8 things I learned in moving from news to product

The newsroom, by Flickr user Rick Harris

The newsroom, by Flickr user Rick Harris

Two weeks after the 2014 Online News Association conference, I finally hit upon a topic for the session I should have pitched.

Let me back up: A little more than a year ago, I left the relatively comfortable confines of journalism — a place, squarely on one side of the church-state divide, where I’d spent nearly my entire career — for the strange new world of product management. I wanted to help my news organization make better digital products that would, I hoped, help pay for its journalism.

In the course of this transition, I absorbed a few kernels of truth I thought might be useful to those making the leap today (or those still on the news side who want to get along with their product colleagues).

Since I’m too late for the conference, I thought I’d deliver this talk — on what I learned in moving from news to product management* — in list format, taking a page from the folks at Buzzfeed.

*(Thanks to CNN’s Etan Horowitz for sparking this idea.)

1. ‘Process’ is not a dirty word.

Newsrooms are full of complex processes. They’re just so time-worn and embedded in the culture that it’s hard to identify them as processes at all. For journalists, they’re more like habits.

In product development, process is more defined, more deliberate, but not necessarily any more rigid or structured than it is in the newsroom. In fact, others have observed that agile, the widely used software development methodology, has a lot in common with the rhythms of a newsroom: Fixed deadlines, collaborative approach, emphasis on performance over planning, etc.

Why, then, are journalists so skeptical of the notion of process as it’s presented in product development terms? (I’ll admit: I was dubious myself.) My guess is it’s often the terms themselves that get in the way. Words like “scrum master” and “cadence” sound scary and foreign. (Though I guess non-journalists would feel the same about “slug” and “nut graf”.)

Not long into my product immersion, our CTO bought me this book on agile product management. (Yes, I learned agile from a book.) It’s a quick and easy read and effectively demystifies the terminology, bringing out agile’s elegant simplicity — a notion that should appeal to jaded journalists.

2. SMART goals are your friends.

It’s not enough to say, “I’m going to increase social traffic to my website.” If you don’t know how much and by when, all you have is a vague wish. You certainly don’t have any way of measuring your progress toward that goal.

Try this instead: “I will increase social traffic from 10% of article visits today to 20% within three months.” If, six weeks in, social represents 15% of your article traffic, you can say you’re halfway to your objective. Doesn’t that sound good?

So what is SMART? It’s just an acronym to help you remember to define your goals in ways that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound.

3. Technology should be an enabler, not a constraint.

An unfortunate dichotomy is in evidence in the way technology is seen in different parts of the enterprise: To the product manager, technology is the lever, the means by which a problem is solved. To the content creator, technology often is the problem that needs solving, the obstacle you learn to work around.

Years of technical debt in many news organizations have perpetuated this notion, so journalists today tend to view technology through the lens of what it cannot do: “The system I compose my story on won’t let me insert hyperlinks into articles.” (Hard to fathom, I know, but still true for some.) Or, “This article template won’t let me use a vertical photo in the main art spot.”

Meanwhile, if you ask a developer whether a certain piece of functionality can be made to work, the answer is invariably, “Sure, it’s possible,” hopefully followed by an estimate of the level of effort required to implement it.

The job of the product manager, of course, is to keep track of all those things that are possible, how much effort each will take and how urgently it is needed, and continually prioritize what should be done next — so that, hopefully, fewer end users (internally and externally) complain about the limitations of the technology and begin to see the value of iterative improvement.

4. No product is ever finished.

Another place where traditional journalistic practices and product development are at odds is in the notion of “finished”. There is a certain liberation in being able to hit “publish” and head home, knowing you’ve done an honest day’s work and produced something of value to the public — and then to be able to come back the next day and work on something new. For many journalists — even in the digital world — this is the reality.

In product development, though, launch doesn’t really signify the completion of anything but rather the beginning of the next phase of a product.

Also, in journalism, we publish only when a story is perfect, or pretty close. In product development, we release things before they’re even really finished. This is the goal of the “minimum viable product”, the notion that you should launch as soon as you have something that’s useful and valuable, and adjust your future development based on feedback on the initial version. After all, why spend months building a fully-formed, feature-rich product and release it to the world, only to learn that it isn’t at all what the world was waiting for?

