Can a culture of product innovation save journalism?

By Shelley Seale


Austin, United States


Innovating with reader revenue requires collaboration of the editorial, marketing, technology, and analytics. Leaders such as The New York Times and Financial Times have introduced cross-functional teams, user-centric decision-making, and product management practices.

INMA Researcher-in-Residence Grzegorz Piechota went into detail about such initiatives during a Webinar meet-up on Wednesday, covering strategies and tactics for growing digital news subscriptions. The meet-up also covered frictionless checkout and monetising podcasts

Anita Zielina of City University New York, and a former chief product officer of NZZ in Zurich, Switzerland, discussed how journalism can stay true to its unique mission within a culture of product innovation.

“Product has become more and more a discussion that has become a debate,” Zielina said. “The reason for that is we are talking more about subscriptions and creating value for your users. Ultimately the balance we have to find is how we still do journalism and stay true to our mission while incorporating innovation, technology, and product thinking in a way that allows us to be very value-centred in relations to our readers.”

Zielina defines product as a function at the intersection of editorial, tech, and business that ensures all products and services address user needs, provide an excellent user experience, and advance the overarching strategy.

The transformative merger of product innovation and editorial

“The question for us now in media organisations is: How does that align in the traditional way that we did business?” she asked. “The challenge that we have is what are the things we can implement and learn from technology companies — and find the sweet spot where this intersects with our newsroom.”

Zielina outlined the differences between the old newsroom culture and new product culture that should be addressed to find that sweet spot.

The traits of the old newsroom culture compared to a new product-forward culture.
The traits of the old newsroom culture compared to a new product-forward culture.

“Traditional newsroom culture doesn’t really see interdisciplinary work in play,” she said. “It’s really not possible that the person at the top of the hierarchy knows everything 24/7. What we see in digital-first organisations is more of a coaching and delegation leadership style that incorporates talent throughout the organisation to get more results.”

A focus on perfectionism does not foster innovation, she added: “The interesting thing is that success is only possible if you experiment more. And experimentation is doing different things until you find something that works. If we move to a more iterative process in product development — where failure is accepted in every tiny step along the way, to adjust from it — we can be more successful.”

The way organisations do development is also very different in the new and old models. By implementing an iterative development, getting user and team feedback, and adjusting along the way rather than mapping out a huge two-year roadplan and then unveiling it (at which point failure is very costly and painful), media companies can be more effective.

The four stages of media organisations

There are four distinct stages of a media organisation's transition to a product-forward culture.
There are four distinct stages of a media organisation's transition to a product-forward culture.

Stage one is the beginner stage, with no product team or innovation and little customer focus. In stage two, there is some product staff and experimentation, but there is no high-level buy-in. The third stage has product teams and processes, but they are often isolated or even in competition with legacy departments.

“The last type of stage is a product- and user-centric,” Zielina said. “A lot is about the buy-in at a high level. I think what happens a lot is that you say these things are important, but you aren’t really following it in leadership with your actions. Then you have to really be willing to invest or shift money into building a product team. So it’s really kind of a transformation process than anything else, unless you’re building as a start-up. Of this means you ask yourself, what can I stop doing, to shift those resources into something else.”


INMA: What kind of skills do you believe product leaders of the future need?

Zielina: I think it’s really a lot about interdisciplinary thinking. The product people need to understand something about the editorial side, and the editorial team needs to understand something about product and technology.

INMA: We have a good product team, but we spend a lot of time on functionality of our products rather than development or innovation. What are your thoughts on that?

Zielina: Basically you do a lot of product management, which is extremely important to stay up to date. I don’t even see anything bad about that. I would just say there are ways to devote a certain amount of your product thinking and resources to think about the next thing. The best way to do this is to really assign a certain amount of days or hours to something that is really out of the box and new, rather than functionality. For most organisations, this should be somewhere around 20%.

About Shelley Seale

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