Review of Reengineering Journalism: Product Manager as News Industry Institutional Entrepreneur
By Cindy Royal, Professor
May 19, 2021
I have been studying professional roles associated with technology in news organizations for a number of years (see here and here). Most recently, I published a report on The State of the News Product Community 2020, in conjunction with the newly formed News Product Alliance, that outlined perceptions and concerns of those working in emerging news product roles. My research in this area is ongoing with analysis of interviews with product managers. That is why I was more than a little intrigued by the recent piece in Digital Journalism, “Reengineering Journalism: Product Manager as News Industry Institutional Entrepreneur,” by Allie Kosterich of the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University.
In this study, Kosterich investigates the role of news product manager as “institutional entrepreneur,” or those who are charged with change in development of digital products and renegotiating journalism’s traditional boundaries. This study, which uses a unique dataset comprised of data points from LinkedIn profiles, provides rare insight into how emerging product roles function in media organizations.
As Kosterich correctly points out, that while digital transformation in media organizations is often the subject of academic study, few projects have examined the actors associated with implementing digital innovation. She identified the product management role as those professionals “responsible for developing and assessing new content and revenue opportunities ranging the gamut from newsletters, to mobile apps, to membership programs, to specific components of a company’s website” (Kosterich, 2021, p. 1). These jobs are often characterized by working at the intersection of editorial, business and technology functions, with Kosterich pointing to current examples, including The New York Times’ interactive product tracking global virus and vaccine development, Propublica’s various coronavirus news applications, as well as chatbots developed by BBC.
Kosterich examined hiring patterns, training backgrounds, degree of professionalization and organizational field structure, all gleaned from an analysis of LinkedIn data. Searches were conducted on 49 news organizations (35 from the United States and 14 from the United Kingdom) derived from a list of news organizations from a Reuters Centre for the Study of Journalism report on news in the US and Europe. These organizations represent a cross-section of sectors including national and regional newspapers, weekly newsmagazines, public service broadcasters, and digital-born news websites. Those with product manager positions (271 total; 202 based in the U.S. and 69 based in UK organizations) were recorded for job title, organization, location, dates of employment, gender and educational information regarding degrees and certifications.
The study pursued three areas: moral legitimacy, measured by educational background; professionalization characteristics, measured by background and industry experience; and field structure of organizations, measured by organizations from which product professionals came to their positions. Each area was also compared by the two geographies under analysis, the U.S. and U.K.
Results Indicate Broad Educational Backgrounds and Tech Influence
What Kosterich found was that educational background was widespread. Most product managers had degrees in journalism or a communication-related field (16% U.S; 19% U.K.), but many had business/economics or computer science/information technology degrees. About one third of the sample had graduate degrees, with most holding the Master of Business Administration (12% U.S; 10% U.K.). Twenty-five percent of both the U.S. and U.K. product managers held product management certifications.
Using network analysis, Kosterich found that in both the U.S. and U.K., the technology industry was a strong influencer of product employees to the news industry. In the U.S., product manager positions are most often filled by those with professional experience outside the news industry, but also closely influenced by those within the news industry. In the U.K. it was the opposite effect. While the tech industry still provided product employees, the news industry was primarily influenced by those from within media organizations. In looking at current product managers only, 42% of immediate prior jobs were from outside the news industry in the U.S., compared to 35% in the U.K. In so, Kosterich’s findings are consistent with prior work on institutional change in news, stating that “while it is often initiated by external actors, it tends to be furthered over time from within the field” (Kosterich, 2021, p. 22). This will be an important data point to track into the future.
The analysis of centrality of news organizations included 425 organizations and 1,538 instances when a product manager moved between two organizations. In looking at organizations from which product managers moved, traditional organizations like New York Times, Washington Post and NPR, as well as Apple, were most likely, with Vox and Buzzfeed also influencing movement as periphery players in the U.S. Notably, there was a particularly high crossover indicated between Facebook, Google and Apple with New York Times. For U.K. organizations, BBC, Financial Times, Channel 4, Economist and Guardian were most influential, further explaining the role of U.K. legacy media organizations in producing product personnel.
