The way product and technology intersect varies widely among news media companies. We take a deep dive this week into the topic and one case study.
How MediaNews Group creates buy-in for product
In a conversation with the head of product and technology, we learn some useful strategies for prioritisation and creating buy-in within an organisation.
Many other consumer industries implemented product teams long before news media. This can be an opportunity for us to learn from their experience and to hire people with it. U.S.-based MediaNews Group is one of the companies that has done that. CJ Jacobs came into news media from a product role in travel and bought some new product structure with her. CJ is head of product and technology at MediaNews Group (although she wouldn’t necessarily advise this — see below). Her first year has been focused on setting up a team and building relationships and trust through demonstrable results.
The company has around 100 newspapers and growth has come by incorporating new markets, meaning much is managed at a local level. The product structure has shifted from extreme decentralisation and is now aiming towards much more centralisation, but not all. The aim is to provide the efficiency of shared products and technology, while still allowing local expermination (with some guardrails).
She has implemented some smart product methods and strategies to gain stakeholder buy-in, including product managers that don’t report into her:
Shared tools: Everyone shares the same product roadmapping tool, Aha (which integrates with popular Agile software tool Jira). The tool breaks down the roadmap into three main areas: releases, initiatives, and goals. This gives everyone visibility to the roadmap and independence to the product managers to own their respective areas.
Product Club: CJ runs a “Product Club” every two weeks with all product managers, most of which report into her but not all. She sees communication as absolutely essential to the smooth running of a team, and the Product Club allows everyone involved to align strategies, goals, and roadmaps in an open forum.
Quarterly roadmapping: Starting with an ideas portal, in which ideas are then defined and refined, these are then added to the roadmap for more detailed planning. Each quarter, a high-level roadmap is sent out, splitting initiatives by customer segment (“all readers,” “subscribers,” “internal executives” to name a few). CJ is clear that the initiative and details need to be in plain language, giving the what, why, and current status, so anyone in the organisation can pick it up and understand it without having to wade through acronyms.
Quarterly Product Council: CJ is introducing a Product Council with key stakeholders from all MediaNews brands. The idea here is to meet quarterly to agree overall objectives and KPIs, letting everyone have a say and giving visibility to the process. This builds on open communication, giving specific time for feedback and discussion.
Longer-term horizons: Currently, there is annual planning specifically looking at the year ahead, but CJ is hoping to stretch this to three to five years so everyone is working towards the same long-term goals. The longer term would be split into long-term goals:
New technologies or platforms (such as AI).
Mid-term with technologies that are being adopted now (such as audio).
More specific plans for the year ahead, which should build towards the longer term objectives.
To note: CJ acknowledges that much of this is a work in progress and doesn’t profess to have everything right (do any of us have everything all wrapped up?!). She’s keen to engage with the INMA product community so if you have ideas, thoughts, or questions, you can find her on the INMA Slack Channel here.
Product & Technology
Expanding on one of CJ’s points about product and tech, reporting structures can look very different within organisations.
At MediaNews Group, technology reports into CJ. She’s fine with this, but thinks it could be more helpful to have a chief technology officer as a peer to debate and test theories with. Daniel Hallac — one of only a few people within news media to have held a chief product officer position at three organisations — also has had the CTO reporting into the CPO. He first had this format at New York Media and is a fan, as he believes the technology should be in service of the product.
Conversely, BuzzFeed has product reporting to technology. It seems a number of media organisations started out this way, with product managers being more delivery-led project managers and/or having dedicated people to interface with the other business divisions.
Another structure that appears to be common is to have separate product and technology teams that “map” to each other. This can be by platform, by brand, or a mix of both. In these cases, product managers and directors generally have a counterpart or team within the technology team who are working towards the same goals (how to set these goals will be a topic we look into deeper later in the year).
Mid-size to large organisations with multiple brands have an additional layer of complication to consider: How much is handled centrally and how much is done locally or at individual brand levels?
I’ve spoken with Tamedia in Switzerland, Bauer in Germany, Schibsted in Norway, and Verizon Media in the United States about this. It seems the ideal scenario is when most of the development is done centrally to avoid duplication, but locally a smaller number of developers can tweak products and/or experiment by building new ones that meet their brands needs.
Karl Oskar Teien at Schibsted in Norway sees this as a pendulum that swings backwards and forwards between brands/local and centralisation. There are benefits and trade-offs to each structure, so it depends on who is in charge and what the business priorities are at any given time.
For smaller organisations, tech teams can be exceptionally small and still develop and support excellent products. Mike Orren, chief product officer at The Dallas Morning News, argues the U.S. company is not in the software business and therefore has opted to buy in and/or share technology from third parties. The team works with a network of similar non-competing titles to develop and improve technologies (join us for my video Meet-Up on January 28 to talk with Mike and colleagues about product prioritisation; more here).
In summary, there is no one correct model. Business needs and structure will affect the best model to use for any given situation. We’ll be looking at overall organisational structures and how product interfaces and works with other departments in the coming weeks before we move to discuss defining and measuring goals and KPIs.
Tweet of the week
On the Product Initiative Slack channel, I shared a Twitter thread with advice for product managers from a product veteran who is now CEO of Threads. Here are a couple of tweets from the thread that reflect many of the conversations I’ve had with product leaders over the last few weeks and months.
Full thread here.
My ask this week: Tell us how you structure product and tech
Help us understand the different structures for product and technology by telling us — confidentially — which title or department does your product team report into? And who are the lead product person’s peers, particularly in technology and design?
Please let me know or share your org chart with me at email@example.com. All information will be collated by INMA, anonymized, and summarised back to the group in this newsletter and via the Product Initiative Slack Channel.
Date for the diary: Meet-Up on Thursday, January 28
The inaugural 90-minute video Product Initiative Meet-Up will be on Thursday, January 28, at 10:00 a.m.-11.30 a.m. New York time. We’ll be kicking off the first Product Initiative Webinar with a high-level look at differing team structures and the principles behind their decision process: Who gets to prioritise the product roadmap? Is it by title, by department, by user focus, or bang-for-buck demonstrable results on the short term?
In this Meet-Up, we look at three different approaches to decision-making around product — with Ringer Axel Springer Polska moving away from a centralised system to give individual brands more control; The Dallas Morning News, whose product team gathers information and then makes the calls; and Gannet, which uses a more metric-driven process.
Recommended reading and listening
Podcast: Julia Beizer on Building Product at Bloomberg Media (41 minutes) and short summary here (I recommend the podcast if you have time). Something simple she says that struck me: “The most important thing is listening.”
Article: What WIRED’s former editor discovered on a global quest for non-BS innovation. This is the TL;DR version of David Rowan’s “Non-Bullshit Innovation: Radical Ideas from the World’s Smartest Minds,” which is now on my reading list.