Collaboration, Prioritization and a Reader Lab Keyed ACS's Major Shift to Product

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One theme of last month's stimulating Business Information & Media Summit was the continued breaking down of silos at publisher and media companies—especially when it comes to the rise of product.

In her opening keynote, Anita Zielina, a professor at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY and a former chief product officer for a large publisher, emphasized that the shift to product represents a big change for publishers. They've had to go from lonely wolves—siloed departments—to unsiloed collaboration and inter-departmental teams, and from a culture of print perfectionism to a culture of product fast failure. They've also gone from a command and control leadership style to a coaching and delegating one.


In their session titled How to Re-Org Your Newsroom Around Product Without Breaking It, Amanda Yarnell (pictured above), editorial director, Chemical & Engineering News, and Jessica Morrison (pictured below), product manager, Chemical & Engineering News—both with the American Chemical Society—followed up on Zielina's thesis, telling how a couple years ago C&EN completely changed its structure to create an atmosphere of successful product development."


In the past, "we didn't really have an approach," Morrison said. "We didn't have a product mindset. What we did have was years and years of institutional knowledge inside people's heads. We had a traditional style and a legacy newsroom that was the opposite of product thinking.

"So we started thinking about how we were going to change that. We had these teams of brilliant people working on overlapping silos. These people received product requests from all over the place. They got them from the boss who said, 'Build this cool thing.' They got them from writers and editors who saw things in other outlets and said, 'I wish we could do that.'"

The product requests came through emails, hallway conversations, meetings. "But the people who worked on those projects had no way of prioritizing or organizing them, or working in a way that wasn't"—here Morrison paused—"...urgency."

All of this went on while they still had to focus on putting out a weekly print product. But the time of change had come. They started by putting together a cross-functional product team with stakeholders from each of their core business units—operations, editorial, creative, product, revenue, engineering (IT) and revenue (sales, advertising and marketing).

"C&EN Product now exists as a cross-functional newsroom team dedicated to the development and maintenance of C&EN brand, product research and strategy," Morrison said.

With the new team and process in place, here's what they accomplished in the first 18 months: They...

- Now have a much smoother process for organizing product requests and prioritizing.

- Instituted their first newsroom-wide road map. So big-picture items could no longer fall between the cracks.

- Speeded up development timelines. Everything isn't urgent.

- Launched C&EN Reader Lab of 400 readers—not internal—so all product development from beginning to end is now reader-informed. "We go to them whenever we have questions or want to launch something," Morrison said. "We do discovery interviews with this group. We do prototype testing."

- Developed a product portfolio that allows them to see what they're doing, what they should be doing, and what they should stop doing (their emphasis). "It allows us to take a holistic view of our products."

"The one group that's not represented on that list [Morrison gave] is the audience team which bridges audience and revenue," Yarnell added. "So the audience team lives under me in editorial.

"Product means different things to different places," she continued. "For us, product is all content types, all of our distribution channel products so that's our print products, our digital magazines, all of our brand products—those are things like big annual features that are revenue drivers for us. And then all of our revenue products, so [that means] reader revenue and sales revenue.

"By defining product types and establishing owners, we've been able to take a holistic view—to step back and take a more lifecycle approach," Yarnell said.  

They followed this opening with a prioritization exercise, with all the attendees taking on a specific role. Watching this play out, you could see the collaborative nature and how a product development team gets started.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…