Interview with Kara Chiles, Vice President Consumer Products at Gannett. About Creating Award-Winning Products, Satisfied Stakeholders and Motivated Teams.
What does it mean to be responsible for the product portfolio of over three hundred and sixty news markets, covering websites, newsletters, video, audio, infrastructure, content management systems, data, asset management and other aspects of a media business? How can you constantly innovate and develop your audience’s experience? How can you motivate your team and keep your stakeholders happy? We talked about all this and about her latest product USA Today Sports+ with Kara Chiles, Vice President Consumer Products at Gannett.
Kara, you are Vice President Consumer Products at Gannett, which is the largest newspaper publisher in the USA. We were wondering what consumer business and product development means for such a big media group.
It does cover a lot of ground, and one of the things that I tell people when I describe our portfolio is any of the news or information experiences that are introduced at Gannett, be it a national, local or an enthusiast audience like in sports: any of the front end experiences that our consumers see are at part of the product organization at Gannett. Our portfolio includes over three hundred and sixty news markets. It includes newsletters, video capabilities, audio and other aspects where we are trying to create both an enterprise system of product development, mindful of what our news publishing goals and audiences are consuming, as well as think about how we can continue to innovate and evolve this experience.
This is a very impressive portfolio. I’m curious to know a little bit more about your job as Vice President Consumer Products.
I started out as a reporter but found my way into product in part because I was as fascinated by how we put out our news and information as I was by how we reported on it. The product role really is thinking about the platforms and the consumer experiences, not just necessarily how they show up on the device, but whether we are creating ever more engaging news and information experiences. How do we create something that’s not only intended to be read, but might be intended to be heard, or engaged with, or saved? And all these experiences really speak to the dimensionality that news has today versus how it had been for quite a bit prior to the period that we’re in.
How do you organize your teams, as I suppose you work in many interdisciplinary teams and how did you manage to keep them motivated during the pandemic?
Our teams are focused on the product lifecycle and strategy, and we manage that in partnership with our engineering teams. Our teams are structured around our core news products, a portfolio that includes native applications, as well as websites and other related experiences. We also have a non-news portfolio that includes some of our owned and operated experiences and new development areas. We also support infrastructure, the content management systems, data, and asset management systems that power a lot of our network. And we’ve been very fortunate in the case of the pandemic because we also have a very decentralized structure to start with. It was not a complete change for us, as we had a lot of teams that were working remotely. So really the shift was for those folks who were coming into some of our offices across the country. However, having that foothold really allowed our teams to focus, gave us a bit of pre-existing muscle and made sure we were inclusive of teams who weren’t in the room, both literally and metaphorically. One of the things that we really had to acknowledge during the pandemic, though, is that it had a lot of personal impacts for everyone. One of the key things that we identified is none of us have ever been in a situation like this. We needed to be prepared to be flexible and compassionate and also remind people that in an unprecedented event, news and information has never been more important. Their jobs and our role has never been more important.
You have so many stakeholders. I suppose one of the challenges that one has in such a position is to communicate new and innovative values that you bring to the company. What are your ingredients for success in communication?
I am fortunate in the sense that everyone in our organization, both in the product and editorial and marketing, is very passionate about our business and about the opportunities that technology is constantly evolving and presenting.
Oftentimes our role is to ask: “Is this a new area that we should run into and explore, or is it one that we should actually wait and see how it plays out to make sure that it makes sense for us as an organization?”
How I encourage the product team to show up in those conversations is to recognize that our role is of true collaborators and partners to all of our other stakeholders. That’s been part of the evolution.
Part of that is not to deliver an ‘ask’, but instead to explore what they are trying to accomplish. And it does take a lot of conversations. It takes a lot of good faith for them to build that trusted relationship and to be clear that for any change you need to explain what that’s going to accomplish. What the goals are, and whether we might actually be able to do something even better.”
Being able to deliver that ‘even better’ has done a lot towards making that accomplishment come to life.
“How I encourage the product team to show up in those conversations is to recognize that our role is of true collaborators and partners to all of our other stakeholders.”Kara Chiles, Vice President Consumer Products at Gannett
You’re not positioned as a service provider inside the company, but you are the partner that delivers innovation, right?
Correct, I think to be honest where individuals are used to more of an service desk relationship from their product teams this comes as a bit of a surprise. But part of this is coming not from a position of defensiveness, but openness and collaboration. That doesn’t mean that we don’t get into some pretty spirited debates with stakeholders. We have strong opinions across different teams. It’s where we also make an effort to show up as respectful partners and come armed with data-informed evidence that would explain why we would look at other solutions.
The best sign of your success is the array of award-winning products; is there a particular product or project you are proudest of.
If you’re going to ask me to pick my favorite child, it’s going to be difficult.
If I look at the products that we’ve launched most recently, one that’s an example of a true cross-functional collaboration it would be USA Today Sports+.
It is our most recent launch.
About Spring last year we got a group together to start recognizing and doing research around the opportunity that we saw to deliver a new premium sports enthusiast experience. We’re using the term ‘experience’ very specifically because we understand that we have a highly engaged audience, both locally and nationally for our sports content. But we also recognize that these are not necessarily news consumers. These are fans. They love their sports team, whether those are big names, hometown teams or college teams.
We got together our product and engineering teams, with our editorial and marketing teams. Then we put together the research, we did the business proposal, we got buy-in from our executive leadership, got sign-off, and launched our product last month.
The result is a platform that allows users to personalize what they want to follow, engage in AR experiences that are not offered on our core platforms, and also to have something that exists as a second screen experience as they change how they consume sports. We’re really excited, and as ever what I like is the blend of:
– Have we found the right audience?
– Do we have the right content?
– Are we giving them something different and special?
Kara, our last question: how do you picture the future of the news media industry?
This is the big question, isn’t it? If I had the answer figured out, I would definitely be building those things into our roadmap as our top priority. We have some thoughts about what those things are, but we also acknowledge we’re still exploring and discovering because we’re seeing audiences are looking for different things. As someone who started out as a newspaper reporter and is now leading a news product organization, I come back to the need and the demand for news has been constant throughout my career. I see that continuing to be the case for the years to come. I think the need for credible, accurate news is just as strong but now we have to combine it with increasingly high relevance for the individual. As we unpack and explore how we can deliver that to consumers, we’re excited about the experiment. We’d like to think we are building the future of the news experience.
I take three key words for the future of news: it’s about trusted news, high quality news and highly relevant information.
I think it’s one of those things we’ve all experienced. We gravitate to the things that we feel like we can’t get somewhere else. I would say it’s exclusive, in the sense that we know that there’s a lot of commodity in the marketplace and folks feel information should be free. What we would argue, though, is that if you want a quality level of news that you can feel very sure is giving you trusted and credible information, and you just can’t get that somewhere else, then it should be valued, and valuable. Making it relevant to every unique user, that’s the hard part, but that’s also the exciting part.
I thank you very much for your time and for the valuable insights into your work, Kara.
Well, thank you so much for having me. I appreciate the time.
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