How The New York Times, Vox and other publishers adopt a product approach to news

Publishers are adopting a Silicon Valley mindset as they start to think of news in terms of “product.”

This understanding has emphasized the importance of product teams, which have taken a central role for publishers over the past few years. “Product” is a squishy word, but media companies define it as a mindset that combines editorial content, monetization and technology to create a single cohesive experience. It also puts a heavy emphasis on thinking user-first and following Silicon Valley guidelines for agile development.

“Good product design builds on top of maximizing that experience, said Cait O’Riordan, who was named and chief product and information officer at The Financial Times earlier this month. “The key part of good product is the understanding of the customer, and what he needs and wants,” she said.

Here’s how four publishers think about product, and how that thinking influences their editorial operations.

Quartz: Bringing all parties to the product table at the same time
At Quartz, if editorial is a product, then so are the ads. Creating a compelling user experience means putting both concerns front and center at the same time. This approach was core to how Quartz developed its first news app, which it launched last month. To build it, Quartz created a five-person development team, with members from not only design and engineering, but editorial and revenue as well. That integrated approach is core to the Quartz approach overall, which is built around making it easier for developers and editorial staff to work together. Quartz’s development team reports to editor Kevin Delaney, not the business side.

“We really couldn’t create a cohesive functioning effective product without all those people in that same room talking to each other and figuring things out together,” said Zach Seward, Quartz’s vp of product and executive editor. “If you remove any one those elements, the final product will start to fall apart.”

The New York Times: Building user-first experiences beyond articles
While most digital-native publishers have been built with building digital products with the use case in mind first, the lessons they’ve learned are being picked up by legacy publishers as well.  The 164-year old New York Times has for most of its history been tied to articles and the printed page. That’s changed thanks to the Web and, in particular mobile, which has helped accelerate its investment in new products with different form factors and use cases.

An early version of NYT Now app, for example, simply pulled in existing New York Times articles without thinking how those articles should change for mobile uses case. The Times scrapped that version in 2014 in favor of the current iteration of the app, which is built around mobile-optimized headlines, bullet points that summarize stories and daily briefing that gives users an update on the latest news.

“We’re trying to find ways for our brands to play beyond just day-to-day news,” said David Perpich, svp of product, who leads a 30-person product team at The New York Times. “Products like [the Cooking app] are interesting because they’re us showing how we might do news different by looking at the mobile user first and working back from there.”

Vox Media: Adopting a broad definition of “product”
By its most strict definition, a publisher’s product is the thing that the end user sees, reads and interacts with — e.g., articles, videos and apps. Vox stretches the definition a bit further to include features that are less tangible but still core to its editorial and ad products. The performance of its server operations, for example, may not ever cross the mind of its sites visitors, but are core to how fast its sites load and run. The same thing goes for its data science and analytics capabilities, which both help inform the brands publishing through its custom-built CMS Chorus and help give its editorial team insights into what content they should continue to invest in.

“We’re using that much broader definition of product because we see all of these things as part of a critical layer across everything we do,” said Vox Media chief product officer Trei Brundett, who leads a 100-person product team that sits in between Vox Media’s editorial and advertising divisions.

The Financial Times: Giving the product team a direct line to the CEO
One indication of how key product teams have become to publishers is how many of them have an ear directly to the CEO. Cait O’Riordan at The Financial Times reports directly to chief executive John Ridding, while Kinsey Wilson, executive vp of product and technology at The New York Times, reports to both the newspaper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, and the company’s chief executive, Mark Thompson.

“That we’re so close to the CEOs of our companies shows the importance of what the product side brings to the equation when it comes to building a successful company,” said O’Riordan.