Who is in charge: Product or editorial?

By Jodie Hopperton


Los Angeles, California, United States


There is an undercurrent conversation I often hear — but is often not directly addressed — of who is ultimately in charge. Historically, newsrooms have had pretty free reign with the mantra “content is king,” so they have acted independently. Indeed at The Guardian, and a handful of other titles, the editor and CEO report separately into the board. “Why does that matter?” you ask. Because this is the cause of much tension and directly impacts the work of product teams that must sit across both to be successful. 

If editorial ultimately decides, product teams may be forced to act more like project managers, being asked to build something specific rather than being brought in early to help evaluate the initial problem of what is being solved (or indeed, what should be solved). And if product ultimately decides, they can insist on a little too much product discipline for the issue in hand.

Who decides a product's figure if editorial and product teams don't agree?
Who decides a product's figure if editorial and product teams don't agree?

Imagine this: The newsroom has an idea. They are excited about it and ask product to execute. Product may add some structural thinking and process, which at worst is a good sanity check and at best provides thorough structure in line with company goals. If the overall company goals and objectives are clear, we would expect there to be convergence between editorial ideas and product thinking. 

But what if product thinks it’s a terrible idea and editorial loves it? And what about all the ad hoc requests that can come out of a newsroom? (I see you product people rolling your eyes.)

That’s when hierarchy and process matter. 

In an ideal situation, the relevant people get into a room and make the decision based on overall impact and opportunity cost of other projects. But sometimes that isn’t practical, or the time/energy to do this outweighs the project itself. At the INMA World Congress, Cait O’Riordan pointed out that sometimes it’s more impactful to execute smaller projects. Larger projects can be riskier so need more thought and analysis.

An editor may have the upper hand in an organisation, but ensuring there is some product thinking and structure early on in the conversation can help avoid missed opportunities.  

If the company is product led, there must be scope for ideas to bubble to the surface and get executed on in a timely way — even that means letting go of some of the structured approach that they are used to. 

Ultimately, whoever is in charge must know when to apply pressure to get something done quickly versus when to take a structured approach, and they should value working relationships and excellent communication. And let’s not forget, the best leaders are the ones who make the other person think they have complete control all the while influencing with the right questions at the right time. 

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About Jodie Hopperton

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