Does Your Newsroom Need a Product Manager?

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In 2015, Professor Cindy Royal dubbed product management “the new journalism,” predicting that media organizations would soon catch onto something she’d been mulling over for a while: that product management would be embraced as a “relevant and critical career path.” Turns out she was right. Newsrooms are starting to learn it’s exactly the role they didn’t know they’d been missing.

In the midst of a slew of new newsroom roles, the product manager drives the building of digital products like apps, bots, newsletters, and digital and data presentations. While those emerging from a legacy newsroom might continue to shrug off the role as “tech support,” Royal argues that “the audience-centric nature of these technology products makes them as much journalism as traditional stories.”

Publications like The Washington Post recently added new roles to standardize digital responsibilities, while October’s ONA17 conference in Washington, D.C. dedicated a session — “We’re ~Journalists~ Too: Embracing Your New(ish) Newsroom Role”—  to the topic. GIJN member organizations and other innovative newsrooms around the world should take note. As investigative journalists increasingly use complex data, collaborative platforms and interactive technology, the importance of working with a product manager will only grow.

Professor Cindy Royal

Royal, founding director of the Media Innovation Lab at Texas State University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, will be teaching a free, four-week online course in product management for journalists through the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, beginning October 16.

Joining her is Aron Pilhofer, former executive editor of digital for The Guardian and former editor of digital strategy at The New York Times, and Becca Aaronson, a product manager at The Texas Tribune.

Royal spoke to GIJN’s managing editor, Tanya Pampalone, about the role of the product — not a project! — manager and why digital newsrooms are going to be seeing more of them.

A lot of people think the newsroom project manager and product manager are the same position. What’s the difference?

Sometimes the terms project and product management are used interchangeably. But they are different roles, even if they are handled, in some manner, by the same person. Project management is specifically focused on delivering project functionality — features, scheduling their execution, and making sure a timeline is adhered to. Product management encompasses the broader strategic implications of the entire digital product.

Why should this role be taught in journalism school and not in the tech department?

I have been speaking for some time about how technology skills need to be taught across the university. All disciplines have problems that can be solved with technology, but they require people who both understand the domain and technology’s potential. In journalism, this is how we communicate, and the platforms we now use influence strategy, competitors, scale and user behavior.

What do investigative journalists need to understand about this role and why it is important for what they do?

ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs

Investigative journalists are increasingly using data and data presentations to support their activities, which is evident in projects like ProPublica’s “Dollars for Docs.”

The New York Times’ coverage of Hurricane Irma shows the complexity and value of data and interactive presentations. Having a product approach will allow them to be more in touch with people’s needs for data and help them make sense of it. It will also allow them to collaborate across teams, so that more complex projects can be built with design and programming represented.

Tell us about your own journey toward naming this amorphous thing that newsrooms began to need in the move to digital.

I wanted to get more involved in studying the changes in media caused by the internet and web and began my doctoral studies at the University of Texas. Around 2008, I started seeing organizations like The New York Times developing interactive data projects. These projects required more advanced coding skills and data analysis, but were still considered journalism.

I met the head of one of the departments that created these projects, Aron Pilhofer, now my co-instructor for this course.

Aron Pilhofer

In 2009, I spent a week with his team researching their backgrounds and processes, which was later published in the #ISOJ Journal. As digital products became more varied and complex, I started seeing organizations implementing product management techniques. Last year, I did a research project interviewing people in a range of product positions, which was also published in the #ISOJ Journal.

Ultimately these concepts influenced a new degree in our program. We launched the Digital Media Innovation and Mass Communication major in 2016, and we already have more than 190 students who have enrolled.

If you had to draw up a job description for a product manager, what would it say?

It will vary based on the organization and the product they will be leading. Publications like Quartz have long focused on emerging product management roles to coordinate their products and the Texas Tribune hires journalists into data and design roles.

While, depending on the product, there is some technology knowledge assumed, one needs to be able to understand the organization’s mission and be able to communicate with technology personnel. In a journalism organization, there has to be attention to journalistic ethics and sensibilities built into digital products, so it requires a broad background and expertise.

Editors often manage expansive projects with multiple facets and people from various departments. What’s the difference here?

Editors have been doing these jobs as they have taken on responsibilities for more complex digital products. But the skills one needs to manage a digital product are different than those needed for a traditional editor. It is more like doing software development, but with a strong emphasis on content. So the product management process and terminology are borrowed from the technology industry. There are concepts like agile methodology that encourage short development sprints and design thinking which provides tools to better understand users’ needs and means that whatever is created has the user in mind. 

Product Management for Journalists is free, entirely on the internet and asynchronous; there are no live activities, so participants can complete the course in days and times that are most convenient. It starts October 16 and ends November 12, 2017. Register now to reserve.


Tanya Pampalone is GIJN’s managing editor. Prior to joining GIJN, she wrote for US News & World Report, taught digital story-telling at the University of the Witwatersrand and edited for Pan Macmillan South Africa. Tanya is former executive editor of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian and was head of strategic partnerships and audience development for The Conversation Africa. She is based in Johannesburg.

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