How long does this cycle of design-built-test repeat? As long as the product is still alive. Try telling that to a reporter: “Your job is to just keep updating the same story forever.” (Then again, isn’t that kind of the idea behind Circa, as well as Vox.com’s card stacks?)

5. Strategy by vendor is not strategy.

I’m convinced that many news organizations have abdicated control over their destiny by outsourcing too much of their product strategy to alluring third-party products purpose-built for publishers.

On one hand, vendors enable news organizations to focus on what they do uniquely well — publishing news — and to hire out the technical work that is never going to be their forte, simultaneously benefiting from the combined investment of many publishers. (After all, how many times does an analytics tool or ad delivery system need to be built?)

But some functions are too important to leave to third parties. For example, how many revenue-sharing deals do we have to sign before we’ve learned that with each one we give up a little more of our ability to monetize our own audience.

Barriers to entry keep falling. Off-the-shelf technologies, with some modification and integration work, can solve many of the complex problems publishers previously relied on expensive purpose-built tools for. (Witness Journal Register’s Ben Franklin Project, for example, which I’ve praised previously.) Many of us essentially missed out on the democratization of technical innovation brought about by the open source movement, but it’s not too late to be part of this community and benefit from its work.

Another thing to consider in deploying third-party products is user experience. If you load up your pages with widgets and doohickeys, you will end up with microhate — those little annoyances that add up for users. (Hat tip to The Atlantic’s J.J. Gould for this evocative term.)

6. A single metric rarely tells the whole story.

Everybody can see the unfortunate effects of digital publishers’ obsession with a single metric — the impression — as the primary determinant of advertising value. It has turned content sites into Christmas trees, lit up with a thousand blinking, multi-colored ornaments. It resulted in photo-gallery pageview padding, pointless article page pagination and the vast right-rail wastelands you see on so many sites. It is why most publishers still chase clicks instead of actual engagement, which in turn has led them to value catchy headlines over quality content.

And ultimately, it’s our reliance on this measurement that has caused the perverse oversupply and collapse in value of digital display ad inventory. All because we equated impressions, which are infinitely inflatable, with attention, which is finite and the thing advertisers actually want to buy. (Gradually, we see sanity prevailing, but it’s taken us two decades to get there.)

Variations on this story are repeated on a daily basis, though usually with less enduring effects, in business scenarios around the world. Focusing on one metric at the expense of others oversimplifies the problem being measured and often leads to new ones. This is why you should always be on the lookout for the potential unintended consequences of each metric you use.

7. Your perspective is valuable.

When you find yourself in a meeting about some aspect of the business — a new ad product, let’s say — and you look around the room and realize you’re the only person there who has ever worked in a newsroom, your first instinct might be to lean back and let the businesspeople do their thing. Don’t do this.

Almost as often as I’ve had to push back against business initiatives that didn’t make sense from a journalistic perspective, I’ve seen colleagues censor good ideas in order to avoid any possibility of running afoul of the high priests in the newsroom. And while you can’t necessarily represent your journalist colleagues if you work in product, you can speak with some authority about journalistic values and priorities. As a product manager in a news organization, your most valuable asset might be your understanding of the organization, its capabilities and its limitations.

8. The mission still matters.

It’s a truism among journalists that we’re not in this business for the money. Most of us are drawn in some way to the public service mission, even if what we do on a daily basis doesn’t always look like public service. Even many non-journalists working for news companies, I’ve discovered, are there in part because they like the notion of working for an organization that’s shining light in dark corners and contributing to the betterment of a community.

Especially if you work in a large organization, with disparate departments that often don’t get along, you can use this shared sense of purpose to find common ground and unite people.

And uniting different kinds of people in pursuit of a shared goal is perhaps the most important thing that product managers do.

Libraries: An appreciation

If I couldn’t be a journalist, I think I’d be a librarian. I decided this after spending a lot of time in libraries in the last couple of years and interacting with some very smart (and completely unstuffy) librarians.

Maybe it’s because, as it turns out, journalists and librarians have a lot in common.

Fundamentally, we’re both interested in making information useful and meaningful to the widest possible audience. Beyond that, practitioners in both fields are committed to public service, free speech, open access, transparency in sourcing, etc.

Librarianship might not be the hippest profession — one more thing we share, I suppose — though, as my former LAT colleague David Sarno points out, this is changing.

