A customer-service journalism experiment

Tim Regan-Porter, Lisa Rossi, André Natta and JulieAnn McKellogg recently at The Clock Factory in Berkeley, California, where they designed a local news coffee shop takeover. Credit: Melissa Briggs

This report was prepared by JulieAnn McKellogg, André Natta, Tim Regan-Porter and Lisa Rossi.

In his early career days, André Natta was a concierge at a high-end hotel in Savannah, Georgia.

When customers arrived, André would ask them about the purpose of their stay. He learned what they did for fun and what sort of restaurants they liked. And then he would give them recommendations on where to go in the city.

He said that level of attention and service netted results — repeat customers, who came back, both for the beautiful hotel and for André’s recommendations.

Fast-forward 17 years, and André is now a seasoned journalist, spending a year at Stanford University as a John S. Knight Journalism fellow. He is a member of our team, which is studying issues confronting readers and producers of local news. We are Team Local. We want to strengthen the relationship between readers and local news organizations.

We recently enrolled in a weekend class held by the d.school, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, titled “Design for Influence,” with this challenge in mind.

In the class, we were given techniques to create a powerful experience that would motivate participants to take action.

In an era where news organizations need all the repeat customers they can get, we decided we’d channel André’s experience as a concierge and create an in-person local news experience. After a day of learning how to do this, our team spent a week researching and planning the 10-minute experience, in which our peers and guests from all over Stanford shared with each other what was meaningful about their community.

Here’s what we did and the process we followed:

Learned the customers’ barriers to consuming local news. We drew insights from interviews with potential news consumers. We saw that the issues people were most interested in were not covered. We also learned that people had trouble taking action when they worried about a civic issue. Who do they call? What community could support their efforts to push change? How do they challenge someone in authority?

Defined the problem: The team decided to focus on a narrow problem. And that was: Local news is not serving the needs of its readers. Team members, many recently from the trenches of local news, talked about how they had been creating journalism that they thought was valuable, but their effort to directly connect it to the deeper needs of readers was lacking intention and focus. The customer service link that André had as a concierge was broken.

Selected an audience to serve: We decided to serve 25-to-35-year-old un-engaged local news consumers. We wanted to focus on younger readers because they are future civic leaders, parents and the next generation of potentially engaged news consumers. We also wanted a big challenge, so we decided to focus on those who were completely disconnected. How could local journalists win their attention?

Chose a metaphor. Instructors directed the team to select a metaphor for the live experience. We selected a coffee shop, inspired by the service offered by the baristas, who create customized drinks for the consumer who knows what sort of milk, coffee bean and flavor should be in her drink. It reminded us of how news consumers want to be heard and have a hand in inspiring stories. Team members also talked about how coffee shops can be great places to get into conversations with people from the community. Finally, we added a twist. We decided to staff the coffee shop with a concierge. But we called him a “cookierge.” André volunteered to be a “cookierge,” a concierge who would listen to customers, their interests and their needs, while handing out cookies.

Designed the experience. We started with a scripted intro, welcoming the crowd to the coffee shop, calling it a “reimagined local news experience.” We instructed visitors to grab a cup of coffee and pair up with a new friend. The next step? Have a simple conversation about one observation about where they live. We told participants that we would be mingling in the room, and listening and learning from the conversations. We invited people to talk to the cookierge, who was circulating through the room as conversations were underway. After the experience, we thanked everyone for coming. We left participants with a simple call to action to help people connect to their communities: Read five minutes of local news per day for two weeks.

Measured the results. We gave participants a survey from the d.school. We learned that people loved the experience of interacting with André. But participants wanted more direction from journalists about how to conduct their conversations. They also said they struggled to understand the connection between having a conversation with someone and the call to action to read more local news. The team needed to smooth out that message.

Lessons learned:

When designing a news experiment, make sure to define the problem first.

We flailed at the beginning as we tried to figure out what the experience should be. We were throwing out ideas with little structure, and getting nervous over such a tight turnaround — just one week. Then we realized we had a flaw in the process. We were working out of order. We agreed to stop talking about ideas until we defined the problem, which was informed by the insights from our conversations with readers. Once we ironed that out, we were able to move forward with easier consensus. At every step of the way, we asked ourselves: does this part of the experience address the problem? The answer was easier to find this way.

The coffee shop conversations should have had more structure.

It wasn’t enough to coach people to share an observation about their community. We should have structured the conversation a bit more, giving participants each one minute to share with each other and then a minute to reflect on each other’s words. We should have carefully defined how we, as journalists, would conduct ourselves during the conversations. Should people expect that we will take notes? Ask one question? Use their information in any way? This speaks to a larger truth in news organizations where we have worked: We need to better moderate conversations.

If all else fails, hand out cookies and listen to readers.

This was the part of our experience that resonated the most with the audience. They loved having a conversation with a concierge and getting a cookie. So simple! If a newsroom were to try this experience, (Cookie Fridays, anyone?) we would advise going through the process of understanding readers or subscribers, defining one problem to solve based on insights from readers, designing an experience to solve that problem, and making sure participants give feedback on whether it solved the problem.

Have any great stories of customer-service oriented journalism? We want to hear them! Email Lisa Rossi at lrossi@stanford.edu.