In February 2020, after an SRCCON session for product thinkers proved unexpectedly popular, it was clear to organizers there was an appetite for a product-focused community in the news industry. Though product roles have existed in legacy news outlets for years, bringing product thinking — which centers the needs of news consumers and prioritizes testing during development — into a newsroom for the first time can be an uphill battle for those hoping to usher in the change.
The News Product Alliance — which officially launched in September 2020 — believes product thinkers are “the missing link to creating sustainable journalism in the digital age.” On its site, the group defines product roles as those “with the ability to strategically align business, audience and technology goals while integrating journalism ethics.” About a third of news product workers have titles or departments with “product” in them. The rest are doing news product work in less obvious “bridge” roles, under titles like audience editor, news applications developer, or head of analytics.
“Some of our community members were actually doing product work without knowing they were doing product work,” said executive director Feli Carrique. “A lot of our community members have told us that NPA helped them put a name to what they were doing and helped them gain confidence in that.”
According to a 2021 report, product teams are still relatively new, with 40% of responding news organizations saying they’d formed a product team in the past four years. But research suggests merely establishing a product team isn’t enough. The Reuters Institute’s 2022 Journalism, Media, and Trends report found that 41% of surveyed news publishers find a lack of alignment between different departments — editorial, marketing, commercial, and technology — to be a major roadblock to innovation.
“We have previously highlighted how the vertically siloed nature of many media companies makes it particularly difficult to deliver innovation that needs cross-functional teams to work in a common process,” the Reuters report noted. Even publishers with “mature” product departments are still working to “find the right balance between the rigor of product methodologies and processes and the specific editorial expertise” of their newsroom, according to the report.
Carrique said product teams in media organizations can vary wildly in how they function, what skills are considered standard, and where they sit within the company’s structure. For people looking to get into news product work for the first time, the lack of consensus can make the process more difficult.
With the state of news product work seeming to range across the industry, the News Product Alliance helps identify what product work even is and get it named as such in participating newsrooms. In short? They help product people realize they’re product people.
Going into its third year, NPA is a mostly, if not fully, virtual community that mainly operates in its own growing Slack channel, with more than 1,400 members. (NPA membership has just about tripled since launch, Carrique said.) Roughly half of its members are based in North America while 16% are in Europe and 15% are in Central and South America. Outside the United States, countries with the most members include Brazil, Argentina, Germany, the United Kingdom, and India. NPA members are news product managers, journalists, developers, technologists, data scientists, and other media and tech professionals.
NPA’s Slack is free to join and the resources on its website are publicly available. Its Product Kit, as one example, has been translated by NPA volunteers into Spanish and Portuguese with additional editions in Italian and Arabic on the way. The resources and programming address what Carrique identified as some of the common challenges news product workers face, from implementing new strategies to transitioning into a product-focused role to developing workflows and planning projects.
The organization has held two annual, virtual summits where ticket costs ranged from $150 to $450. (The NPA is sponsored by the nonprofit Miami Foundation and has received funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Google News Initiative, The University of Missouri School of Journalism, the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, and News Catalyst.) The 2022 summit drew 482 attendees, including 169 first-time participants. Sponsorship from the Google News Initiative allowed NPA to award 120 scholarships to attendees. According to Carrique, more than 50% of scholarship recipients are people of color and 60% live outside the U.S.
The NPA has touted its work helping people move into product and product-adjacent roles in news organizations. Members have shared more than 500 job postings in the Slack’s jobs channel in the last 18 months, Carrique said. Of the nearly 200 summit attendees who reported a job title or job change toward product work in the past year, about 70% said joining and participating in NPA had “some level of direct impact” on their career shifts.
NPA has moved to get product thinking into more newsrooms by partnering with the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY to co-host the Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program, a crash course in news product development, and the Product Expansion program, a followup for alumni of the immersion program. NPA’s creative director Tony Elkins also hosts a newsletter-turned-live-event series called “How I” where he interviews news product people about their career paths.
Still, many members report that the community’s biggest benefit has been access to other product thinkers and workers through the Slack’s public channels and the direct messaging feature. They’ve been able to find mentors in other newsrooms, get help on job applications and interviews, ask for advice on projects, and more.
Some of the most active channels are #intros (for new members to introduce themselves), #ask-and-give (to ask and give help), #shop-talk (to discuss best practices in news product management), and #show-and-tell (for sharing guides, trainings, and other resources). According to Carrique, roughly 40% of members participate at least weekly in the Slack with additional spikes of activity around events like the News Product Summit.
Khalil Cassimally is the audience project manager for The Conversation and based in Mauritius. He joined NPA’s Slack in 2021 and felt he’d finally found his “people.” Through Donut, a Slack app that pairs members up and nudges them to get to know each other one-on-one, Cassimally said he met “some really smart people” he’s gone on to contact when he needed feedback or work-related advice.
“E-meeting people from different parts of the world, though mostly from the U.S., generates a lot of ideas and can also provide affirmation about tactics or strategies I’ve been contemplating,” he said. “Since joining the NPA Slack community, I’ve been able to come up with more ideas and have become more confident proposing those ideas to leadership as well. I’ve also been able to fill gaps in knowledge by actively reaching out to certain people in the community.”
For Sydney Lewis, a student at the University of Missouri, joining NPA filled a gap in her education that she didn’t know she had.
“Through NPA, I was able to meet news product allies at my own university which led me to fantastic mentors and programs that I never would’ve found otherwise,” Lewis said. “NPA’s connections and mentorship have exposed me to a side of journalism I didn’t know existed a year ago, and to a new way of thinking that I’ve now introduced into the student newsrooms I oversee at the University of Missouri.”
NPA wants to practice what it preaches and tries to apply product thinking to the way it runs its own community, Carrique said. NPA asks members what they want, the members tell them, NPA tries to provide it, and the feedback loop continues. Given widespread interest in mentorship, NPA has focused its resources on building the Mentor Network Program, which will launch on September 12. Its goal is to provide guidance and support to emerging news product thinkers in their professional development. So far, 50 mentors from around the world have agreed to participate, Carrique said.
“What we’ve learned is that there’s a lot of people who would want more formal mentorship and coaching spaces so we are working towards creating this product-mentorship structure,” Carrique said. “We are also creating resources about product and we’re starting to aggregate news product resources that can help professionals evangelize in their own newsrooms, but also that can help educators to share and start planting the seed of product thinking for the leaders of tomorrow.”