When we launched our news product training pilot last February, we knew it would be key for local news organizations’ survival in the long run; product thinking would put them on a path to find new audiences, improve internal processes and monetize news, in time.

And then COVID-19 hit.

What happened next is what convinced us to expand the Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms training program, with today’s announcement of three more training cohorts starting in early 2021. The training is organized by NewsCatalyst and J+ and tuition-free, thanks to continued support from the Google News Initiative.

When COVID-19 hit, we fully expected our fellows to step away from the training as they turned their full attention to the devastating pandemic. But that’s not what happened.

Instead, they used what they learned in our training to launch news products that answered the urgent needs of their communities, including newsletters, events and membership offerings. They used product methods to improve their internal communications as they started working remotely; and they embraced the audience-first ethos at the heart of the product discipline.

As it turns out, product thinking is a great asset in a crisis.

Related: New group offers a place for product people in newsrooms (and the newsrooms that need them)

“COVID-19 was like nothing I or our newsrooms had experienced before. Things changed by the hour or minute,” said Alana Christensen, our fellow from Australia. “Product thinking helped me apply deliberate thinking and strategy to a chaotic news cycle.”

Floco Torres, another of our fellows from The Devil Strip in Akron, Ohio, said the training gave him the “the tools needed” to help the organization respond to a rapidly changing environment.

“Processes that I thought would slowly be worked in down the line became vital in less than three weeks,” he said.

The 25 program fellows came from small newsrooms in 12 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Poland, and Ukraine. We deliberately chose participants from diverse news outlets, including print, digital, and public media. We also ensured diversity among the participants: more than half were journalists of color and nearly three-quarters were women. The fellows had little or no product experience but a willingness to learn.

We kicked off the program with a bootcamp coupled with SRCCON: Product in Philadelphia, followed by six weeks of webinars and discussions. In early March, we made the swift decision to put all our remaining sessions online, for everyone’s safety and health.

The program focused on the product culture – audience-first, collaborative, experimental and iterative – and took the fellows through the stages of product development and management – building a product team, audience research, product development processes, running experiments, metrics and revenue. All sessions were led by trail-blazing product leaders.

“COVID-19 isn’t the first or last crisis that the field of journalism will have to adapt to. It’s only the current one. What we learn now and the practices we develop will play a vital part of the continuation of journalism as a field of work,” Marco Túlio Pires, from the Google News Initiative, said.

The next three cohorts of the program will each focus on a different region of the world: the Americas (GMT-8 to -3), Europe/Africa (GMT 0 to +3), and Asia Pacific (GMT+5.5 to +10). Applications will open in mid-October for the Americas cohort, which is meant for journalists located in Latin America, the United States and Canada. Sign up for the mailing list for updates.

Heather Bryant is deputy director, product, of News Catalyst. Marie Gilot is director of professional development and leads J+ at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. Jessica Morrison is product lead at News Catalyst and a senior product manager at Chemical and Engineering News. Aron Pilhofer is director of News Catalyst, a project based at Temple University designed to help news organizations become sustainable digital businesses. 

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