Case Study

The point of product is people

News Catalyst’s product-oriented approach to our programs and services meant the needs of people drove everything we did. It is this approach that led to, and catalyzed, Tiny News Collective.

By Heather Bryant

December 14, 2023

As The Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund, a joint venture between the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, enters its fifth and final year, we’re sharing insights, lessons, and best practices from our grantee-partners to better understand their impact and help shape the broader field. Sign up for The Lenfest Institute’s Solution Set newsletter to receive all the latest updates and posts sharing lessons from the Fund. 

The journalism industry is a hard place to start something with any confidence that you will be able to finish it. “Finishing” is a bit of a nebulous concept in our field because the work of news and information will never be done. So planning for something to intentionally end, as we did with News Catalyst, was a bit of an unusual approach. News Catalyst was launched in 2019 and focused on technology, product, and collaboration in service of building digitally sustainable local news organizations. After five years, it is now sunsetting, with the work continuing through partner organizations.

Knowing an end will come provides a clarity of purpose without the pressure of permanence. For News Catalyst, that clarity included one simple truth: most people can do most things with the proper support.

In our work, that support took the shape of collaboration, the shared language of product-thinking, and the creation of collective infrastructure.

Aron Pilhofer has written about our networked approach to News Catalyst’s projects because we felt strongly that building things collaboratively with the right partners was a better use of time and resources than building News Catalyst as another brand to add to the media landscape.

This collaborative mentality is a key piece of product thinking because a product-driven process starts and ends with people — first in determining what they need and later in learning how it has worked (or not worked) for them.

For News Catalyst, one of our original initiatives was product-driven partnerships with existing news organizations who needed support to truly incorporate more structure and rigor into their internal processes. In early 2020, we put out a pitch for newsrooms to partner with us around product development. Three fascinating and key themes emerged: 1) many organizations did not yet have a firm grasp on what we were even talking about; 2) they weren’t sure how it fit into their existing needs and plans;  3) a pandemic is a massive priority changer.

It was that last thing that truly put a hitch in our existing plans. It’s also what drove the most appropriate next question we could ask: Who needs help right now and not getting it? 

The answer is what focused our early work and what would ultimately become the Tiny News Collective.

Laying the foundation: Who needs help right now?

It is this question that maintained our commitment to the growth of News Product Alliance and the product immersion training program. NPA brings together what was once a distributed and disconnected community of product thinkers who are often very much alone in their organizations. Through NPA, they have not only a community of peers but opportunities for learning, growing, and collaboratively developing product thinking. The Product Immersion Program brought together those solo product practitioners from first, around the country, and later around the world. An experience that not only fostered skills development, it gave people a vocabulary and a framework to explain and share the work they were doing for their organizations, often unrecognized and undervalued.

When we began talking to ecosystem partners, we learned that the biggest gap in opportunities for support  was for the newest and earliest-stage local news and information projects. These were organizations with one or two people at the helm who were new to the world of news entrepreneurship, but like us, looked around and saw people with needs they wanted to meet.

One of the themes of feedback that we received from the Product Immersion Program that has truly stuck with me is how empowered people became inside their organizations when they gained access to a vocabulary and framework that helped them explain to their teams and leadership what they were doing with their projects. Product thinking and the language that came with it became an effective tool for them to help everyone actually align around purpose, tactics, and clear goals.

The road to the Tiny News Collective

With the Tiny News Collective, we focused our early research in speaking with small, local publishers who were already a couple years into their work to find out what they didn’t have when they first started that would have made a difference to them. Key themes around technology, help in prioritizing early decisions, fiscal sponsorship, and general business resources emerged. TNC started with three service areas: an affordable, right-sized technology stack that offered multiple revenue streams; fiscal sponsorship; and training and resources around entrepreneurship and publishing.

Similar to our product training, we also found collaboratively building and sharing the common vocabulary on entrepreneurship, civic journalism, product-thinking and DEIB with Tiny News Collective founders is empowering the growth of a much broader coalition of newsroom founders than what has historically been represented in media ownership.

These founders are using these frameworks and vocabularies to look at their communities, identify information needs, and develop strategies for meeting those needs. TNC founders are building for service and utility, which we believe is the best tactic for their long-term viability as information providers in their communities.

These founders are able to be of service because they aren’t chasing their perception of news needs; they’re listening, they’re learning ,and then they are responding with journalism and resources that help their audiences navigate their lives.

Focusing on the needs of actual people and not focusing on building News Catalyst as a brand in and of itself has resulted in the creation of an entirely new sustainable support organization in the Tiny News Collective and the creation of more than a dozen local news organizations across the country.

Having now supported the development of more than 20 new local news organizations with many more ready to join, the Tiny News Collective is moving forward as a fully independent nonprofit with new funding from the Knight Foundation and solid growth plans in the coming year. Though News Catalyst will be sunsetting, the deeply user-centered approach lives on in TNC’s collective principles in centering member needs.

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