Design thinking towards a new, more engaged journalism

(Cross-posted at the Stanford d.school web site)

Frogtown1

Twenty journalists stand in a small wooded clearing behind a community day care center in St. Paul. There are no deadlines today. No assignments. No “newshole” to fill. Just questions to ask and people to meet in a historically diverse and challenged neighborhood called Frogtown.

The journalists listen intently as residents step forth to talk affectionately of their neighborhood, Frogtown. Soon, the scribes and producers break up into teams and spread out into the community.  It’s gorgeous, 80 degrees, and we’ve got our walking shoes on.

This day-long experiment is part of a larger initiative to combine old-fashioned beat-the-streets reporting with the latest networked technologies. It’s also the latest effort in a budding campaign, early and imperfect, to apply design thinking to journalism. Both are what I hope will become a widespread, concerted response to the disconnections that have imperiled journalism and distanced journalists from the public they serve.
The reality of the modern journalist is, in practice, not that far off from any other cube-farm denizen: Work the phones, stare at your computer, crank out the copy. It’s not a stretch to blame the feed-the-beast, factory model of production for the commodifying of news, rising distrust among the public, a distancing of journalist from community, not to mention thin business models based on cheap traffic instead of rich engagement.

But take a moment and empathize with the modern journalist: She is under extreme pressure to ask questions she knows someone will answer succinctly and by deadline. There’s little time to wonder why, or ask why not, or to ponder the broader question: so what’s really going on. There are shows to produce, stories to write, newsholes to fill. And surely we media consumers’ appetite for the new and novel is voracious. But yet, I suspect that (though they’d have a hard time articulating it if asked) extreme users among us (news junkies, constant listeners and the uninterested and disengaged) suffer from a certain information malnourishment.

So, here’s the design thinking challenge: how might we combine on-the-ground reporting with networked technologies to create awesome, revelatory journalism?

Seems a tall order. But we have the raw materials at hand. For the past seven years, we at American Public Media have been building a new form of journalistic audience engagement known as the Public Insight Network. The PIN, as we know it, is a way of doing journalism, and a way of thinking about journalism. Sources in the Network receive queries from journalists and Public Insight analysts targeted to them based on demographics, past responses, interests, etc. All responses flow into a database, enabling better query targeting down the line. Even seven years old (eons in Internet years), and with 85,000 sources around the world, the PIN is in its infancy. Twelve newsrooms are Public Insight partners, and we expect to have implemented the Network in 30 by the end of the year—with prospects for substantial growth and technical development on the horizon.

With solid, adventurous work here, we can rapidly prototype and iterate new approaches to engagement and news coverage that make the best use ofresources like the Public Insight Network, Hacks/Hackers, and the leadership of newsroom visionaries around the country, to purposefully meander (the design thinker’s drunken walk) towards a new age of engaged journalism.

And then there are news leaders—like design thinking aficionado John Keefe, senior executive producer at WNYC in New York, or Anders Gyllenhaal, editor of the Miami Herald, or Jonathan Weber at the new Bay Citizen, and principals the Knight Foundation, which funds our work as well as hundreds of journalism innovation initiatives around the country—who recognize that engagement is the key to the future of journalism, and who are doing the spadework so that a new/old kind of hyper-engaged journalism can take root. And there are fascinating new ventures like Hacks/Hackers (led by former Stanford Knight Fellow and d.school alumni Burt Herman) and an abundance of barcamps that are bringing journalists and programmers together to dream up new techno-social ventures to create more relevant, enticing forms of journalism.

But the success or failure of this work turns on how we answer a single question: How are we meeting the information needs of people, of citizens, and of our democracy? To adequately and rigorously explore this question, we need to deploy armies of design thinking ninjas to conduct in-depth interviews, to patiently observe people in their native habitats, so we can understand what it is we’re missing from our information diets. What’s the gap between what we say we get from the news, and what we demonstrate that we get from the news by what we do? What deeper set of needs does news serve, and how might we reinvent how we produce journalism to serve those needs? On a societal level, where is the evidence of information gaps, and how might we fill those?

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