What we learned about product in 2022

By Jodie Hopperton


Los Angeles, California, United States


Thank you for being part of the INMA Product Initiative throughout 2022. This week, in the ultimate newsletter of the year, I want to take a look back at three of the areas we’ve been looking into to see what we’ve learnt. 

I very much appreciate the time many of you have taken to speak with me, sharing your wisdom and insights over the past year. This goes double for the INMA Advisory Council members, who have dedicated time to candidly share what they are working on, the issues they are having, and the breakthroughs they have made. You can see more about this group below. 

If I may have one Christmas wish from you it is this: Could you take 30 seconds to give me some feedback on this newsletter and/or the initiative as a whole? There’s a (very) short form here

Have a wonderful holiday season, and we’ll be back with more early January. 


The INMA Product Initiative set out three areas of focus for 2022.
The INMA Product Initiative set out three areas of focus for 2022.

Objective 1: Managing (what appear to be) conflicting product objectives

When this initiative started, I was convinced I would be able to outline a couple of different ways to structure product within the organisation. I was wrong. There are just too many ways to slice and dice product. Which means that there is no magic bullet. A product structure has to work for the organisation, hierarchy, and culture (even within the subculture of leaders).

The No. 1 factor of success is having a clear (set of) goal(s) that everyone can articulate. There are two main approaches that seem to work for the news industry:

Firstly, North Star Metrics. The FT led the way with this approach, and it has been incredibly effective for them. Take a look at Lucy Butler’s simple explanation of them and how they relate to product here:

The approach at the Financial Times is North Star-centered.
The approach at the Financial Times is North Star-centered.

The New York Times had a clear objective: hit 10 million paid subscribers. Everyone in the company understood this and it helped individuals and the team prioritise what needed to be done to meet this goal. They hit that goal ahead of schedule in February 2022. 

However outside of single titles, this approach may be too simplistic to be effective. 

Many organisations are having more success with a framework that comes out of Silicon Valley, John Doers “measure what matters” OKR approach (Objectives and Key Results). This is a straightforward concept to understand (check this presentation that takes you through it with examples from the Simpsons) but can quickly get complex for multi-title and multinational organisations.

One multinational organisations told me they have worked hard to get global OKRS from 17 to nine objectives for the organisation, but that’s before you get to department and team OKRs. How do you track matrixed top level and team OKRs to ensure everything knits together? Another organisation said they had seen mixed success with OKRs: “Teams have accepted them as a way of tracking, but the actual adherence and reporting of them is still fragmented and doesn’t necessarily ladder up to strategic intent.”

You can see Conde Nast’s approach to setting and managing OKRs with Katharine Baily’s presentation here.

It’s not easy, but these two approaches seem to be the best way of aligning goals and, therefore, are making it a little easier to avoid conflict in objectives. 

During the past year, I also got some great insights into tips and tricks for managing conversations and meetings. But even with the best tools in the world, sometimes we just need to stick our necks out and do something bold, taking out the risk that too many watered down opinions can lead to a bland product. You can read more about both of these topics here.

Objective 2: Building customer-informed products

I think we all like to think we are “customer led,” but what does that actually mean? How do we actually put our customers first? Are we really listening to them?

Almost all of you reading this will say, “Yes, we have data!” And boy do we have a lot of data. But that doesn’t mean we are using it effectively. Firstly, we need to make sure we understand what the data is actually telling us. Are your product managers data literate? How good are they at translating that into real customer behaviour analysis and understanding their needs? 

Importantly, at a company level, we need to ask ourselves if we are sharing the data we have effectively. Access to customer insights and market research can be a challenge internally. There isn’t a single approach to determine where data sits, who has access to what, and how we make sure our teams are getting the right information to allow them to do their jobs.

In many organisations, this information is bottlenecked with one team. We need to strike the balance of giving access to people that need it and having trained data scientists and analysts to go beyond our day-to-day needs. For some examples of how this is being done, including the data academy at Dow Jones, check out this article

One question I keep going back to is whether the pendulum has swayed too much towards data. Do we need reminders that qualitative information can tell us a lot more and contextualise a lot more? Talking to customers and watching them use our products teaches us so much. Just take a look at Riske Betten’s presentation on taking the complexity out of customer data at Mediahuis NL here.

And the benefit of qualitative research really hit home learning about HuffPost’s listening tour with Hillary Frey. That was a clear demonstration of how impactful it was to the organisation to go out and connect back to people, human to human.

A number of product people have also told us how they get quick and dirty feedback by talking to people on the subway or in pubs. Most of the time, it seems you can get a good sense without needing to get into nitty gritty detailed feedback, ideal for early experiments and prototypes. 

There are so many ways to understand our customers. We need to figure out which approaches and tools fit which scenario. And while we’re getting better at putting customers first and thinking through user journeys end to end, we need to remain focused on how we transform these insights into actionable product development.

Objective 3: How we go beyond traditional news to become part of customer lifestyle

The New York Times has built up the cooking app, games (with the notable acquisition of Wordle this year), not to mention the acquisitions of Wirecutter and The Athletic. Part of their 10 million subscriber goal was to create a digital subscription bundle that could be used in a number of parts of a customer lifestyle, a smart move that is paying off.  This led me to ask the question of whether this may spark a new trend. 

Legacy newspapers traditionally covered a lot of lifestyle areas beyond: TV guides, weather, classifieds, jobs, horoscopes, obituaries, and more. Yet the reliance on a newspaper seems to have decreased dramatically. The Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford did a study of local news users. In the UK (left) there is a much heavier reliance on search/Internet and social than Norway (right), where local newspapers have held ground.  

The Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford study of local news users in the United Kingdom.
The Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford study of local news users in the United Kingdom.

The Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford study of local news users in Norway.
The Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford study of local news users in Norway.

Similarweb shows the top free iPhone app downloads in the category of news are not news brands as we would likely consider them:  

Top free iPhone "news" app downloads per similarweb.
Top free iPhone "news" app downloads per similarweb.

Here we can see there is a trend towards more single purpose apps such as Citizen and Police Scanner for crime and Nextdoor for community.  

This leads me to believe there are two main schools of thought:

  1. A focus on news as a single purpose app. 
  2. A focus on news adjacent products and services for growth (cooking, puzzles, information services are of note here).

Riske Betten at Mediahuis NL shared this slide during a presentation, showing that while they looked into different growth potential, the top “user needs” came out very news focused.

Research at Mediahuis NL found users are quite focused on news.
Research at Mediahuis NL found users are quite focused on news.

As she notes on box 6, it doesnt mean they want it; it means that they think they don’t. So maybe as we understand customers better, try more things, and move more towards personalised experiences, we should add a third school of thought: an amalgamation of the above into a single feed based on the users needs.

Date for the diary: tomorrow 

I’ll be hosting a discussion 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, about how news has been fragmented and how we should help users navigate that. 

Damon makes the point that not all news and information is equal, but it all looks the same when shredded and thrown at readers. And when readers are left to have to manage that, the cognitive load required leads many people to tune out. Join this free one-hour meet-up Wednesday morning to explore what our role is in trying to bring these fragments together through UX and other product tools.

Tweet of the week

In lieu of my usual tweet of the week, I’d like to give a shout out to the INMA Advisory Council. We appreciate you!

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.

This newsletter is a public face of the Product Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Jodie at jodie.hopperton@inma.org with thoughts, suggestions, and questions. Sign up to our Slack channel.

About Jodie Hopperton

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