Evolving Newsroom 1: Karen Johnson, Head of Product Innovation & Research at Bloomberg Media

Good morning and welcome to the inaugural profile on Evolving Newsroom.

A few house keeping notes before we start

  • I’m asking everyone the same set of questions (every now and again one or two might not be applicable, in these cases we just skip over) and they have been designed to try and elicit insightful and comprehensive answers but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in other good questions to ask. (If you have ideas for great questions to ask email me)

  • Thoughtful comments and questions are encouraged and I’ll ask each person being profiled to follow up and answer after a few days so they can do it in one go and give more considered responses

  • Please send me thoughts and feedback on the project, either via the comments or twitter or email. I want to know what you think!

I’d like to introduce Karen Johnson, Head of Product Innovation & Research at Bloomberg Media.

What does your title mean in practise?

My job is to work with product, design and tech teams to make news experiences better for the people who use them. At the core of my work is the function of understanding how and why news and information fits into people’s lives and helping teams to translate these audience insights into decisions that will help make news products more useful, interesting and meaningful. 

I started my career at Bloomberg as a product researcher which means much of my work has tended to ebb and flow based on where we are in the lifecycle of a project This usually falls into one of five buckets: 1) UX research and testing 2) bringing new concepts and solutions to life through quick-win experiments 3) communicating and sharing insights 4) design and product strategy 5) managing teams, tools and systems to make this kind of work easier for teams to do on their own.

Where does the role sit/what department does your role report to?

Org lines can get really blurry on the product side of media companies — my job sits at the intersection of design, product, technology and business but on paper my headcount falls within our product team. I report to Bloomberg Media’s Chief Product Officer, Julia Beizer. This has afforded me a level of reach that I don’t think I’d have if I reported to a design, marketing or traditional business lead.

Much of my time at Bloomberg has been spent working with BHIVE, an innovation and research team that I co-founded several years ago. Our team is cross-functional and we borrow resources from across the org, including engineering, design and editorial.

When was the role created, what attracted you to it and what is your background?

I joined Bloomberg Media more than 3 years ago as the first UX specialist and only dedicated researcher within the organization. The primary focus of my position was to bring BHIVE, a research and prototyping team to life, along with my founding teammates, David Harding (engineering) and Tiff Hockin (design).

The team was brought together by my then hiring manager, Ambika Nigam, who came from IDEO. I was introduced to her by a former boss who knew I had a background in both news, design, research and strategy. What excited me about this gig was the opportunity to help build an innovation team from the ground up. I’ve always loved working with curious, creative people who like to make new things. BHIVE has given me the unique opportunity to learn from some of the smartest folks in the media business and to bring what we learn into the broader organization.

Taking the role seemed like a risk at first. In a way, it seemed too good to be true  — internal “innovation” teams often risk working in a silo or not being able to scale their work into production. BHIVE has managed to keep one foot in the future (exploring and testing new experiences) and the other in the present with successful product launches that have exposed the business to new audiences and increased engagement.

And my role continues to evolve. About a year ago, my responsibilities expanded to focus a lot more on bringing innovation practices into the broader product organization. Additionally, some of BHIVE’s projects have matured, allowing me the opportunity to wear different hats and cultivate new skills that require more business and product acumen.

So, in a way, I’m lucky that the pieces just came together. Joining Bloomberg and leading BHIVE has allowed me to tap into my past working in news, digital product, design and research. I’m grateful to have found a place at this intersection.

What is the most unexpected thing about the role?

I spend less time talking to users than one might imagine. “Capital-R Research” activities — interviews, analysis, synthesis, generating insights, qualitative workshops, etc.  — are just part of the role. But I think people would be surprised by how much of my time is spent working with teams to help them align on goals, make decisions and to take chances with new ideas.

Lately, my work has also evolved to take on more of a coaching role. I work closely with product managers and designers as they’re starting to think about new product opportunities. My role is to both help them get really crisp on their vision and how that vision aligns with the needs of their audience. The other thing I work with teams on is to help them integrate the research and testing milestones they’ll need to bring their ideas to life and to validate them.

Moving toward a role of advisor has been really rewarding — this wasn’t unexpected but I was worried that I would miss being close to the action. I still find ways to stay close to product work. For me, it’s important to always have a project where I’m leading research or have a direct stake in the product outcome. I’ve learned that this is really important to me and helps me feel grounded in my craft.

What is the most challenging thing about the role?

Not gonna lie. Not everyone I work with understands what I do or the business value of bringing the voice of our audience into the product development process.

This means that I’ve had to really have bias toward showing rather than explaining to managers and teams the value of our research and testing.

Product, design and UX research in media are emerging fields. It feels nice to be doing this kind of work in an industry whose mission I feel so connected to. That said, I think anyone stepping into this corner of the news world should know that there isn’t always a well-beaten path to growth and development in “emerging” fields. I’ve heard similar sentiments from colleagues in roles that are relatively new to the org.

Working alone as a subject matter expert or with a small team means that professional development and growth can be a little different for folks like us. I’ve adjusted to this by finding mentors and peers to connect with from other organizations. I also try my best to build strong relationships with leaders from across the org who can advocate for me and help advocate for the value of research and my team’s contributions.

What is the most useful thing you have learnt?

