Hi there. The structure of a product organisation is something I get questions about and often feels like a moving target as platforms, products, and businesses evolve. I wish I had a magic bullet. In lieu of that, I want to highlight two roles I believe will become more commonplace in the future:
A commercial product role responsible for productising and making money out of existing content in innovative ways.
A newsroom bridge role responsible for deciding which innovative storytelling formats can be used and productised.
I’ve interviewed two people I respect to dive into each. I hope you enjoy reading about each of their product approaches.
Do you have “unusual” product roles? Or are you thinking about them? If so, I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me at jodie.hopperton@INMA.org.
A commercial product role: Is this a new trend?
Is there a new role emerging between product and commercial?
The FT hired someone two years ago to productise and commercialise “mini brands,” or topic verticals, within the company. Effectively, this means looking at opportunities within the company where products or new businesses can be spun out from existing assets for commercial gain.
Revenue generating roles are the holy grail, so I wanted to dig a little deeper into this new business development team. Luckily Caitlin Clarke, the person recruited for the role and now heading the small team, is a former colleague from The New York Times, so I asked her to share a little more about her role.
Where do you sit within the organisation structure? And who do you work with?
Clarke: My team (the business development team) sits on the commercial side of the business, specifically within our subscription function. That said, our work touches many parts of the company — from product to editorial to advertising — and a key part of our value is having a strong understanding of the full breadth of the business’ activities so that we can spot opportunity.
Structurally, the team is comprised of a combination of what I call “bridge roles” — these are individuals who oversee commercial growth across key content formats like audio and our topic verticals — and roles dedicated to discovering and incubating new revenue streams.
The “bridge” roles work very closely with the newsroom. It’s their responsibility to know the editorial pipeline and to translate that to the rest of the business, therefore aligning both our internal and go-to-market approach to these content formats.
For roles dedicated to developing new revenue streams, the stakeholder group varies a lot depending on the make-up of the new venture — particularly how it’s monetised, if it is content led or not, and if it requires significant product and technology investment.
The goal, though, is for the business development team to provide the strategic stewardship that gets the right people in the room and the right information in front of them in order to breathe life into new ideas.
How do you start identifying where there may be opportunities?
Clarke: Ideas come either from within the team or from the broader business. So far, it’s been pretty organic. We’ll either be asked to look at an opportunity for a certain stakeholder group, or we’ll put forward our own focus areas where we feel the FT has a natural right to play based on its audience and brand.
In addition, a key part of the team’s remit is to be constantly looking at the market — both our competitor set and adjacent industries — and thinking about how growth trends could be applied to the FT. We always aim to support any new idea with background and context around what others are doing in the space and what the FT unique selling point would be.
Do you spin out actual new products, or are you thinking about commercialising existing products?
Clarke: We do both, but we’re primarily focused on new products or lines of business.
A good example is FT Talent, which is a hackathon style event for the under-30 audience. The mission of FT Talent ties up to a broader company objective around engaging younger audiences, so from the start there was a clear impetus for developing a new business that pursues this goal. However, we wanted to validate the idea quickly and in a structured way rather than burdening existing sales teams with an immature product. So we’re incubating it within the business development team.
The FT isn’t just a media brand, it’s an institution. How do you navigate that when you are trying new things that could be viewed as “risky”?
Clarke: It can definitely be tricky. Reputational risk is something we have to think a lot about when it comes to putting out MVPs into the market with the FT’s name on it.
To mitigate the risk, and to bring people on board internally, we’ve built a clear framework around which we assess whether or not we pursue a new venture — which we really try and stick to. This takes into account brand alignment, target audience, route to market, and unit economics — and forces us to think hard about why we want to do something and what we’ll learn. Then, I think we try and phase our work with clear KPIs and deliverables at every step.
That incremental approach to growth — and clear communication around it — helps ease people's minds.
You seem to be very involved at the beginning of a product lifecycle. Do you/will you continue to run this within your team or do you see your team as incubation, handing over to another team once they have reached a certain maturity?
Clarke: I primarily see us as incubation. The premise is that we build something until it reaches certain KPIs and then transfer successful businesses to relevant internal teams or spin them out to new business units.
We try to keep the business development team light, agile, and able to work across multiple different types of businesses and projects rather than building up a skill set of specialists. The premise is that the FT has a wealth of potential from within its existing audience, brand, and distribution channels to develop successful new businesses, but they need the space to be tested and validated before being integrated into the core business.
Date for the diary: December 13
How do we create a truly great content experience when news — and people’s experience and of it — is so fragmented? We don’t know our reader’s knowledge base, what information they have picked up off platform, and their interest level in the subject. So how do we create products?
That’s the discussion I’ll be having with Damon Kiesow, Knight chair in digital editing and producing at the Missouri School of Journalism, and Kara Chiles, senior vice president of consumer product for Gannett.
It’s free for members and we’d love you to join the conversation. Sign up here.
