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Can’t we bury the ‘build it and they will come’ approach?

2021-04-19. “‘Build it, and they will come’ is still very much the default mindset for our industry.” That’s how Corrine Podger, Director at Digital Skills Agency, Australia, kicked off a session about a more audience-centric approach to products during the Asian Media Leaders eSummit 2021.

by WAN-IFRA External Contributor info@wan-ifra.org | April 19, 2021

By Lee Kah Whye 

Podger moderated the session, which featured three other speakers: Gaurav Sachdeva, Chief Product Officer at Singapore Press Holdings; Nicholas Sagau Tony Ngimat, Chief Product Officer at Rev Media Group and President of the Malaysia Digital Association (MDA); and Becca Aaronson, Interim Executive Director at the News Product Alliance from the U.S

Podger continued, “What I see are journalists and editors embracing digital for innovative storytelling, but perhaps not showing quite so much love when it comes to understanding the audience and designing products.”

Incorporating a product culture into your newsroom

 As the first speaker, Aaronson started by suggesting that the title of the session should actually be: from content-centric to audience-centric to product-centric.

She said it is not enough to put the audience at the centre of a news organisation’s editorial decisions. To be successful, news outlets need to think about how the output is a product that connects the audience to every part of the organisation, including editorial, business, technology, and strategy.

“Product management is a discipline that emerged in tech companies to put the audience or the customer at the center of decision-making,” Aaronson said. “They were finding that oftentimes the engineers or the business leaders didn’t actually know how the customer was interacting with the product or what the customers’ feedback was. So, the product manager became the person in the room who understood the customer’s experience and expectations.”

Aaronson suggested that newsrooms have an even more difficult task than tech companies, as they must both connect with their audience and serve their communities needs with their editorial mission. At the same time, they must develop a sustainable business strategy, usually with limited resources.

“I would argue that to confront the challenges facing news organisations today, no matter where you are in the world, journalists are being asked some existential questions that product managers typically ask. What is the problem we’re solving? Whose needs do we serve? And, how do we connect the two?”

She suggested that the missing link to creating sustainable journalism is perhaps product thinkers with the abilities to align editorial, audience and technology goals.

What is a product thinker? What is a product?

Aaronson’s view is that the products of a news organisation are journalism, the website and the content management system.

She added that product thinkers are people who use frameworks – that is, proven tools and methodologies – to connect the dots between editorial, audience, business, technology, and strategy. They facilitate strategic decision-making across teams and bring in people from different parts of the organisation. 

Emphasising that anyone can be a product thinker, Aaronson said, “You don’t have to have a product title to be a product thinker. You may be a platform editor experimenting on TikTok or WeChat, or someone with a marketing background looking into monetisation strategies for new verticals.”  

“You have to think about your products, like newsletters and podcasts, and how you need to consider the user is going to engage with these, and how it serves your business goals and what resources or technology you need to make it.” 

Journalism skills are transferable to product decision-making: Becca Aaronson

Aaronson said she believes that the journalism skills that many people have in the news industry are transferable to product decision-making. For example, interviewing and reporting are akin to conducting audience research.

Additionally, journalists have a knack for getting to the core of what and why someone is saying and thinking something. Writing a nut graph is like setting goals and clarifying a value proposition; pitching a story like pitching a product; managing an editorial calendar is similar to managing a product roadmap; and owning a beat is like maintaining and iterating on a product.

Product culture in an organisation

In a product-centric organisation, there is a lot of cross-team collaboration, Aaronson said.

“Thinking how we can work together – not crossing any ethical lines, not influencing the journalism – but how can we work together to be sure that we’re on the same page,” Aaronson said, describing how product people and journalists can interface. “Building cross-disciplinary solutions and connecting the different silos and parts of the organisation.”

Product culture also means setting audience-focused goals for your teams, asking audience-centric questions and understanding how the audience is experiencing the product. Teams should be making decisions and prioritising tasks together. 

She emphasised throughout her presentation that clear, consistent communication is important, and that means setting clear expectations about how to communicate across teams and thinking about how to be transparent.

That might involve creating a road map or an editorial calendar in a way that allows people to be aware of what’s going on across the organisation. This can help people feel included and can contribute to increased participation in meeting those goals.

Speaking about how data can be incorporated into decision-making about products, Aaronson said, “It’s not about just saying that you know the data is right and follow the data. It’s about understanding the data, questioning it, and looking at it in both qualitative and quantitative terms, and how can this inform our strategy.”

“The most challenging part of changing from a traditional newsroom to a product culture is how to integrate the audience needs into the newsroom strategy.”

She added, “As journalists were really afraid of making mistakes, but as product thinkers you have to be comfortable experimenting, learning from those mistakes and continuing to build on what you learn”.

By properly following up, a strategy to improve audience engagement can be built and improvement to retention made. This makes building a new revenue stream or increasing revenues possible.

Once you have a strategy, Aaronson said, execute on it with a clear timeline, with clear roles for team members. Outcomes have to be tracked and measured to ensure that the team is actually working towards the vision that has been defined.

She urged that organisations must prioritise new requests so things don’t go off track, learn from what they have done, review their strategy, then repeat the cycle. 

Putting your audience at the centre

Aaronson quoted Tom Corrigan, audience strategist at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, who said, “Putting our audience at the centre of what we do is a form of disruption.”  

“We are in an industry that’s reeling from change. From political, economic, technological disruptions. It’s really changed the way that our editorial and business models work,” she continued. “So whether you’re moving your news organisation from content-centric to audience- or product-centric, you will likely face some amount of fear and resistance.

“It’s important to have empathy for your colleagues and meet them where they are – to take time to understand motivations, processes, ideas – and introduce change that actually improves their work. Give them more insight and clarity into the problems you’re solving so they want to solve them with you,” she added.

Aaronson concluded: “News product thinkers are using a shared discipline to kind of help make that change real, and we need more diversity among these leaders so that we can connect with the diverse audiences we serve.”

Continue to part 2 of this post by clicking here.

About the author: Lee Kah Whye is Director at Project Mercury, a media business consultancy. Prior to this, he spent nearly 20 years at Reuters and was head of the news agency business for Asia.

About the editor: Bill Poorman is an editor, writer, and media producer, living in the US. He lived in Singapore for six years up until 2020.

WAN-IFRA External Contributor

info@wan-ifra.org

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