When media meets tech: Why publishers need product managers

Timo Lamour

Publishers of all types and sizes are facing ever-increasing competition. Start-ups in particular often use the Internet as their primary channel to reach a larger audience. In fact, even a single blogger or YouTuber can spread news and personal opinions from the bedroom. Think of Rezo with his video "The Destruction of the CDU".

Publishers of all types and sizes are facing ever-increasing competition.

Start-ups in particular often use the Internet as their primary channel to reach a larger audience. In fact, even a single blogger or YouTuber can spread news and personal opinions from the bedroom. Think of Rezo with his video "The Destruction of the CDU."

On the other hand, many of the world's biggest publishers - like the New York Times - have already recognized the importance of embracing the current shift and embracing the Internet and its various platforms.

In this context, many publishers are already seeing that there is an interesting new must-hire to remain competitive and agile. A must-hire that has been ubiquitous among many technology startups for some time. However, in the publishing world, some companies are still hesitant to fill this important role.

What am I talking about? The product manager, of course. Product managers are becoming increasingly important to the competitiveness of media companies.

But why is that, really?

The role of product manager didn't just come out of nowhere. In fact, product managers have been around for many decades.

But one step at a time. First, let's agree on what we mean by the term digital product.

What is a digital product?

In general, a digital product is "a software-based product or service that provides a benefit to a human being".

In other words, these products or services provide a solution to a problem faced by a customer or a specific target group. Or in other words, a digital product is a collection of digital functions and features that make your users' lives easier.

Following the above definition of a digital product, it's pretty easy to give some to examples. For example, a mobile app like Instagram or even digital courses on MasterClass are digital products that add value. They also solve a problem in the user's life.

A digital course on MasterClass is a digital product.
A digital course on MasterClass is a digital product.

Let's take a look at the publishing world: Here, this far-reaching definition is no longer so simple. Because a few decades ago, this discussion would have been different. Twenty years ago, the product was simply a newspaper, a radio program or a TV show.

That definition has changed with the advent of the Internet and the digital economy. In the publishing world, a digital product encompasses a broader spectrum. For example, interactive stories can be digital products. Or even bots (like the Quartz app) that connect readers with news.

In summary, in the publishing industry, digital products include tools and applications that inform, entertain, or notify readers.

The origins of product management

Neil H. McElroy

Now, after defining the digital product, let's talk about product management.

Good to know: Product management is not a completely new concept.

The idea of product management originated at Procter & Gamble in 1931. Neil H. McElroy's famous 800-word memo describes the responsibilities of product managers at P&G.

These included tracking sales, advertising and PR, and managing the product. Ultimately, McElroy was instrumental in helping P&G transform itself into a brand-driven organization. In the process, he had his product managers become the internal voice of the customer.

While this new idea of product management helped P&G succeed, it didn't exactly spread like wildfire outside the company.

However, a much higher demand for product managers was later accompanied by the impressive rise of another industry.

Which industry am I talking about? The technology industry, of course.

Product Management in Tech

Today, the product manager is most often found in the offices of technology startups. They cavort at Internet giant Google just as they do at fast-growing startups.

Product managers from the P&G era were particularly part of a company's marketing function. The same is true today for product managers in the fast-moving consumer goods industry.

In the tech industry, however, that's not the case. Indeed, product management in tech is not just a marketing communications function. Rather, it is tied to the development and production of the product itself.

In tech, product managers cannot simply rely on the messaging, pricing or even packaging of a product to be successful.

Instead, product managers in this industry must be agile above all else. They must have a deep understanding of customers and their needs.

Interesting: this focus on agility is exemplified by the Agile Manifesto. It provides basic principles for why product managers should focus on customers first and foremost.

Furthermore, in the tech industry, the product manager is essentially a mini-CEO. He or she must keep many game balls in the air at the same time. Also, they need to bring cross-functional teams together to develop and update products.

Source: McKinsey & Company

Therefore, the product manager in the technology industry must, among other things, collect and analyze data, iterate frequently, identify key partnerships, and manage developers. Speed to market is always a critical success factor.

The need for project managers in the publishing world

Product managers are becoming increasingly important as the publishing world becomes more complex.

For example, a common publisher has multiple websites for desktop and mobile devices. Also, often a dedicated team to handle video production. Plus various subscription options. And last but not least, there is more than one ad product that requires regular updates.

Publishers today are highly complex businesses. The business model has changed. Publishers can't just create content, publish it to a website, and wait for traffic.

"Generally speaking, the vast majority of publishers still have a long way to go."

Anita Zielina, visiting scholar at the Reuters Institute and former Chief Product Officer of Neue Zürcher Zeitung Media

Essentially, the role of the product manager has become increasingly important in media companies.

In publishing houses, too, product management links the company's products to its mission and values. Whereas product management in the 20th century focused on sales, promotion and distribution, in today's digital economy product management is more closely aligned with the needs of customers.

Thanks to digitization, media companies today have virtually no limits when it comes to their audiences. But in order to fully exploit this potential, some things have to change.

"If media companies don't improve and drastically change their view and capabilities in product management, they will be eaten by software companies and new players."

Espen Sundve, Chief Product Officer at Kolonial.no

According to Sundve, media companies need to prioritize one thing above all else: And that is they need to find product managers who can successfully bridge the gap between journalism and technology.

These product managers should be responsible for product strategy, prioritizing what to write about next and what features to build next. And they should also keep a watchful eye on the quality of content, designs and code.

Smaller publishers are just now considering moving traditional job roles toward product management. But there's still a lot of work to be done. The big challenge for product managers is to act as an interface between journalism, user experience, technology and business.

Many large media companies, on the other hand, have already ventured into the world of product management.

For example, Bloomberg Media recently hired its first digital head of product. This person will oversee products such as Bloomberg's desktop and mobile websites. Similarly, Vox Media now has 10 product managers. The Washington Post has also tripled the number of its product managers.

All in all, says Eddie Koller, managing partner at Koller Search Partners, a major headhunter, "there is a huge need"forproduct managers in media companies.

Rethinking product management

The role of the product manager, as mentioned above, is becoming increasingly important.

Key decision makers need to not only understand the importance of the product manager, but also give them the benefit of the doubt and step back.

In my opinion, the often prevailing mindset of "don't publish until it's perfect" should change rapidly. Instead, product managers in publishing should publish faster and test what works and what doesn't more often. Because in the digital age, that's what matters.

More importantly, instead of focusing on results, publishing product managers should focus on process.

Here, publishers should emphasize thorough research and data analysis. Relying on guesswork when it comes to what the audience really wants is not effective. Only with data can publishers learn what users really want.

Critical Success Factors for Product Management in the Media World.
Diagram by Espen Sundve

Data analytics is rightly the pole star that deserves the undivided attention of product managers in publishing houses and media companies.


Even media companies that have already understood the importance of the product manager can still improve. Moreover, from my point of view, if you are currently just watching this trend instead of being at the forefront, you should definitely, quickly catch up.

To improve the relationship with their readers, publishers have many new tools at their disposal. But to use these tools properly, publishers need to invest in product managers. This is the only way publishers can achieve both their editorial and financial goals.

Also, if you'd like to learn more about text-to-speech technology, watch our free webinar, "How Amazon Polly is Changing the Publishing Industry," here.

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