How product managers are rejuvenating journalism

2020-12-10.Singapore Press Holdings’ Chief Product Officer Gaurav Sachdeva explains how news publishers can leverage on product managers to spur newsroom transformation and better meet audiences’ needs.

by WAN-IFRA External Contributor | December 10, 2020

Above image: From Gaurav Sachdeva’s guest lecture: “Product management”

By Sherwin Chua

Product management, in summary, involves methodologies that enable businesses to develop products and services by putting themselves in the shoes of their customers, to know what they need and meet those needs.

Traditionally, product managers (and product management) are more aligned with the field of software development than journalism. However, a growing number of news publishers have been relying on product managers to guide digital transformation in their newsrooms and spark innovation.

In the news media, product management has been dubbed “the new journalism” by academics and discussed at length at WAN-IFRA’s Digital Media Asia 2020 and Digital Media North America 2019 conferences.

During one of the sessions at WAN-IFRA’s five-month-long Newsroom and Business Transformation Asia (NBTA) 2020 programme, participants and programme leaders George Brock and Grzegorz Piechota engaged with Gaurav Sachdeva, chief product officer at Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), to discuss how product managers are helping news publishers transform their newsroom processes and deliver products and services that are more attuned to users’ needs.

Creating successful products

For Sachdeva, product managers introduce product management practices, or what he refers to as “product thinking”, to news publishers to help them create digital products that not only meet users’ needs, but also business objectives.

“Good product managers possess business acumen, work well with technology and data, and are able to empathise with customers,” said Sachdeva.

These skills are the heart of the product-thinking approach and are vital in helping news publishers create digital products with clear value propositions that are both editorially and commercially successful, he said.

One such case is Photonico, a website developed by SPH in 2018 that offers high-resolution stock images from the media company’s photo archive and contributors.

According to Sachdeva, Photonico was inspired by two objectives: Firstly, to make it easier and “more productive” for its editorial teams to search for images from its more-than-70-year-old photo archive; and secondly, to monetise its archive as there was demand from consumers for the photos produced by SPH publications.

A cross-functional team consisting of product managers, photographers, designers, engineers and journalists was formed to develop the product.

At every stage of Photonico’s development, the team followed the product-thinking approach to meticulously examine and prioritise the needs of the product’s internal and external users, closely considered the business viability of the product, and thought about how technology could be used to solve “pain points” that emerged along the way.

The team’s efforts included making it easier for users to search for images, providing better photo descriptions and including copyright information about each image.

“In doing so, we were able to create a commercially viable marketplace for photos that meets the needs of both the editorial teams and people who want to buy those photos,” said Sachdeva.

 Promoting collaboration

From Gaurav Sachdeva’s guest lecture: “Product management”

Besides product development, product managers also play a pivotal role in newsroom transformation, especially in facilitating cross-functional collaboration.

As cross-functional teams involving editorial, technology and commercial departments become more common in newsrooms, Sachdeva believes product managers facilitate greater collaboration among these stakeholders.

“The responsibility of the product manager is not to take over the project, but to understand the issues of the various stakeholders, discover problems that need to be solved and propose solutions for them, and help cross-functional teams to set clear metrics for measuring success,” he said.

An example was how the product managers at The Business Times, a publication owned by SPH, had worked together with the editorial, technology and commercial teams to develop Garage, a microsite which covers news about business start-ups and venture capital that had won the gold award for the Best Digital News Start-up at WAN-IFRA’s 2019 Digital Media Awards.

“For the first time in SPH , product managers, editors and journalists got together and used the product-thinking approach to create a business plan for Garage. It took into account all the different ideas, views and inputs from various key stakeholders involved in the project,” said Sachdeva.

By creating that business plan, the team had set the collaborative tone and pace for the entire duration of the product’s development, which included iteratively building, measuring and refining the product over six months. Incidentally, they had also started the ball rolling for further inter-departmental collaboration across SPH.

Fostering a more data-informed culture

Image provided by Gaurav Sachdeva

Besides being conduits for collaboration, product managers also help news publishers foster a culture within their organisations that uses data to guide everyday decision-making.

According to Sachdeva, there are three aspects of being data-informed: getting the right data; interpreting the data; and reacting to the data.

Practically, the first aspect means asking the right questions to formulate clear hypotheses and developing appropriate experiments to elicit relevant data. The second involves drawing the right inferences from the data, and the third entails meaningfully applying the inferences and setting metrics to improve everyday processes.

“Newsrooms don’t traditionally function this way, and it is as much an organisational-structure challenge as it is a mindset one,” said Sachdeva.

Product managers, whose strengths are in experimentation and being able to draw actionable inferences from quantifiable data, can help introduce new ways of thinking and practices that will improve the business, he added.

Hiring product managers; or not

When asked whether publishers should hire product managers or only introduce the product-thinking approach in their newsrooms, Sachdeva said it largely depends on the stage of growth of particular publications.

“Many newsrooms already have digital operations and so the natural fit, especially in smaller news companies, ends up being one of the digital editors,” he said.

However, Sachdeva suggested that larger news organisations would benefit from building a team of product managers that comprise two types of staff: those who have a strong track record in product management and have worked in other companies; and those who are from within the organisation who have little or no prior experience in product management, but show an aptitude and willingness to become product managers.

At SPH, which publishes several newspapers and magazines, he hired experienced product managers from technology firms for publications that are at the “steeper part of the growth curve”. For the publications that were “ahead of the curve”, suitable staff from within the organisation who were already familiar with the newsrooms were “talent-spotted” to become product managers.

“What this approach created was a mix of folks who have various expertise, including journalism, media sales, tech company experience, and so on. This became a fertile ground for them to consistently share experiences and learn from each other,” said Sachdeva.

Newsroom and Business Transformation Asia (NBTA) 2020, organised by WAN-IFRA and supported by the Facebook Journalism Project, is the first training and coaching programme of its kind in Asia that is designed to accelerate transformation in Asian news companies. NBTA’s five-month-long curriculum supports senior editorial and commercial managers in developing an editorial vision, business strategies, integrated product plans and newsroom processes. Eleven Asian news publishers from six countries participated in this inaugural programme. They are: Bangkok Post, Bisnis Indonesia, Kompas Media Nusantara, Lianhe Zaobao, Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Sin Chew Media Corporation, The Business Times, The Edge Communications (Malaysia), The Jakarta Post, and United Daily News.

About the author: Sherwin Chua is a PhD candidate at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, whose research focuses on media innovation and journalism. He is also a freelance journalist who covers digital transformations occurring in journalism. He was a former editor and journalist in news media and publishing, and taught journalism and mass communication courses at a polytechnic in Singapore.

WAN-IFRA External Contributor

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