In the past year, The New York Times has seen digital subscriptions surpass print circulation revenue, and subscribers are more engaged than ever before, said Alex Hardiman, chief product officer at the Times. And it’s not by happenstance, nor is it purely an effect of the COVID-19 pandemic; it’s the result of changing mindsets throughout the organisation.
For the Times, product grew out of its digital-first strategy, which the company pursued aggressively beginning around 2006. Cultivating digital led to new journalistic efforts, new product features, and new revenue capabilities.
“What this did was really help spur a pretty fundamental culture change within the newsroom, where 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,” she said. “What we’re really seeing is that the newsroom has become much more product-minded and our product teams, in turn, have become much more editorially minded.”
Creating new organisational structures
The company recognises that success depends on the way people work together to address common audiences’ needs, and its structure reflects that at every level, she said.
“First we have functions [which] are skill-based groups familiar to a lot of news organisations. 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.”
From there, teams called missions are created.
“Missions are groups of cross-functional teams that are all pursuing the same high-level goal or objective,” she said. The NYT has two types of missions:
Program missions, which are focused largely on consumer-facing products and experiences.
Platform missions, which focus on underlying technologies and infrastructure.
This cross-functional approach is evidence of how the discipline of product management has fundamentally changed the organisation.
“We no longer have a one-size-fits-all set of skills that we look for when we hire someone,” Hardiman said. “Product managers need really excellent editorial judgments to be able to gain trust with the newsroom and understand how to balance human judgment with great data and insights, whereas others require really excellent technical or machine learning expertise.”
The diversity and specialisation of talent have become a big focus for the NYT, she said: “It’s that brilliant mix of talent that I think is giving us more confidence in our ability to take on the types of business and journalism problems that no one has really solved before. And so I just can’t overstate the importance of our talents and how we organise and how we work together in terms of us having the ability to execute on our success discussion.”
This changed mindset has propelled the company’s growth while at the same time challenging teams to rethink the way journalism is presented. With product and software at the heart of its growth, the company has looked at new ways to creatively engage readers. The pandemic forced them to move quickly: “We had to make ourselves far more valuable to a lot more people around the world who really needed access to high-quality information. And we also had to do this in a way that helps our business thrive during a moment of really deep economic uncertainty.”
That uncertain year saw the Times site attracting readers from 232 nations and one out of two Americans visiting. During the election, the media company quadrupled its audiences in areas like New York, California, and Texas, and also saw unexpected regions like the South and Northwest visiting the site for the first time.
“A lot of them were coming for election results and a lot of our new forms of kind of visual and data-driven journalism that were hyperlocalised and also much more useful and accessible and inclusive.”
Because of the way the Times had reimagined its product, she said, it was able to marry compelling, quality journalism “enhanced by an expressive and user-friendly product destination” that draws in readers from around the world.
“What I also like about it is that it really reflects the reimagination of our products, not only on the consumer side, but also on the journalist side, in terms of really pushing us to give our journalists and our editors much better tooling to create much more immersive and useful storytelling,” Hardiman said. “It’s this type of adaptive product strategy and progressive change that's really driving growth at the New York Times.”
This case study originally appeared in the INMA report, How Product Is Leading Media’s New Growth Path.