Putting users at the center actually makes for better product experiences. Products that take into account user needs, feedback and behavior simply do better.

What skills do you need for your job/do you find yourself using most often?

I’d break my top skills into two broad categories of hard skills and soft skills. The skills that I needed for my job on paper are things that you might often associate with UX and design research: building prototypes and wireframes, designing a research study,  synthesizing and communicating findings and insights, working with teams to define measurable goals, etc.

I think as I’ve grown in my role and focused more on leading large-scale projects, I’ve learned it’s the softer skills that I rely on the most: communicating effectively across teams, facilitating decision-making, adapting to change, coalition building around big ideas — these are the things that I have enjoyed focusing on as the scope of my work has evolved.

Where do you go to find inspiration, what from outside journalism do you take back and apply to your role?

I’m writing this in my 15th week of mostly social distancing in Harlem and in the midst of a long overdue national awakening on systemic racism in America. Honestly, I’m finding inspiration in protest and resistance that I’m seeing around the country and around my own block. I haven’t been to a grocery store or visited friends in three months but I am biking and walking in solidarity with the black community and to demand reform in our policing.

Getting out and speaking truth to power has also inspired me to learn and read more about racism, antiracism and confronting what I don’t yet know about black experiences and history. I’m working on being a better ally and have asked my colleagues to join me in reading  Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist”, through an employee book club. 

It’s important to find inspiration in solutions and patterns that we see outside of our work and industries. The world is changing and news experience and delivery will need to change in order to meet the needs of our audiences.

We must start confronting and addressing issues of bias and institutional racism within news experiences and coverage. A book club is just a start but as a product leader, I’m looking forward to using my privilege and position to help shepherd conversations about bias, racism and help identify ways for us to be part of the solution.

How do you make hard decisions?

The toughest decisions I face as a creative product leader often revolve around choosing between multiple design solutions or options  — in that instance, I’ve found it helpful to revisit two things: 1) what’s the goal we’re trying to achieve?  2) what’s the problem that we’re solving? Clarifying the intentions on these two things will often bring clarity to decision making.

For many product teams, the idea of “choosing” is something that can be left up to the audience via “test-and-learn” approaches. This can come in the form of qualitative feedback (user studies) or more quantitative approaches (A/B tests etc.) that allow teams to put multiple options into the wild and see what performs better. But this isn’t a realistic solution for every decision a team needs to make.

My experiences have also taught me that when in doubt or if stuck between two really good scenarios, it’s important to think about what’s good for the team? As news product people we’re lucky to work with practitioners who have a bias toward making things and bringing things to life. Which option / solution will get your team most excited? What might help the team make the case for a bigger initiative? Or showcase their talents? These considerations often guide me toward the right decision.

What do you wish you knew when you took the job?

That the org structure is really, really important. Understanding who reports to whom, how decisions are made and how strategic priorities are set is so important. I think for many people — especially SMEs — there’s a desire to just do your craft but that can be complicated in a big, complex organization. Make sure you understand how your role and the outcome of your work fits into the broader org before you jump in. While you might have the opportunity to negotiate or optimize your position before you jump into a new job, it’s often much harder once you’re in the belly of the beast.

When you hire what are you looking for above all else?

In a fast-moving product environment, I think something that’s just essential is a desire and experience to collaborate with others. I want to work with people who bring out the best in their teammates.

What story or project are you most proud of so far? Tell us about how it came to be and why you are proud of it.

It’s hard to pick just one… but I think I’m gonna go with a BHIVE project launched last year called Bloomberg Work Wise  — an interactive career calculator and limited-run newsletter experiment designed to both inspire and inform career decision-making. The project was the culmination of extensive research, design and testing that really brings to life how an audience-led design process can really move the needle within an organization.

What’s one thing you thought would be would happen in the news industry when you started but hasn’t? Why?

I remember writing a story about diversity in newsrooms for my college newspaper in the mid-2000s. The headline then was something like: there’s a huge gap in representation across gender and race and we need to do better. Nearly two decades later, the modern newsroom is still stuck behind the color line. News media is still overwhelmingly white (also overwhelmingly male) — and all of this while many top publications are located in minority-majority cities.

Establishing an institutionally supported diverse news organization takes time, commitment and vision to build. I’m hopeful that the recent wave and interest from media companies in support of BLM and the renewed interest in D&I programming and goals will help us bring more diversity into news and media orgs and also promote a culture that will encourage POC to stay and grow within organizations. 

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Keeping up

What is one book/blogpost/podcast/link you’d like to share?

How I Built This with Guy Raz is a fun one that helps me to think about business and product in new ways. I’ve always learned best from people’s stories and experiences. Each episode is like a mini business case study — perfect for when I need a little entrepreneurial inspiration.

What or who do you like to read/listen to/watch/subscribe to/follow to keep up with how the industry is changing?

Neiman Lab is great, mixed with some industry pubs like The Drum and Ars Technica.

What is your Favourite film/TV series about the news?

Hmm...Sharp Objects? It’s kind of a creepy pick but I had a lot of nostalgia for the fact that the main character was a writer working for a small town newspaper. Also, one more: The Colbert Report — it’s an oldie but a goodie and still the best example of how news satire can be be used to follow the real news.

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