3 media product managers share learnings along the product road map

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, USA


Who in a news media organisation gets to prioritise the product road map? Should it be by title, by department, by agreed metrics, or simply “bang for buck” demonstrable results in the short term?

At Ringer Axel Springer, there is a clear difference between a product owner and a product manager. In a live Meet-Up Webinar for INMA members on Thursday — the first as part of INMA’s new Product Initiative — Group Product Manager Marek Kopec explained this:

  • Project managers are responsible for overseeing a content product that is both an editorial and commercial success, built efficiently and functions well. They are responsible for the effective implementation strategy of the company.
  • The product owner is not a position within the structure — rather, it’s a role in the process, held by the most experienced product managers.

The new digital functional set-up at Ringier Alex Springer Polska

“We have a premium segment where we focus on monetisation through subscription model or transaction model,” Kopec said. “Other business units include e-commerce, RING platform, advertising, and big data. We work a lot in the metric structure to provide some shared solutions for all the brands.”

The heads of product are located inside the business units and play a very important role. Each managing director has three key people who report to him/her: the head of product, the editor-in-chief, and an IT leader. The head of product makes the majority of decisions about the product road map.

Ringier Axel Springer has a new digital functional set-up for product.
Ringier Axel Springer has a new digital functional set-up for product.

Kopec explained this is an important role created last year. Before that, all product teams were centralised: “The challenge we saw was that too often, product owners were pushed into coordinator roles — they became project managers.”

The company divides goal setting into two major segments: annual planning and an iterative quarterly rhythm. Because of the fast-changing environment, it’s often impossible to plan in advance for an entire year, so this two-step model works well.

The big-picture annual planning includes:

  • Annual strategic planning.
  • Decomposition of ambitions for strategic goals in common goals process.
  • Division of the limit and resources into segments.
  • Product prioritisation.

The quarterly planning consists of:

  • Quarterly review of the annual strategy.
  • Planning work.
  • Risk management.
  • Measurement by common goals.

 “The results from the first one was our strategic house, which is something we communicate to everyone in the company,” Kopec said.

This includes communicating the mission, which is to empower free decisions and the vision: that the publisher is an independent media and tech company leading in content and classifieds in CEE. This allows everyone in the company to work towards the same goals.

The quarterly product development cycle includes a quarterly business review of each segment, common goals, and priorities, as well as product updates.

Ringier Axel Springer's quarterly development cycle includes business reviews and product updates.
Ringier Axel Springer's quarterly development cycle includes business reviews and product updates.

Though the organisation is split into different business units, they all use a common platform for both publishing and advertising. In the past when these platforms were separate, it caused a lot of challenges and the process was also not fast or nimble enough.

“Very often it was stuck somewhere between product and platform teams,” Kopec said. “So what we are implementing from last year is the ‘LESS’ framework where we focus on feature teams.”

The product workflow inside each business unit includes tools that give different views of each story and product, and a project manager for all editorial needs. They all sit together bi-weekly to do the planning.

“We combined the teams with people from product, platforms, and specialists like designers and SEO teams, and they are all responsible for delivering specific tasks and bringing some value as defined by the product manager,” Kopec said.

The Dallas Morning News product timeline

Sylvia Borowski, director of digital products at The Dallas Morning News, led INMA members through the phases her team went through in its product timeline.

The organisation started this journey in 2018, and the planning phase went into 2019. This included getting business buy-in, defining the products, and defining decision-making around the Web site redesign.

They moved into the execution phase in 2019, launching the redesign. Today, Borowski said, the team is still evolving and maturing — which means it always remains open to change and improvement.

“As a small, single-title publisher, we owned our own tech,” she said in explaining where The Dallas Morning News was before these changes. This included a home-grown content management system and paymeter technology. The company outsourced product and development.

“Even then, we were counting on an outside agency to lead our product charge. We had one developer who could troubleshoot and deploy the code. No one owned the product, so everybody threw their pieces in. Our sales team had literally given up on selling ads on our own site, because they could offer better value and targeting by re-selling Google and Facebook.”

To change, the team started with research, funding the largest research study in the company’s history that covered print, digital, and hybrid.

“This was used to realign the newsroom staffing and digital product focus,” Borowski said. She shared what their journey to a product road map looked like. One major step was changing Mike Orren’s title, from division president to chief product officer.

The Dallas Morning News' journey to a product roadmap looked like this.
The Dallas Morning News' journey to a product roadmap looked like this.

“This was a message to the organisation that we were serious about this,” Borowski said. “At the same time, we defined what product meant to us. Product would support three key areas: the subscriber, the advertiser, and the content.”

Next, the team took a step back and got broad input from across the organisation. This was key considering that the next step was the somewhat controversial one to suspend democracy.

“We agreed across the board that from that point on, until relaunch day, that the product team had the only vote,” Borowski said. This might sound harsh, she added, but it allowed them to take the plan and move quickly and with total focus.

This isn’t necessarily the best way to conduct business in general, she admitted, but in this case it was the only way to truncate launch time and get from deficient to above-average at light speed.

