Defining Product: The next decade long battle of journalism

The tagline for my blog since roughly 2008 has been: “Journalism is a process, not a product.” I believe in this to my core. Journalism itself is not a product.

When the main product sold was a newspaper – that was not journalism. That was the final product that contained the finished journalism.

Journalism, as many have described before, is the process of collecting, filtering and distributing information with the caveats that the information is true and accurate to the best of one’s ability (and perhaps other caveats of ethically collected, etc). This is why there is truth to the statement “journalism with survive the death of its institutions.” What this captures, is the idea that journalism’s fate is note tied to past products.

I think this mantra: Journalism is a process, not a product, was the defining debate from 2001 – 2010 or perhaps all the way to 2011. But just as the best tenets and practices of “citizen journalism” and “social media” have been absorbed by media companies, a new battle ground has emerged.

“Battle” might be the wrong word. I don’t see this as two-opposing forces colliding – so much as a new frontier that is being explored in the ongoing evolution of journalism and the business of news. It is only a “battle” in the sense that the stakes are high. The companies that “win” will lay claim to the product that will define how journalism is consumed on platforms, be it desktop, mobile, wearables and beyond. 

That’s right: Journalism is a process, not a product, but I think the current frontier for journalism is around product. It started before the New York Time’s “Snowfall,” but that was when minds were blown and flood gates opened. If the New York Times can re-think the product it uses to transmit its journalism – then everyone can.

Questions that become relevant: What is the best product for journalism to be consumed? How does digital not just enable more people to do journalism, how does digital fundamentally question what journalism IS from a consumer’s point of view.

I would argue the “citizen journalism” debate was often mistakenly put in this context (if it is not from a journalism organization, it must not BE journalism to a consumer) but I think history has shown this debate to be false. And it’s not that the new frontier of “product” will make us question whether something “IS” or “IS NOT” journalism, instead it will fundamentally free us up to think through the experience of consuming news and it is here (defining the experience of journalism in digital context) that fortunes will be made. This is where you get Vox, Circa, NowThisNews,, Scroll Kit (now acquired by Automatic) and more.

Historically a journalist didn’t think about product. They focused on the journalism and traded edits back and forth with an editor and/or copy-editor. And eventually the copy, combined with a photo was handed over to somebody in charge of layout. This person was the first in the chain of things to think about product: About what the paper would look and feel like that day. But the reporter was removed from this. They didn’t have to think about it (aside from ego-front page connotations).

Today, journalists have to think about product, because it defines how the journalist goes about their work. The journalism itself is a separate act (a process), but if you know what you are going to produce is a video (product), that certainly steers what direction you will take in your process. While this is an obvious (and not new) example, this kind of product influence is becoming more pervasive and subtle on the front end (the look/feel/function) as well as the back-end (the CMS, workflow and production cycle) as the industry re-thinks what its core consumer experience is. The organizations above (and countless others) are leading the way through product. And it is in the development of their product that they lead the company. It is at the level of product where all stakeholders (design, development, editorial, business) should have a seat at the table. It is by managing these relationships that a company can navigate forward (an entirely different post here about internal leadership through product).

The content must be there too. Make no mistake, journalism is a process – not a product. But we have to ask ourselves – if journalism happens in a forest and nobody consumes it, did it really ever happened? But if you can define the platform experience/product upon which people consume the news, there will be no doubt about the process you went through to produce the news, it would be right there on the “front page.”

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