks like an art magazine, for example. Form and content are no longer consistent.

The million-dollar question: How can this constant alignment be established? Unfortunately, there’s probably no universal answer as every company has to find a tailored way to deal with the challenge.

Leadership And Culture

Konrad Weber writes: “More technically skilled employees are needed, who at the same time also have the necessary understanding of the media.” That’s certainly the case. But more critical seems his statement regarding leadership:

Leadership in support of product management means applying transparency, inclusion and a holistic approach to decisions made at the top management level.

Although it might be implied, what I miss in his statement is that developing a product mindset and organization will lead to a power loss in the management. Especially if you think about the agile manifesto and the Scrum process, decision-making is delegated to teams.

The loss of power even goes further if you think about user-centric product decisions: Whether a button is round or square is decided by an A/B test rather than the personal likes of the leadership.

These changes are a massive cultural transformation for legacy companies that requires a lot of time and trust-building. I’ve met many young, inspiring people, hungry to drive that change. They see the opportunity in the change and want to take on more self-leadership. But, unfortunately, I’ve also experienced many of them being disillusioned because the management is holding on to power.

It’s a crucial step: The management has to lead the change. Otherwise, the plan to build a product-driven organization remains a lip service – frustrating everyone in the process.