Librarians with an eye to the future speak not of books but of an information commons — an open network of places, both physical and virtual, where people come not just to receive knowledge but to create and share knowledge with others.

In the U.S., public libraries are seeing record numbers of visitors. Even circulation is up.

Unfortunately, budgets are down. Libraries are a convenient target for cash-strapped local governments looking to save money.

But cuts to public libraries, especially in bad economic times, are short-sighted. They hit job seekers, community groups and people engaged in independent study, among others.

It’s time civic leaders took a closer look at libraries and the services they provide and imagine how much poorer our society’s information commons would be without them.

Photo: Seattle Central Library by Flickr user pmorgan (Creative Commons)

What I’ve learned in England (so far)

"Look right"

I’ve been in the U.K. for about a week now — long enough to feel guilty for neglecting my blogging duties, but not long enough to really get my head around what’s going on over here.

I was in Preston last week for the Journalism Leaders Programme at the University of Central Lancashire, where I met journalists from Europe and Africa and heard some familiar stories about change-averse newsroom culture. I also visited newsrooms in Liverpool and Birmingham and listened as editors described the very real changes taking place there.

Some trends I’ve observed in the process:

In posts over the next few days, I’ll try to elaborate on each of those points. Meanwhile, here are some happenings in the U.K. media world that have spawned dinner-table conversation in the past week:

Next: England’s Twitter explosion

Photo by Charles Collier via Flickr

‘Killing local news’? I doubt it

I rarely opine about the print side of the newspaper industry, because it’s not my area of expertise and I don’t usually read printed newspapers. But humor me:

As part of its continued downsizing, the Los Angeles Times has announced that it’s getting rid of the standalone California section and folding local news into the front section. Reactions are predictably negative, with one Twitterer deducing that the Times is “killing local news.” I don’t think it’s that cut-and-dried. The Times has obviously done a poor job of explaining this move, but to me it is defensible.

Combining all the paper’s general-interest news into a single section could be a good thing for several reasons:

  • A unified A section means the paper is finally putting local news where it belongs: front and center. Nothing is more important to the paper’s long-term success than local news, so relegating most California stories to an inside section always seemed a bit unfair to me.
  • Since there are already a lot of local stories in the A section, it makes sense to put the rest there too. Honestly, hardly anybody outside the newspaper industry understands why some local stories go in the A section and the rest appear in the local news section. It’s needlessly confusing.
  • People are going to have to get used to smaller newspapers; economic realities dictate it. So rather than print a bunch of anemic 4-page sections, why not do fewer, beefier ones and save some money in the process? (This of course presumes that the total number of pages doesn’t decrease substantially. I’ve seen no official word yet on how much news space is likely to be lost. If the local news hole shrinks as a result of this move, then I’ll retract this defense and join the chorus of outrage.)
  • One alternative that’s been mentioned, merging business and local news into a single section, doesn’t feel right to me because the two are thematically different. Local news is general; business is, well, specific. Meshing the two on a single section front could confuse readers. On the other hand, readers are already quite used to seeing local news merged with national and foreign on A1.
  • This solution, even if it puts some people off, feels more palatable journalistically than other alternatives, which might include even more editorial staff cuts or the closing of additional bureaus.

It’s too bad this news comes at the same time as the announcement that 70 more Times journalists will walk out the door. That will hurt. Juggling pages is comparatively painless.

Distinctions that no longer matter

Today in Brussels, I sneaked into the kickoff seminar for the European Blogging Competition, at which about 90 bloggers and would-be bloggers, representing every European Union nation, are getting a crash course in E.U. politics and blogging techniques.

Good panelists, good Q&A. But oddly, one of the liveliest discussions revolved around this old question: Is blogging journalism? (It’s a question that, in my view, misses the point. Blogs are simply a platform, much like newsprint, on which journalism can be produced.)

What was really being discussed, I think, was the difference between independent and affiliated journalists, or between amateurs and professionals, or between traditional and non-traditional news sources. And there, the distinctions are increasingly hard to make.

To use U.S. analogies: Is a reporter for TechCrunch independent or affiliated? Is The Huffington Post amateur or professional? Should we trust a scoop on TPM Muckraker less or more than a scoop in the New York Post?

Some in the audience seemed set on drawing a line between the journalism produced by paid journalists working for traditional news organizations and that produced by “bloggers.”

