Tawanda Kanhema believes in the power of a well-told story. The former journalist has spent his career surfacing information and amplifying voices from lesser-heard communities. As a lead product manager at Pocket, he reminds his team to continue driving value back to journalists, and to feature content that helps readers better understand the world around them. And he’s not stopping there. Tawanda and his team are exploring how to reach global audiences as they continue to build community through sharing information around the world.
What is Pocket, and what’s your role on the team?
Pocket is a platform for discovering and saving content on the web. If you see an article or video online, you can put it in your Pocket to come back to later; we also recommend articles we think our users will enjoy. To curate those suggestions, editors at Pocket sift through the most recommended and most read stories from a wide and diverse range of publications, and then hand-pick the best for readers on Firefox and Pocket.
I’m a lead product manager for growth, and I focus mostly on what we call Firefox Home, the page you see when you open a new tab, which is one of the places we offer recommendations. I work with Engineering, Design, Data Science, and our publishing partners to make sure we’re surfacing the most valuable stories for our users and generating revenue that helps support both the people making content and Pocket itself.
Tell us about your background and why you joined Pocket.
I spent the first 16 years of my career in journalism, working in print, broadcast, and most recently digital media. My last job was as a product manager for Al Jazeera and AJ+, working on internal tools for the newsroom as well as applications for our audience. Then, before I joined Pocket, I spent three months on a project for Google Street View, mapping remote locations in Northern Ontario, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, where I’m from. I’d actually been planning that for years; as an international student in the U.S., I’d always found it difficult to give my friends a sense of what the rest of the world was like. For most people, the only images they have of places outside the states and Western Europe are what they see in mainstream media.
To me, joining Pocket was another way to expose people to other cultures. All storytelling is inherently about representation—when we read an article or watch a video, we’re looking for what we have in common with the person it’s about. And that’s what drives our product strategy. We want to amplify voices from lesser-heard communities and help the people that use our products better understand the world around them.
I’d also been part of the Mozilla community for quite a while, because I’d done a lot of work with open-source virtual reality products while working as a product manager for emerging technologies. Mozilla was a pioneer in WebVR, which lets people interact with 360-degree images and video through their web browser without an additional device. So joining the team was an easy transition.
Tell us more about Pocket’s product strategy. How do you amplify those lesser-heard voices?
I start with the assumption that there’s great content out there we haven’t seen. To find it, we have to look in our blind spots. Yes, we should consider stories from the big publishers, the domains we already know. But we also need to look at stories from smaller newsrooms and domains we’ve never heard of before. When you open a new tab in Firefox, you should get something fresh and surprising, not just The New York Times and The Guardian. For example, there’s a great story from Texas Monthly, The Doting Boyfriend Who Robbed Armored Cars, that did incredibly well. Mozilla and Pocket have a role to play in the larger content ecosystem, and identifying opportunities to promote emerging writers and publishers is definitely part of our job.
What’s most challenging about your work?
This isn’t specific to Mozilla—it’s more of an existential question. But what I’m always asking myself is, “How can we do more to improve the state of journalism?” It’s so much harder for a publication to stay viable today, compared to even 10 years ago. And that’s especially true right now, when a lot of newsrooms have been hit hard by the economic fallout from COVID-19. So we’re always looking for ways to drive more value to journalists and amplify the audiences they can reach.
One way we do that is by looking beyond the content that was published today or yesterday. We recently syndicated a New Yorker piece, The Really Big One—it’s from 2015, but it had been saved by Pocket users thousands of times, and it’s a great story. For a newsroom, that mindset shift is so powerful, because it changes the entire incentive structure. Instead of being on a hamster wheel, constantly trying to churn out more and more content, they can get additional value out of the work they’ve already done.
What opportunities are you excited about right now?
I think our greatest opportunity is taking the experience we’ve developed in the U.S., the U.K., and Germany, and expanding that to the rest of the world—making it accessible to more people. We need to figure out what Pocket should look like for the millions of Firefox users in France, and the users in Spain, Australia, India, and all these other markets.
It’s not just about getting more people to engage with Pocket, though; it’s about giving those people a better content experience. I spend a lot of my time buried in dashboards, and obviously metrics are a useful way to quantify the value of the work we’re doing. But if Mozilla and Pocket didn’t also care about the impact those stories have on communities and supporting the newsrooms we work with, they wouldn’t have hired so many people like me. I see myself as an advocate for journalism within the company, and what matters most to me is that our users find our content truly valuable, that we’re exposing them to other communities but also giving them an inclusive experience reflective of their own culture and values, and that we’re helping publishers expand their audiences. When we build a great product, we’re helping build new communities, too.