For Your Questions and Concerns About Product, Here’s Anita Zielina With Hands-On Answers

By Tom Grubisich

The word “product” pops up in almost every discussion about putting the local news industry on the path to sustainability. But what does the word really mean operationally and why is it seen as so critical to the industry’s future?

Anita Zielina is well positioned to answer these questions. She has had a marquee, change-making career in digital news that includes 10 years as a top editor and chief product officer at leading publishing groups in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Since February 2019, she has been director of leadership and innovation at the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY, and on Monday, June 24, she will keynote the WAN-IFRA-sponsored Digital Media North America 2019 conference in New York City that is all about product.

In this Q & A, Zielina defines product and tells why it is has become central to the intended transformation of the struggling local news industry – and what “C-Suite” chief product officers at news organizations are doing to win inter-departmental support for the-customer-is-first strategy:

To begin, what’s the difference between “product” and “content”?

Rather than talk about the differences between product and content, I’d rather talk about the two sides that complement one another – the product side and the content itself, and the creation of something that users, readers, viewers are willing to subscribe to, to pay for. Content without a great product has a very hard time attracting an audience. A great product without great content will have the same problem.

Product, we’re told, is about the “why” of news. What does that mean?

Product, when done well, follows a customer-centric approach: We are creating news for a certain audience, to fulfill a certain need for them. Listening to them and talking with them is the first step to figure out that “why” – why should they trust us and invest their time and money with us?

Was the shift from the numbers of reach to a more human scale of engagement behind the rise of product?

The shift to reader revenue made it more obvious that product has become an important part of news organizations, and more urgent to build the respective structures. But even at news organizations that remain focused on advertising, that doesn’t mean they don’t have a product culture or don’t have strong product teams.

Being focused on reader revenue alone is not a necessity when it come to product. But it facilitates the understanding that you become user-centered as organization and you try to understand what your readers really care about and how the journalism you produce can really help them.

There are chief product officers installed at news operations everywhere today. They’re talked about as if they are a wondrous media version of high-wire artists, jugglers of spinning plates and lion tamers. Just what do they do operationally?

If you ask 20 people at 20 news organizations what a chief product officer is, you’ll get 20 different answers. Product in the news media has been around for about 15 years. Chief product officers at the C-Suite level have been around only about five years.

A lot of news organizations are still trying to figure out how to structure product teams, define product roles and how to balance responsibilities between editors in chief on one side and the head of product on the other side, and commercial needs on the third side.

I don’t see the industry ready to agree on one structure of responsibilities. In some organizations, product is part of technology, in some it’s part of the editorial team, and others it’s somewhere in-between.

These blurry lines of responsibility obviously produce tension. How does the new chief product officer deal with the veteran editor who, as shrinking print revenues decimate his newsroom, is in the middle of an identity crisis that makes him very defensive?

I do not know one chief product officer who doesn’t have to deal with reactions like “This is my turf” or “This is your turf” or figuring out how far my responsibilities go compared to someone else’s. Product is such an inter-disciplinary, matrix-like function in an organization. There have to be “diplomacy” skills, for sure. In a lot of organizations, small and large, there are fights to make clear who is responsible for what.

Smart organizations use “constructive conflict” to grow and develop better strategies and say, “This is a strength. We have different teams and objectives, so let’s figure out together what will create value and who is the best person or team for each part of the job.”

In some not-so-smart organizations, this might end in outright conflict and powers struggles among different sides.

If and when this happens, what does the CPO do then?

As with any change process, this is not something that one person alone can solve. There needs to be commitment from the board level and the C-Suite to build and empower new structures, and precise strategies and shared key product indicators are very helpful to get there.

It is also helpful to communicate often and transparently, both inside of the management team and towards the rest of the organization.

You say the-reader-comes-first strategy must be followed “strictly.” But in the rapidly evolving digital world, where insights can come out of the blue, is this realistic?

The mistake that a lot of organizations make is deciding on a strategy and communicating internally and externally that “this is what we’re going to do,” but then not following up – saying one thing and doing another. There’s a lot of practice out there that shows this doesn’t work because you confuse your organization, you confuse your market, you don’t use your resources rightly.

You do have to be agile with your strategy, but you don’t want to become stressed out. If you decide on a definite strategic path, it’s not smart to do a “180” every six months because then you’ll just be running around in circles instead of following your strategic path.

Product first of all means connecting with the customer, you emphasize. What’s an example of the “talking and listening” that you did when you were chief product officer?

This begins with turning around how you decide on a product and putting your conversation with the customer at the beginning of the process. In my last role as chief product officer at Switzerland’s NZZ Media Group, we decided to build a new app because the tech platform of the old one wasn’t working well anymore. We put together a group of 500 beta users. We put an item in our newsletter that said if you were a regular reader of our paper and would like to be involved in the development of our new app, you can sign up for the test.

Every other week, we were in touch with them, asking questions like, “How do you like this new feature?” and “How do you feel about this new way of telling stories?” We started the conversation at the very beginning of the process. The readers were very pleased. The closer you are to your reader, the more important you become to them.

At your Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY, you’ve announced an executive leadership program that will begin in January 2020. What’s that about?

It addresses the needs of news media leaders who want to become better and more effective in driving transformation and innovation in their organizations and the industry as a whole. It’s important for them to understand all of their departmental worlds to be more effective in driving change – editorial, product, business and technology. More about this program and how to apply are here.

Major publicly owned groups of daily newspapers have seen their market capitalizations on Wall Street plunge at rates from 24% to 78% over the past year. Privately owned newspaper companies are selling out, with one of the sellers telling his subscribers, “Given the challenge to the industry and our size, we could not be the employer nor publisher we aspire to be, so we determined it was time for our family to exit.” Can making product central to the management of local news operations save them from a wholesale “exit”?

I’m an optimist but also a realist. I won’t say product management will save particular news organizations from failing. But I will say that having a strong product culture and good product teams is essential if you want to succeed as a news organization.

What I do hope for the future is that through a joint effort with smart people on the editorial side, smart people on the business side and smart people on the product side we are going to be able as an industry and as news organizations to make that leap, and with a different combination of business models to have a sustainable future.

Tom Grubisich, who formerly wrote “The New News” column for Street Fight, combines his analysis of local journalism with community activism centered in Charleston, SC, where he lives.

Jed Williams, chief strategy officer of the LMA, will moderate a 2:30 p.m. session on “Defining Priorities and Changing Cultures in Local Media Companies” at DMNA19’s June 24 meeting