Espen Sundve
Written by Espen Sundve
Published 2015-04-01

Product Management In Media

Media companies where journalists and technologists don’t get on the same page regarding product and product management will die.

Tl;dr — Unless media companies step it up and totally change their view and abilities on product management, they will be eaten by tech and new players. Only those that fully embrace that product management in media is the intersection between journalism, user experience, software, data and analytics will thrive.

The ability media companies have to innovate and compete in this tech-eats-everything-world is fully dependent on how they view product and product management. As of now, it seems very few (traditional) media companies are able to agree on these terms internally.

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New players, like Buzzfeed and Vox seems to get it — so now is the time for the rest to fully appreciate that product innovation in 2015 is not just about journalism and technology side by side — its about the absolute integration of journalism with user experience, software engineering, data and analytics; led by a new generation media managers - product managers in media.

I’ve embarked on this mission, but I need your help to adjust the course.

I thought I knew what Product Management was — no matter where

I’ve always thought of myself as a decent product manager. A product manager that build and ship technology empowering and engaging users through amazing experiences (and of course, makes the world a better place — like they always say in Silicon Valley).

But in all seriousness, I’ve enjoyed doing the things a product managers is responsible for: Managing the product by setting product vision, prioritizing what to do next and ensuring we shipped things; using insights and data, well defined hypothesis and experiments, lean and agile methods —thereby solving real and big problems for people (or failing to do so).

I’ve concerned myself with research, design, code, analytics, marketing, sales, communication and more. All to ensure we did the right things, and I guess that’s what made me a pretty good product manager. That is, a product manager the way the world of (consumer) technology defines it.

I thought product management in the digital world was given.

Then, last fall, I took a job as Chief Product & Technology Officer in a media company. Not just any media company. I joined VG, a news company constantly winning awards for its ability to innovate digitally. A news company so big in Norway that only tech-giants like Facebook and Google are larger in terms of traffic and reach.

Now I (need to) think differently.

The challenge with innovation in media starts with different views on “product”

All of a sudden, what was pretty clear to me regarding definition of product and how one should effectively manage it, became really hard to grasp as I left tech-play and entered media — where this is almost totally undefined.

(It still is).

In recent years, tons of tech-driven content platforms and products have emerged (like Instagram, Twitter, Flipboard, Spotify etc.). These companies have since birth been extremely concerned with defining what their product and/or platform is or is not — a critical exercise for any startup.

Similar to media companies, great content is a key component in their product offering when engaging users. However, for tech-platforms the creation and curation of content is done by users, and in this lies the core difference between how tech and media view product. I’ll get back to that.

Ask any journalist or editor what the product is, and then turn to a software engineer or UX-designer in the same building and ask the same question. You will not get the same answer; and this cause total disconnect in the joint ability to innovate and create stunning new products.

Journalists and content managers consider the content to be the product. Great journalism. Big stories. Nothing less, nothing more. Technologists consider it to be the technology to create, curate and distribute the content.

Side note: If you happen get the same answer from journalists and technologist when asking what the product is; invest your money in this media company.

Content management vs. product management — and how they converge

Working as a product manager for marketplace platforms for several years, I was indeed concerned with content creation and curation. However, I could only have an indirect impact on content quality and quantity — as I never controlled the end users the way an editor controls journalists.

This has led me to think and manage the product differently than my new colleagues in media. Here, most managers are primarily concerned with managing the content, and only the content, as the content is considered to be the product. They have left little or no concern to the way it’s consumed or distributed, or how it fosters engagement and co-creation.

Now these worlds converge. Product managers have to become great content managers; and content managers have to become better product managers. In order to do so, we first have to be aware of the traditional disconnects — so that we can understand each other before joining forces.

Disconnect #1: Toolset

Content managers like journalists and editors can directly impact the quality and quantity of the content. That’s what they do. They create articles. They curate these on a front page. Then most of them expect you to come to them to consume this; their product.

Improving their product is all about improving the content and how they curate it. This they can do by hiring better journalists, investigate more, learn what is considered important and impactful, and get better software and tools for creation and curation.