Bridge role: product and newsroom
One of the areas we talk about more and more is content formats.
Plain text articles are now just a subset of our offering as we are now able to use more visual, explanatory, and immersive types of content. As we delve into the use of social platforms, personalisation of formats, short form and long form, data visualisation, interactivity of formats, video formats and future content forms such as AR, we need to think carefully about the role product plays in supporting newsrooms in their content creation.
How much should product be proactive with newsrooms to determine what formats are needed and “productised” so they can be used off the shelf without too much support? What are the stories that need specialised formats? And who decides how much resource is pumped into these?
The product team at the FT uses an approach of 80/5/15 where 80% of content is generated by the newsroom with no additional input needed from product/engineering (AKA plug and play); 5% is handcrafted content for big stories; 15% of content is new but built on the plug and play so that capabilities can be reused in future.
To delve into the product and newsroom “bridge” role, I turned to newsroom veteran Laura Hertzfeld. She has been behind incredible award-winning immersive storytelling such as Black Lives Matter Murals Appear Like Billboards for Justice with Yahoo, The LA Times, and the Yahoo News project The Things They Kept, as well as ran the ONA/Knight/Google News Lab project Journalism 360. You may also have read her Medium article The newsroom matchmaker, which touches on some of the same themes I am delving into here.
You have mostly had roles within the newsroom, but I see you as a product person. How do you interact with both departments to drive the business forward?
Hertzfeld: I’ve never quite fit in in a purely editorial role, and I am a bit too leaned in on the creative side to sit firmly in product either — and I don’t think I am that unique.
There are a lot of folks in journalism who have learned on the job what their limitations are in the newsroom and realised kind of later in their careers, “Hey wait, am I actually a product person?” Product needs to work together with not just editorial but marketing and social and the business side, as well to look at what’s ahead on the editorial and sales calendars, be prepared, and make sure the stories they are working towards have the right platforms available to tell them in a way that reaches the biggest audience.
I think on the product side, you should frame the conversation around opportunities to increase impact and have a good sense of the technological tools available to you so you can advise on what makes sense to use when. When it is worth taking a risk and when should you hold off or do more testing of a new build or platform?
How do you stay on top of all the different formats, what is suitable for which platforms and audiences?
Hertzfeld: I read a lot, and I stay on top of groups I’m in on LinkedIn and Facebook, like women in product and everything immersive. I subscribe to several substack newsletters that are fantastic, including Lia Haberman’s newsletter about the social content creator landscape and News Product Alliance.
I also try to play around with new tools as they come out. Recently, I’ve been experimenting with Dall-E and Midjourney AI tools, running news headlines through them to see what AI art instead of straight photography would look like.
Should media organisations start looking at using formats as core parts of their brand strategy? For example, being known for mastering certain formats such as short-form video or interactive graphics, or do all media companies need to have a solid mix?
Hertzfeld: I think it’s good to be aware of your team’s strengths and what the appetite is for experimentation. I would never discourage someone from trying out a new format for fun and seeing what sticks, but most news orgs don’t have the bandwidth to try everything.
I’d also be wary of conflating a format with a platform. Mastering short-form video doesn’t just mean being good at TikTok, especially if an audience there doesn’t translate to traffic to your own site. Know your audience and meet them where they are.
How do you brief the newsroom on these formats and decide what format to use for which story?
Hertzfeld: There are a few questions I ask myself and the team for each project:
What are the visual elements of the story? Would a different treatment help them come to life?
What’s our timeline and what pieces of the reporting are already in place/what’s missing and when will we get it?
Who is the audience for this piece, and is there a format or platform they might respond to better?
What’s been successful for this topic in the past?
Where will this piece live and for how long?
And how do you determine which formats current systems can support? How do we decide which formats a product organisation should be supporting in the longer term?
Hertzfeld: This is the toughest thing product teams face! Integrating new formats into legacy systems is at best not fun and at worst close to impossible. It’s often worth thinking about prototyping new product formats on a separate mini site so you aren’t fighting with your existing system for something that’s an experiment to help you decide if it’s worth integrating overall eventually.
Lastly, what are your top tips for product and newsroom teams to work together?
Hertzfeld: Don’t be surprised by predictable events. Plan and collaborate in advance for big projects you know are coming down the line: elections, holidays, awards ceremonies, etc. It sounds simple, but we all have had to scramble at the last minute before!
Tweet of the week
Since I’m talking about cross-organisation functions, it’s a reminder that neither myself nor likely anyone reading this is a true expert in management. Working cross company is HARD. I have been fortunate to have an executive coach in the past and cannot recommend it highly enough. In the interim, this is an incredible resource with a lot of good advice.
- INMA member Pieter de Smet wrote about his 5 learnings from a product management festival.
- A Media Operator piece on why we can’t depend on platforms anymore.
About this newsletter
Today’s newsletter is written by Jodie Hopperton, based in Los Angeles and lead for the INMA Product Initiative. Jodie will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global news media product.