Bridge role between product and newsroom is key to internal collaboration

By Jodie Hopperton


Los Angeles, California, United States


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!

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About Jodie Hopperton

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