People wrongly conflate “traditional” with “credible.” (Of course, a strong brand will always bring cachet, but there are new strong brands emerging all the time.)

In a few years, nobody will care whether a website has (or had) a legacy print or broadcast product attached. What matters in the long run is the quality of your work, as judged by your audience, and the credibility that quality brings you.

It took me a while to understand that.

Also today: Nice talk on standing out in the blogosphere from Clo Willaerts, who crowdsourced her presentation in advance on Twitter.

The actual blogging in the European Blogging Competition (sponsored by the European Journalism Centre, where I interned 6 years ago) begins Feb. 1.

Separating signal from noise on Twitter

Results of a Twitter search on earthquake near:"Los Angeles" within:15mi

By now a lot of people in the media have discovered how to use Twitter as a promotional tool, judging from the growing number of auto-generated messages populating (polluting?) the Tweetstream.

But I think relatively few journalists are actually listening to what the community is saying. Which is a shame, because this is our audience talking. And the conversation is often more transparent, more sincere and more insightful than what you see on news sites’ forums and comment boards.

(I should note that I’m a relative Twitter novice, and I welcome the opportunity to get schooled if I’m totally off base in what I’m about to say.)

Steve Yelvington (who, incidentally, was helming startribune.com when I was an intern there more than a decade ago), describes Twitter this way:

It’s like a big caffeine party. Everybody’s talking at once. Really fast.

But you have magic ears.

You only hear the people you want to listen to, and the people who are saying something directly to you.

That is Twitter’s great promise, but it’s also where I think the microblogging behemoth comes up short. Because two things happen when you’re listening only to the people you want to hear:

  • They say a lot of things you don’t care about.
  • You miss all the good stuff they’re not talking about.

So, how can journalists separate the useful stuff from the chatter on Twitter? There are some technological answers to this question. Here are a few I’ve found:

  • Twitter advanced search: Sure, everybody knows about Twitter search, but the advanced search options can be a pretty effective way to cut through the noise. For a simple example, try this: earthquake near:”Los Angeles” within:15mi (The geographic search makes use of the place name that users set in their profiles as a geotag for each of their tweets. Imperfect, but it’s a start.)
  • TwitScoop: See what’s trending in real time. In the future, I imagine a local version of this (limited to tweets in a particular geographic area) on a big display on the wall of every newsroom.
  • TweetDeck: A beautiful app (built with Adobe Air, for good compatibility karma) that lets you follow multiple subsets of the tweetstream (your replies, custom searches, etc.) in real time. If you cover a beat, why not set up a few custom searches on the topics you follow and see what people are saying?

And then there are some things I wish I could do with Twitter that, as far as I know, aren’t possible yet. Here’s this journalist’s wish list for Twitter and third-party developers:

  • Better geographic tools, so it’s easier for tweeters to update their location and for searchers to filter geographically. Community news sites could benefit from this.
  • The ability to create running searches across a subset of Twitter users. Let’s say you cover technology and are following a few key sources and want to know whenever one of your sources posts about Yahoo. There might be a tool that enables this, and if so, maybe somebody can enlighten me.
  • The ability to find conversations that mention a particular URL. Seems like it would be useful (and not just for ego purposes) to know what people are saying about the content you create. Twitturly does a good job of showing which URLs are most popular overall, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t let you specify a URL to examine.

So, what are your techniques for separating signal from noise on Twitter? And while you’re at it, what would you add to the wish list?

Incidentally, if you’re new to the Twitter thing, here are some good posts to get you going. And for a contrarian point of view on the whole signal-to-noise thing, check out Scoble. (Or, maybe he’s mainstream and I’m the contrarian? [Shudder])

Ironic flashback photo of the day

YOU Own This Place Now!

Above: Los Angeles Times employee entrance, Dec. 21, 2007. Those signs seemed a bit disingenuous even then, given the structure of the deal to take the Tribune Company private. Now they seem, well, ridiculous.

Update: Ex-Daily News ed Ron Kaye’s thoughtful reaction to TribCo’s bankruptcy filing: It’s the beginning of the end for newspapers, but it’s also a great time to be a consumer/creator of news online. Not sure I’m quite as pessimistic as he is on the first point, but I totally agree with him on the second. (Hat tip: @busblog)