In an email interview, Kosterich described the origins for this project as the natural progression of technology positions in media organizations. “What started as an exploration of new roles for journalists in data, analytics and social media naturally evolved into the role of product managers in newsrooms,” Kosterich said. “These newsworkers, working at the intersection of traditional journalist jobs and technologically-intensive jobs (e.g., journalist-programmer, interactive journalist, engagement editor) which were historically separate, are the precursor to product managers and the evolving state of the news industry.”
Kosterich thinks professionals should be interested in this research because of the increasing popularity and demand for product managers in media organizations. “The most important result for media professionals to take from this research is, first and foremost that the product manager role is a real, integral and increasingly popular role to consider for news organizations,” Kosterich said. “Today’s digital and mobile-first media environment demands a continuous stream of products ready to meet audience needs, and the product manager serves to prioritize them by providing a holistic perspective on an organization’s goals and strategies.”
Limitations of LinkedIn Data, and What About Media Chains?
In the article, Kosterich identified the limited nature of using LinkedIn data, as it is self-reported and does not comprehensively represent the full state of the news industry. Additionally, product roles can be more pervasive than represented in this sample, due to there not being an agreed-upon name for those working in these hybrid editorial-technology-business roles. Product responsibilities can exist in a range of functions that could include various levels within product functions (associate, senior, director), user-experience and frontend developers, digital, data and social media editors and various management roles. And there is a current emphasis on encouraging “product thinking” across many roles in a news organization, making it difficult to pinpoint actual “product” functions.
Perhaps of more concern is the omission in the data gathering and coding of those functioning in product roles at media chains in corporate headquarters. Organizations including Gannett, McClatchy, among other media chains, often centralize product functions to provide these services to their news properties. For example, regional news organizations like Arizona Republic and Detroit Free Press (owned by the Gannett chain) and Charlotte Observer and Kansas City Star (McClatchy publications) don't report any product employees in this analysis. However, a LinkedIn search for product manager positions at both Gannett and McClatchy identified numerous instances of these roles being performed at more central, headquarter operations. In an industry continually experiencing corporate mergers and acquisitions, this leaves out an important segment of news product managers that may be supporting local or regional news operations. However, their inclusion would disrupt the clean way Kosterich defined and derived her sample, from the Reuters list of news organizations.
This provides an opportunity for future research to study the development and processes of product roles in media chain headquarters. It may also be interesting to track the decentralization of product positions from headquarters to local outlets over time, as product functions mature and become more critical to media operations.
Visibility, Control and Support Needed
Media chain omissions aside, this study offers valuable insight to be carried forward in understanding the skills and competencies media organizations need to fill product roles and the associated support needed by product professionals. These trends are important to comprehend as journalism shifts from a culture of reporting and editing to one that identifies and develops products to solve problems and serves needs in both the service of the community and in support of business sustainability. With this new charge comes the need for organizational power to enact change. As Kosterich notes, “product managers in news organizations need visibility and control to do the work necessary to meet changing audience demands and business imperatives” (Kosterich, 2021, p. 24).
These trends bring rise to considerations of “retention, career paths, and hiring people into top management positions who understand the product space and the benefits of using it to meet the ever-changing demands of the audience” (Kosterich, 2021, p. 24). Product professionals can command top salaries in other industries. News organizations have limited capacity to train and develop these personnel, and few journalism and media academic programs have topics in their curriculum which would support a pipeline of product-trained professionals. These concerns echo what was identified in my own research The State of the News Product Community 2020, as well as built into the mission of the News Product Alliance.
Kosterich believes the academy should take notice of these trends and seize the opportunity they present. “If media education is looking to adapt and evolve to meet today's digital and mobile-first media environment, curriculum should consider training on the role of product manager, which serves to prioritize said products by providing a holistic perspective on an organization’s goals and strategies,” Kosterich said. “These emergent skillsets are often requested in new employees. It would be good practice for media education to further prepare students for ‘non-traditional’ media roles such as those of product manager.”
Kosterich concludes the piece by recommending future research include in-depth interviews with product personnel, particularly to further assess how they are negotiating organizational boundaries and influencing change. This study provides a relevant foundation for future research on this topic, as well as data upon which professional practices and academic curriculum may be influenced.
Kosterich, A. (2021). Reengineering Journalism: Product Manager as News Industry Institutional Entrepreneur. Digital Journalism, 1-30. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/21670811.2021.1903959.