How much editorial know-how do product people need in news?

By Jodie Hopperton


Los Angeles, California, United States


This is a question that comes up time and time again in the Product Initiative, alongside “how much technical experience do product people need?” Product teams are growing, so it’s natural that we should question the skill sets and experience levels we should be looking for. Here are a few observations that may help you hire the right people for the roles you have. 

Let’s begin by looking at the make-up of product teams at the moment. If we go back to the survey we ran with INMA members at more than 60 companies from 25 countries last December, we asked: “Have you previously worked in another department within a news organisation? Please select all that apply.” Almost 50% come from the newsroom, 30% from marketing, and 26% from technology or revenue/advertising. It’s clear that many different experiences are represented. 

Data from a December 2020 INMA survey showed which news departments product employees worked in before moving to product.
Data from a December 2020 INMA survey showed which news departments product employees worked in before moving to product.

Now let’s consider the needs of a product team as a whole. The above makes sense as a product team needs to work across all departments. Being able to tap into varying experiences and look at all angles of a problem within your team is invaluable. A well-rounded team will be able to bring different insights and perspectives, which makes for a more robust solution. Deep experience can also help dig into an area and build trust with colleagues quicker, which makes the whole product process move more quickly. 

But you don’t hire a team as a whole; you hire individual roles. While product is a discipline in itself, an understanding of the products they are working on is essential. If we consider products in the four categories below, each product type and role within that will need different knowledge and skill sets. 

The four categories of product require different skill sets.
The four categories of product require different skill sets.

For example, a product lead for the Web or mobile will need an understanding of technologies you use. They are likely to spend a lot of time working with engineers, so they must be able to understand what is feasible and be able to speak the same language to devise solutions. In these cases, it’s similar to hiring for tech roles: You wouldn’t hire an Android developer to work on your Web site. 

If you are hiring for a product lead to focus on growth or engagement, the technical skill set may not be as necessary. Here you may want to focus on an understanding of tools and techniques that can be deployed. The New York Times has hired from outside the news industry to bring in fresh perspectives, including an executive from mobile game developer Zynga. Tapping into the gaming community, which is arguably the best at developing engagement outside of social media, is becoming more common (budgets aside, which is a conversation for another day).

You’ll notice that in neither of these examples mentioned editorial know-how. In many of the companies I speak to, they recognise that they already have those specialists in-house — the newsroom itself. What I hear more is that they want to see an affinity with the product. Is it something they want to work on and are passionate about improving? 

And lastly, in an entirely non-scientific survey with product leaders around the world, the top skill they look for is excellent communication skills. Product people influence and need to be able to navigate the needs and personalities within a number of different departments. Although this is the last point in the post, perhaps it should be the first in your hiring.

Here is the TLDR summary for defining the skills sets and experiences you need:

  • Consider the essential needs: Team members need the ability to work within product methodologies, a focus on the customer, and excellent communication skills.

  • Think carefully about the role you are hiring for: In particular, who they will interact with and what systems they are likely to be using should help define skill sets and knowledge needed. 

  • Go wide: You may find that hiring from outside is the smartest move for your needs.

  • Affinity to the product: Experience with news/editorial is not needed, but some level of passion towards the product is.

  • Look at the team as a whole: A mix of backgrounds and experiences will enable you to build robust solutions. What holes do you have now?

And if you want some great questions to ask in an interview, check out The Ultimate List of Product Manager Interview Questions on Product School

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About Jodie Hopperton

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