The great job you might not think of

29 Oct

Two must-read blog posts from erstwhile colleagues prodded me into finishing this entry, which I started far too long ago.

It’s for all those friends of mine – unemployed, underemployed, or just feeling dead-ended in their traditional newsroom gig.

There’s a  type of job out there you might be good at. It has a title you’d probably never think to look for. Your skills might match it anyway.

“Product manager.” (Here’s an example.)

Terrible title. (Could it be more bureaucratic?)

Great job, though — especially in terms of influence and power.

Product managers get to decide what functionality to add to a website (think commenting and audience-photo submissions for a newspaper site).

They’re at Ground Zero of the launch of new freestanding brands (think of a locally focused entertainment product), or managing the digital equivalent of an old warhouse.

At its core, the role is about representing the customers (note the plural, please) in all decisions – designing a site, deciding what functions a mobile app should have, figuring out what forms of content and advertising a new digital venture should have.

Years ago, when I first started developing new products, I was struck by the similarity of product management to  the role great section editors play – especially over how to allocate your staff and what the highest priority was at the moment.

In other words, if you’re inquisitive, smart and decisive, you can be a great product manager.

Many of the great ones I’ve known and worked with started their careers in newsrooms. They’re always asking questions. They’re voracious readers of anything related to the topic at hand. They know what the competition is up to. And they’re always, always pitching new ideas.

I’m not the only one who has latched onto that analogy. Matt Sokoloff – a long-time product manager for the Orlando Sentinel and Tribune Interactive, now a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow at Missouri, uses it with students all the time.

“A good journalist can write a good article. But a great journalist can write a great story,” he says. In the same way, “a great product manager can build a great product.”

A couple caveats – both around the idea that you can’t simply waltz into the job and play everything by ear.

Section editors and street reporters tend to rely on experience and intuition (at least they did back in that other century, when I had those jobs).

Product managers risk disaster if that’s their main research tool. They need to use real data – and if none exists, run tests to generate some. (See Eric Ries’ excellent The Lean Startup for more.)

Second, about that plural noted above: Almost every product has multiple customers – and the ones who actually pay are highly important. For most news media, that means the advertisers, not just the audience. And even those segments have sub-segments that you must understand.

Understanding all those nuances takes enormous work. But then being good at a beat, or running the best features section in the state takes work, too.

Leftover stuff:

It’s worth noting that both of the blog posts that prompted me to finish this screed tie back to perhaps the most-brilliant piece of the year about entrepreneurial journalism: David Skok and James Allerton’s remarkably thorough three-part discussion with Harvard Prof. Clayton Christensen.

The piece takes Christensen’s groundbreaking research on disruptive technology and applies it to the business side of news. It’s a true must-read for anyone interested in the future of our business – and it’ll be required reading for the next group of students I’ll be teaching at AU.

Finally, if you want a condensed, rigorous look at those ideas, get your boss to send you to API’s upcoming session on disruptive innovation for news, part of its Transformation Tour.

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