The role of product

The haphazard experience of many digital media products reflects organizational dysfunction.

Welcome to this week’s edition of The Rebooting, written from Belgrade. I’m following my advice to keep newsletters brief, if only because I need to hunt down a Covid test in order to get into Italy. This week, I wrote about the messy but critical role of the product group in media businesses. If you haven’t already, please sign up to get this email newsletter every Wednesday.

The role of product 

It started with the snacks. When I started working in newsrooms, we didn’t have free food. Once a week, we’d get pizza, but that went away after the Financial Crisis. At least there was coffee. But the rise of giant tech companies like Google and Facebook meant most companies started to imitate them, adding in perks like free food and trying to make dreary cubicle-farm offices seem more… fun. One substantive change to many media businesses was the rise of the product role as what we’d call “the new most important position in the newsroom.” At tech companies, product roles are pivotal. But I’ve always found this role more fraught in the news business.

Much of that goes to, no surprise, how news businesses have historically been constructed with “two sides.” Entering Digiday’s office in New York, you’d go either left or right. Heading left you’d end up on the editorial side; heading right, it was the “business side.” These divides were always made up. After all, the idea that those creating the content at the heart of the business weren’t part of the business makes no sense. Even more to the point, the memberships business was part of our side, further muddying the picture. Same goes for product, a role we didn’t have until a few years ago.

My suspicion is many news organizations began product roles without having a deep understanding of what they’d do. And again, the original issue facing product is where it sits within this outdated two-sides concept of walling off “church and state.” For a product group to succeed, it needs to bring together all parts of the business. Ideally, product can be the nexus. Many times it is not. Some specific issues product roles face:

Tech isn’t a core competency. Most news organizations are terrible at technology. Part of this is talent. Developers and engineers are expensive and tend to prefer to work at organizations with other top developers and engineers. In a media business, the tech people have often been seen as support.

Unrealistic expectations. Even the most narrow product project is difficult to pull off. Many leading media businesses don’t have a lot of experience in building tech products and tend to underestimate what goes into making them a success, opting instead for somewhat arbitrary deadlines.

Media business models are very complicated. Many publishers are operating several businesses: subscriptions, ads, events, commerce and more. These all have slightly different dynamics and can, at times, be in opposition to each other. The needs of a subscription business, rooted in what’s best for the subscribers, are different from the ads business, which balances what advertisers need and what the audience will tolerate.

The result: digital products that often suck, as Felix Filloux illustrated. Apps that often crash. Sites loaded down with tracking pixels and bandwidth-hogging ads. Competing pop-up prompts. The haphazard experience of many digital media products reflects organizational dysfunction. Alex Watson, who is departing his product role at BBC News for one at Spotify, discussed some of the challenges.

These are complex problems. But I believe they’re rooted in a simple struggle within many media businesses: They often mimic Silicon Valley’s talk of customer focus, but in practice this means very different things to different parts of the organization. The rise of subscriptions as a business line could become  a catalyst for media businesses to focus fully on a view of the customer that is rooted in what’s best for the audience. That doesn’t mean ignoring advertising but doing what’s best for the person who gives their time, attention and often money to your content products. Ultimately that will benefit the advertiser. Publishers have seen time and again that focusing on reduced clutter and fast loading sites ends up leading to more ad revenue. 

Every organization is different, but I believe the product group needs to be very closely aligned with the editorial group while working closely with all departments across the company. The editorial group in most media organizations is the one that advocates for the audience the loudest. Ultimately, as Watson notes, many product decisions are often made narrowly about this particular email or page, but what’s needed is a broader view of what the brand is trying to accomplish for the audience.