The launch date was set as August 29, 2020. As part of the launch plan, they brought the agile process into the organisation. Goals included:

  • To be better organised.
  • Encourage lane-hopping.
  • Utility features to drive real-world interactions.
  • Put the company in a position of parity from which the team could innovate.

“The main goal was to bring us back into parity with our publisher equals,” Borowski said.

The product team was kept simple to organise efforts at lightning-fast speed. This meant a hub with one leader, Chief Product Officer Mike Orren, who reported directly to the company CPO. Borowski was under that, alongside the IT designer and developer, with other developers in the next level down. They also brought in partners to provide pieces outside their own capabilities.

The new Web site was launched with much fanfare and great results. The team had a goal for it to be 30% faster, but it was actually more than three times faster. Total reach went up more than 10%, and while total repeat visitors remained roughly flat but sessions went up by 50%.

So where did the team go from there, and what are the next steps?

The product team organisation changed a bit to allow for better focus on planning and execution. Democracy returned once they were out of the vital pre-launch phase.

The hierarchy of the product team at The Dallas Morning News has evolved.
The hierarchy of the product team at The Dallas Morning News has evolved.

Borowski advised other publishers to keep it simple because it works. She highlighted a few successes from the 2020 relaunch:

  • A new subscription system outsourced the plumbing.
  • Using AMP, there was an increase in mobile traffic of more than 20%, and mobile load is 65% faster.
  • Produced first guide on schools, which will lead the way and be a model for more guides.
  • SportsGraf included a new high school sports CMS, connected to LocalGraf.
  • Ad enhancements with Zeus brought improved viewability and CPM.
  • Partnered with Texas Tribune for U.S. presidential elections coverage.
  • Coronavirus pivots.

The core of The Dallas Morning News road map today is product lead, which decides what team works on each sprint. Goals are decided by the publisher and CPO, and they ensure that stakeholders weigh in with their priorities. Balancing these can be a difficult art, Borowski said.

“Every story that is put into our backlog has to have some kind of justification that it maps to the publisher goals,” she said. “We also have communication on completed work and tentatively planned work, and regular planning meetings within the product team, and just ongoing learning. No one is ever perfect, but we strive towards that and continue to learn daily.”

USA Today product road map prioritisation and capacity

With the merger last year between Gannett and Gatehouse Media, one of the core roles of the product team has been to evolve the whole network to a unified system so that a new, expanded network could leverage the best of both networks, explained Kara Chiles, vice president of consumer products at Gannett. 

“That is as daunting as it sounds,” Chiles told INMA members. “The logistics really were changing the system and unifying it top to bottom.”

One of the core considerations her team always brings into the product road map is how they are thinking through something that is scalable, reproducible, and is not a one-off.

When she started out with the product team, she said the road map was all over the place — disorganised, with an order-taker mentality and a lot of chasing shiny objects. It was really just a running list of things people had asked for.

“While that was a start, part of what we realised we needed to do with product organisation was really just show up as partners,” Chiles said. “And that’s partly how we evolved from being order takers to collaborators and really part of creating the great experiences that our newsroom put out to our audiences.”

This meant a lot of organising and simplifying, which often wasn’t easy but resulted in clarify and full transparency to all stakeholders. There was a full understanding that if the team wanted to change something or prioritise a new task, there was a clear picture of what those trade-offs would be for making the changes. There is also consideration of what the goals are for the change, what is hoped to be accomplished by it.

“Our marketing team now participates in this view,” Chiles said. “It’s not only product managers. It is really much more of a holistic view of what the work is intended to do.”

This new approach has also meant fewer surprises about when things would become available and expectations about how they would perform once released. To get there, Chiles shared three key things the Gannett team used to set priorities.

  • Level of effort: “You’re only as able to deliver as your development team is.”
  • Impact: “Tell us what you think it’s going to do.”
  • Timeliness: “Urgency is a critical piece.” Breaking news often drives this.

“Once we learned how to do develop capacity planning, our prioritisation came into a much sharper focus,” Chiles said. “Having set realistic expectations has been a game-changer for us.”

What the product team can actually get done is often very different from the requests it receives.
What the product team can actually get done is often very different from the requests it receives.

This means being able to say what they know with confidence they can get done, what they think they can get done, and just as importantly what they are not able to do.

The product team uses three things to set expectations:

  • Capacity.
  • Goals.
  • Time.

“We are the champions of the look-back,” she said. “As a news organisation, there is a bit of a tilt towards always looking to the next story, the next cycle. As the product part of the organisation, though, we think it’s equally important to say, ‘That thing we launched that was so important — is that still doing well?’ Those are some critical things to bring to the business around the next cycle of asks.”

Results are the teams’ favourite product, Chiles shared. Success factors from the merger into one unified system for the entire network included migrating 337 local Web sites to one platform, migrating 92 mobile apps to Euclid, and migrating 839 newsletters to Postino.

Gannett achieved some incredible results with its new product development roadmap.
Gannett achieved some incredible results with its new product development roadmap.

“We’ve also realised savings in our reporting metrics, in our vendor components, and in our integration of privacy and compliance,” she added.

Having the foundational structure helped the team achieve these daunting goals. The goals for 2021 are very different and more about the unknown. They will be focused more on subscribers, revenue growth, and new products.

About Shelley Seale

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