Being a product manager, my tools for improving the product and its content — via its users — have been very different. My “tools” have been customer insights, design & user experience, functionality, algorithms, scalable technology, data and analytics. Only by improving along these lines could I empower users to create, discover, consume and engage with better content; thus ultimately create a better product.

Disconnect #2: Time horizon

Content is fresh goods; it rarely evolves over time. Media content like news doesn’t last very long. It typically has a half life of very few hours or days from when it’s created to when it’s consumed. With such short cycles, a content manager is primarily concerned with now. Today. Tomorrow.

This very short time perspective a content manager has differ greatly compared to a product manager for tech having roadmaps and iterations.

Technology evolves over time. Whenever I made a strategic choice, prioritized and launched something as a product manager; it was always under the assumption that it would last until a future iteration improved it (or analytics told us to kill it).

My key concern would be to ensure great user experience in how users could create, discover and consume content — and I had the future as my time horizon when improving upon this.

Times are changing

Content management is no longer just about creating a piece of text and allowing users to find this on a front page. It’s becoming a game in which one needs to master creation, curation and engagement with a whole new set of tools. A toolset very similar to the toolset I have as a product manager.

Vise versa, product management in tech-driven content platforms seek experience from traditional editors and content managers. This was true when I worked with online marketplaces, and companies like Facebook seems to hire along the same lines.

As the world of content and product management converge, it’s really important for every media player to refine the way they manage their products. Be it both the content and the way it is created, curated, discovered and engaged with.

I think Paul Smalera covers this well in his post; Editor, Product Manage Thyself, but unless the entire media organization change they way it thinks of and support product management, it won’t be able to win.

What should Product Management in media be?

In VG, where I work, we have a simple idea about this: Product management in media is the perfect hybrid of content management from journalism and product management from tech. It’s not journalism and technology side by side (like it is in most media companies). It’s the hybrid of these.

A new generation media managers is needed. As we’ve decided to embrace product management as the hybrid between journalism and technology, so must our product managers.

If it’s hard to find great product manager in tech, finding our hybrid is almost impossible. However, when searching for product managers in media we need to look for someone who can be ultimately responsible for:

  • Setting content and product strategy
  • Prioritizing what to write and build next
  • Execute to ensure great content, design and code is shipped

To deliver upon all of the above, the product managers need to be, or aspire to be, in the horribly narrow bullseye in the Venn diagram below. A Venn diagram summarizing key components for all product innovation in media going forward:

Critical success factors for product management in media

Finding (or building) product managers who feel comfortable in this narrow intersection between journalism, user experience, technology and data is just the first step.

To do magic, the product manager needs real power and a team. If the product manager is expected to deliver upon strategy, prioritize and execute both on journalism and technology; then her team must reflect this. Without an autonomous, fully mandated, cross-functional team, the product manager is nothing but a person with ideas.

If finding the new breed of managers in media is hard, do not expect that tearing down the hierarchies in big media companies and fostering autonomous teams across functions will be any easier. I suspect that this is where most will fail.

This idea of hybrid product managers is very simple, but it’s extremely hard to carry it out. Can journalism and technology be merged in product management, and if so — how should a media company be organized and governed to ensure world-class product innovation? Please share if you have any thoughts.

Rethink product management or die

I know this sounds very tabloid, but hey, I work in a tabloid newspaper. I don’t need to restate all the evidence that traditional media companies are being disrupted, and unless they rething their products, they will die.

I firmly believe a healthy media future with great journalism through great media products are preserved for those who:

  • Embrace that a media product is journalism and technology intertwined
  • Merge content management with tech-style product management
  • Empower this new generation media managers with autonomous cross-functional teams
  • … teams that are capable of delivering great innovations across journalism, user experience and technology; combining data with art

We already see a great uprising of media startups on this path, and if traditional media players join them; I firmly believe we’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg in what media can deliver in terms of innovation.

The post originally appeared on Medium.

Written by Espen Sundve
Published 2015-04-01