Jeff Bezos may be one of the most widely known disruptors at the moment, but he’s not the only one, as our class found in researching 16 rapidly changing news organizations. (Illustration by Charis Tsevis, republished with permission.)

Designing disruption: Innovation and change rocking the news media right now.

From a morning newspaper in rural Washington state and a family owned Montana radio network, to National Geographic, Cosmo and The Atlantic, news media companies of all stripes are tackling crises and taking chances, to stay alive or stay thriving. Following are summaries of final research projects examining these organizations, based on interviews with change leaders, by students in J494: The Spring 2015 Pollner Seminar, “Critical Thinking About Design and Disruption,” at the University of Montana School of Journalism. To review our annotated course syllabus, visit this link. For more on the Pollner Endowment that created this class, visit this link.

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Thinking outside the (gold) box: Legendary photo magazine explodes with digital innovations, audience engagement
[Report by Evan Frost]

A “drab scientific publication wrapped in a plain brown cover” is how former Editor in Chief Chris Johns describes the first edition of National Geographic magazine in the 125th anniversary issue. After 127 years in print, the magazine couldn’t be more different. The evolution from a dense scientific publication to one of the largest non-profit scientific organizations in the world was not an overnight affair. The history of the company is a series of innovations and adaptations, never happening more rapidly than in the last decade. Read the rest of the report, here on Medium …
Digital startup uses humor, attitude to report on climate and environment
[Report by Celia Tobin]

The media landscape is changing. Legacy publications are transitioning, disrupting, and negotiating new waters that force them to either sink or swim. Amidst this turmoil, a new generation of publications is, in effect, a product of the chaos. Grist, an environmental online-only news organization out of Seattle, has disruption encoded into its DNA. Read the rest of the report …

From events, social media, and a vision: Building a worldwide brand of information for mothers
[Report by Jess Neary]

To Mamalode’s CEO Elke Govertsen, Mamalode is not a magazine. It’s a mashup of connections that have somehow pulled together to form a publication that reaches far beyond its birthplace of Montana. What started as a local event to bring moms together turned into a printed magazine, which turned into a web site, which turned into a global community. Read the rest of the report …

From a legendary magazine to a pioneer in digital, including … Snapchat?
[Report by Suzie Chiem]

Think you know the Cosmo girl? Think again. The magazine’s top editors are disrupting that idea, and innovating in a variety of ways to expand audience, increase revenue, and keep the historic brand alive for a long time to come. Since it is the bible for young women wanting to live “fun and fearless” lives, reaching more than 18 million readers a month, Cosmopolitan has created a new focus that isn’t just for “girls.” Read the rest of the report, here on Medium …

From deep roots, a nonprofit publication branches out, and finds circulation at an all-time high
[Report by Brea Gaudioso]

For adventurers of the West, environment is everything. High Country News has taken this into account and created an organization that thrives on coverage of the people and the issues in this region. HCN, a 45-year-old publication, found its niche in longform journalism that covers the intersect of human and nature and the policy, problems and triumphs that come with it. Today, they are going strong with more subscribers than ever. But their work is not done. HCN is looking at how to expand their reach to a wider audience, experiment with different kinds of social outreach and to better understand the changing trends of the internet through exploration of new ideas. Read the rest of the report, here on Medium …

Innovations in analytics, search, aggressive partnerships build digital audience
Report by Ric Sanchez]

Money and a growing Web presence made Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos the Washington Post’s savior of sorts when he bought the newspaper in October 2013. With cash in its pocket ($250 million, to be exact), the Post is using online strategy to set its sights on a global reach while also experimenting with storytelling techniques. In addition to using analytics to find readers through social media and search engines, the Post has also opened WPNYC, a lab and incubator dedicated to software development — right now, it’s overhauling its content management system, which it hopes to sell it to other publications — as well as a native advertising arm, BrandConnect, and gave a six-month subscription to Kindle Fire users. From redesigns to free subscriptions, one thing is certain about the Washington Post brand: Backed by Bezos’ wallet, it’s thinking bigger than it ever has before. More on the author …

The news industry took notice of The Atlantic’s bold website redesign this spring.

