DMNA19: Growing a product culture is crucial

The third edition of WAN-IFRA’s Digital Media North America Conference brought together international delegates and a high-powered line-up of speakers from leading publications to discuss the growing importance of product in news media companies.

by Simone Flueckiger | June 25, 2019

Photo: Robertson Barrett, President of Digital Media, Hearst Newspapers;
Leanne Gemma, Director of Product, McClatchy; Jed Williams, Chief Strategy Officer, Local Media Association

The one-day event, which took place in New York City on 24 June, offered an in-depth look at the many facets and challenges surrounding product thinking, culture, and development in media companies, arming delegates with actionable insights on effecting change in their organisations, hiring and retaining talent, and improving collaboration among teams.

“Without culture change in organisations we can’t have product culture,” said Anita Zielina, Director of Innovation & Leadership at the Craig Newmark Graduate School at CUNY, during the event’s opening session.

“Traditionally, the way the news media worked and was structured was the opposite of product thinking,” –Anita Zielina

Product culture, she said, strongly builds on collaboration, experimentation, a coaching and delegating leadership style, and diverse teams, whereas old newsroom culture has been characterised by a “lone wolf” mindset, perfectionism, a directive leadership style, and little to no interdisciplinary work.

During her career working on both the editorial and product side, Zielina has observed the adoption of product thinking in a variety of media companies, noting that they find themselves at different stages of the process.

“One of the challenges is to figure out how we can help small newsrooms – that can’t afford to build something on top of what they are already doing – to develop product culture and become more user-centric,” she said.

The need for cultural and structural change, and the challenges surrounding it, were echoed by Nick Petrie, Deputy Head of Digital at The Times & Sunday Times in the UK.

“We’ve gone from a very simple product that was easy to deliver and delivered in the same way every day to lots of different nuanced types of journalism, depending on the audience. Additionally, you have a whole bunch of challenges and competition in getting that to your readers,” he said.

“What’s made this transition really difficult, certainly for us, is culture and structure. Fundamentally, all of this change is really, really difficult to adapt to. It’s difficult to adapt to slowly, but it’s practically impossible to adapt to at the speed that the world has changed around us.”

Improving interdisciplinary work and collaboration with the underlying goal of bringing product thinking into the newsroom emerged as one of the main themes of the day.

“We’re trying really hard to do as many new projects as possible with cross-functional teams,” Petrie said.

“It works when they’ve actually become a team, and go back to their departments to argue for the team, rather than act as representatives of their department, and have an agenda about what they want for it.”

Greg Barber


Newsrooms can’t be an island: working throughout the organization is critical to the modern digital news org, @petren says. It’s a tough evolution for orgs that are traditionally command-and-control.

See Greg Barber’s other Tweets

Similarly, teams at The Atlantic are being reorganised into so-called “pods” to become more cross-functional, said Andrew Phelps, the magazine’s Senior Director of Product.

“The idea is that rather than saying we have an iOS team or an Android team, which is more typical in a lot of organisations, we have a storytelling team, or a home team.

“Each of these teams has an editor lead, a developer lead, a design lead and a product lead, and we all report into our respective functions. But we take away the formal lines and reporting roles and all co-own the same problems.”

At theSkimm, a core product development team generally consists of people from product design, engineering, and editorial, but has the flexibility to add anyone from the organisation, be it from marketing, sales, insights or any other relevant department.

“The real criterion for it is what is the core team whose day-to-day responsibility it is to achieve this objective,” said theSkimm’s Chief Product Officer, Dheerja Kaur.

These teams focus on a company objective (for example, improving retention of the subscription app or encouraging more women to register to vote) rather than a particular feature or piece of roadmap.

“People feel ownership and autonomy, and product managers especially feel like they are directly laddering up to a company goal. They are not being told what to do, they are just being told what they need to achieve,” Kaur said.

Julia Beizer, Chief Product Officer at Bloomberg Media Group, also drove home the importance of a flexible and cross-functional approach, and the crucial role of product managers in convening different groups and drawing out ideas from around the organisation.

“There’s an army of doers around your organisation,” she said.

“Success in digital involves empowering those people, hearing their ideas, pushing those ideas to be better and then running with it. The more you can do to cultivate those doers and empower them the better,” – Julia Beizer

After a packed day full of enlightening presentations and discussions, the event ended with a special ceremony to announce the winners of the Digital Media North America Awards.

The winning projects, which were selected by an expert jury from more than 50 entries from the US and Canada, will compete for WAN-IFRA’s 2020 World Digital Media Awards against laureates from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East.

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