Audience Engagement Digital Publishing Top Stories
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“Content is king, but product is queen”: How publishers are engaging audiences in the era of personal news cycles

Publishers are serving readers with a wide range of digital formats or products. Product thinking is now important for successfully engaging readers. Here are highlights from FIPP’s latest Innovation in Media report which looks into strategies publishers are using to build and manage effective product teams.

Publishers are increasingly experimenting with new products. Commonly, they are in the form of podcasts, newsletters, graphics, data visualizations, live blogs, and dashboards. The pandemic boosted this trend. It drove many publishers to offer information, guidance, and entertainment via innovative products to readers who were locked down, uncertain, and scared.  

“Product will drive the industry because we need to have the customer at the center of everything,” says Luciana Cardoso, Chief Product Owner at Brazilian newspaper Estadão. 

Product is changing everything. I once heard content is king, but product is queen, and I really agree with that.

Luciana Cardoso, Chief Product Owner, Estadão

93% executives recognize the importance of product roles

Newsrooms now need product thinking and product managers to attract and retain readers with innovative and timely products that address their needs. “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,” wrote Jeff Sonderman in an American Press Institute whitepaper on product development. 

“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.”

93% of news executives surveyed for Reuters Institute’s Journalism, media, and technology trends and predictions report for 2021, recognized the importance of product roles. However, 54% thought those doing the job often lack the right skills and 43% believed it is well understood.

FIPP’s latest Innovation in Media report dives deep into this area and presents actionable insights on how publishers can instill product thinking across their organizations and build effective product teams. “Most people at legacy media organizations tend to think of news as just the articles or video packages they produce day-to-day,” the report states. “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.” 

“Spur a fundamental culture change within the newsroom”

“Product directly touches many parts of an organization but mainly works across editorial, technology, design and user experience, data, marketing, and revenue,” says Jodie Hopeprton, Leader of INMA Product Initiative. This necessitates that product teams be cross-functional. Sonderman suggests looking for people who think of news as a product and are able to develop relationships across an organization. Getting team members who are a “culture add,” rather than a “culture fit,” is a plus as they will bring new traits, experiences, and skills.

As digital media grows faster-moving and more complex, publishers are being compelled to add people who can evaluate new opportunities, balance sales, and editorial’s competing priorities, helping to develop new, unfamiliar lines of revenue.

Max Willens, Digiday

The New York Times which has followed a digital-first strategy since 2006 has seen it inspire new journalistic efforts, product features, and revenue capabilities. “What this did was really help spur a pretty fundamental culture change within the newsroom,” says Alex Hardiman, Chief Product Officer at the Times. “We now have reporters who understand that the audience reach and distribution that they get from a single push notification on their smartphone far outweighs what they get through … placement on the front page of the newspaper.” 

The publisher’s focus on product management has changed how the organization is structured. “First we have functions [which] are skill-based groups familiar to a lot of news organizations,” explains Hardiman. “So it could be journalists in the newsroom, designers, product managers, engineers, data scientists — and they’re responsible for standards and excellence within their craft, career development and growth, and community.”

The Times creates mission-focused teams with experts from different departments. These are “groups of cross-functional teams that are all pursuing the same high-level goal or objective,” she adds.

“Habitual approach of connecting all work to those goals and needs”

Jodie Hopperton, Leader of INMA Product Initiative recommends a seven-step process that can help product teams achieve their goals. It includes:

  1. Mission: Set transparent goals and objectives that are easily understood by all participants.
  2. Articulate the problem: Clearly define the problem and why it needs to be solved. 
  3. Define customer needs: Growth occurs when customer needs are addressed consistently, creatively, and strategically.
  4. Validate the idea: Test the hypothesis and the steps before product design. 
  5. Create a prototype/MVP: Examine functionality, desirability, usability, and engagement. Get feedback from all teams. 
  6. Test and iterate: The testing process should begin with a subsection of readers. Subsequently, it can be scaled up and incorporate a monetization strategy.
  7. Share results: Take care to share data that can be understood and valued by other departments.

Hopperton adds that product development is not always about building something new. Most teams spend over 90% of their time optimizing an existing product. It can be highly effective – The Wall Street Journal increased app downloads by 450% using link texting for app downloads. The Telegraph saw a 12% increase in pageviews when it optimized its home page to reduce loading time from 9 seconds to 5.5 seconds.  

The strategies and tactics that work for one publisher may not work for another, but the common factor necessary for success is developing a product mindset. “Product mindset is the habitual approach of connecting all work to those goals and needs,” says Jackie Bavaro, Head of Product Management at Asana. 

“It’s remembering to always ask, ‘What problem are we trying to solve?’ and ‘What problem should we solve?’

Jackie Bavaro, Head of Product Management at Asana

The full report can be downloaded from FIPP:
Innovation in Media 2022-23 World Report