A 158-year-old brand leads the way in digital publishing, events, and engagement and affinity by audiences young and old
[Report by Paul Nocchi]

The Atlantic has a millennial newsroom, multi-platform products, a robust native advertising strategy — and it’s a legacy publication. The 158-year old brand’s timeless DNA is a commitment to America’s thought leaders; bringing news to millions of loyal readers, and convincing millennials they should join them. The magazine’s event arm, AtlanticLIVE, brings in $10 million annually via 125 provocative idea marketplaces, bringing entrepreneurs, creatives, and thinkers to connect with consumers and advertisers. Its in-house marketing agency, Atlantic Re:think, constructs native campaigns for influential brands like Porsche, Netflix, and Rolex. The website, with 6.1 million monthly users, is mobile-optimized with large story modules and plans to increase reader engagement. More about the author …

ISTHMUS (Madison, Wis.)
New owners bring redesign to help push a community staple into the future
[Report by Katherine Jenkins]

Readers of the alternative newspaper Isthmus discovered a big surprise in March 2015, when picking up their weekly copy. After 40 years under the founding owners, the paper this year has unveiled a number of changes, including a big redesign of the print edition unveiled in March, and plans for an updated and expanded digital presence as well. Read the rest of the report, here on Medium …

A new style of fashion magazine, taking back empowerment for women
[Report by Gracie Ryan]

Natalia Borecka, founder of Lone Wolf, based in San Francisco.

Long an avid reader of fashion magazines, Natalia Borecka had a love-hate relationship with them. She loved the style and the clothes, but hated the overall message. She felt they often talked down to readers and assumed the only things women cared about were dieting tips, celebrity babies and giving better head. But she knew women were much more complex than these popular magazines made them out to be. And she knew she wanted to do something about it. She would start Lone Wolf Magazine. Read the rest of the report, here on Medium …

Family owned radio group works hard to stay relevant and thrive in the digital era
[Report by Elizabeth Anderson]

Since its start in Polson, Mont. in 1974, Anderson Radio Broadcasting, a family owned corporation, has grown to seven stations, and combined frequencies expand into the greater western region of Montana. Today, despite intense competition from all things digital, they are thriving. How? Partnerships with local businesses and government entities and an aggressive strategy in social media are helping them stay relevant within their communities. Read the rest of the report, here on Medium …

Working through a financial pinch, MTPR stakes hopes on digital outreach, aggressive fundraising
[Report by Ashley Roness]

Radio was once the quickest way to hear the news, the latest music and much more. But with more people going online for audio and video — turning to Pandora, Spotify, iTunes, Netflix and Hulu — radio has had to adapt dramatically. Montana Public Radio (MTPR) is no exception. Read the rest of the report, here on Medium …

For small town paper, move to morning distribution, aggressive marketing is key to staying relevant
[Report by Loren Benoit]

Wake up! Turn off the alarm clock. Take a shower. Brew coffee. Make breakfast. Eat breakfast. Read the newspaper. Wait…What? On April Fools Day readers of The Wenatchee World were greeted with a morning newspaper, and it was not a joke. Read the rest of the report, here on Medium …

EMERALD MEDIA GROUP, University of Oregon
On the third anniversary of its reinvention, a pioneering college newspaper keeps on innovating
[Report by Kayla Robertson]

May 23, 2015 will mark the third anniversary of when the Emerald moved from a traditional campus newspaper to a front-runner for the changing face of college journalism. The Emerald transformed into a media empire in order to not only adapt but to thrive at a time when consumption habits for college news change daily. Three years later, what’s different? Read the rest of the report, here on Medium …

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For more about our class, “Critical Thinking About Design and Disruption,” visit our syllabus, which features assignments, results, and required readings, as well as live links to numerous readings suggested by students throughout the semester.

Instructor Ron Reason served as the Spring 2015 T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism. For more on Ron, and his work advising media companies around the world on design and disruption, visit his blog, “Design With Reason.”

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