How can design processes help your newsroom?

Heather Chaplin, founding director of Journalism + Design at The New School, was talking about the importance of listening to the audience way before it became a gimmick. We had a chat with her about using design processes for journalism, the danger of ‘adversarial design’, and not freaking out when you don’t know where you’re going.

The Q&A was edited for clarity and brevity. Heather Chaplin will be speaking at the News Impact Summit in Paris on 25 June 2018.

Heather Chaplin

GEN: What are we talking about when we’re talking about design in journalism?

Heather Chaplin: When I talk about design, I’m definitely talking about design beyond the visual. There is a fairly interesting history of design processes and methodologies being used for problems that are not traditionally associated with design. This comes from the late 1950s and 1960s when people were dealing with problems that had become incredibly complex to the point that they couldn’t really be dealt with using traditional problem solving strategies.

I’m not pitching any particular process, but there are some processes, methodologies, and a mindset stemming from design that can be very useful for journalists.

I started the Journalism + Design programme at The New School (a university in New York City where scholars, artists, and designers come together) in 2014 at a time when the ‘crisis in journalism’ was really around digital innovation and questions of how journalism was going to stay alive when its business models were crumbling. Audience habits were changing radically, people had different expectations about where they were going to receive their news and how, and whether they should be paying for it. But a couple things have changed since launching the school in 2014.

I feel like journalism is now facing a second crisis, which is really an existential crisis. The rise of more authoritarian regimes and leaders — not only in America but in Europe, China, and Russia — are bringing about questions of the right of a free press to exist and how it’s going to function. All this on top of staying alive in a digital environment.

Design processes, which involve being collaborative, nimble, open to new approaches, and understanding that there might not be a single solution, are going to be really useful when we deal with this second wave crisis.

Design is a process of getting from point A to point B when you don’t know what Point B is.

Which industries should we be taking design lessons from?

I am pretty sick of taking lessons from Silicon Valley, so I’m not going to recommend that. While Silicon Valley has been very successful at using design processes in order to build new products and maximise profits for itself, I would say that it does not think long term and it will often adopt what I call adversarial design strategies. This means getting people to use what they have created regardless of whether it’s in the best interest of the user. I don’t think that journalists should do that. Not only because it’s ethically grotesque, but also because we need to be thinking long term here.

We’ve also all seen the danger of adversarial design in the last couple of years: our goal is to keep you on our website, in our in our universe, and on our service for as long as possible, because then we can sell more advertising. Well, it turned out that’s not good for people’s mental health.

But there are some really interesting things to be pulled from complexity science and biology, urban planning, and any sort of environmental work where you’re trying to deal with how to build a healthier system.

If you’re an urban planner, for example, you would never just build something without understanding the needs of the people who are going to live there. So they work with that community to bring to the surface the community’s needs and desires, which is going to lead to the most successful housing complex you can build. I think there is something very similar going on with journalism now.

It’s a big mindset shift from how do I make the most money possible to how do I maintain a healthy system.

Should we be collaborating less with Facebook and Google, then?

I don’t know what the answer is. What we can learn from what happened is that we ceded our power way too easily and we were very naive about about what the implications could be. Facebook was basically a vast social science experiment done without the consent of the users. And we just jumped right on in there. And I think there has been a rampant naïveté about the tech industry that has really not done us any favours.

How can we compete with the Silicon Valley-type product that is designed to keep people hooked?

This is a great question and I am not going to pretend to have the answer. Four or five years ago, before the grip was so tight on social media and we had begun to see the negative consequences of it, the whole game was: how do we build things that are as compelling as everything else that is out there?

I don’t know how we do that without selling our souls.

If journalism’s willing to do anything, then it might as well not be journalism. If the goal is just to get as many clicks as possible, we’ll become a pornography site. Journalism has to think about what it is and what its values are and stick within that.

You’ve talked a lot about listening to the audience. Does this mean involving the audience in the news-making process?

The idea of listening to your audience has become quite hackneyed. When we first started talking about this idea of listening to your audience and bringing empathy to the relationship with your audience, people were like ‘Whoa, what a radical idea!’

It’s not about listening to your audience in a pandering way, because again, if you’re just going to give people what they want then you might as well be a pornography site… or Facebook.

It’s a collaborative relationship if journalists acknowledge that they’re also stakeholders in the community that they’re reporting for. It becomes a ‘we’re all in this together’ relationship.

I see reporting as a grassroots activity instead of a top down activity. Are journalists reporting in a way that gives people the information they need to make good decisions that benefit them? Rather than just reporting on what people within the newsroom think happens to be interesting.

Can you pinpoint examples of newsrooms where listening to the audience is done well?

I was just down in North Carolina working with a couple of papers and the desire to build a different and closer relationship with their audience was so heartening. It was really beautiful and moving in the sense that they wanted to know what people are really thinking about and whether they are helping these people live better lives. The issues we were talking about were eviction and the school to prison pipeline and what the journalist’s role in breaking those cycles could be.

I also think people are sort of hanging their hats, thinking ‘Oh, audience engagement will save us!’. I don’t know if that’s true and I don’t know if that’s the answer. I think that’s probably one ingredient.

We can’t just go around hiring audience engagement editors, but we need to think about who votes in this country or issues such as income inequality.

Nothing done in a vacuum is going to be successful. It’s a much broader problem.

How does incorporating design processes change the workflow within newsrooms?

Let’s go back to crisis one: staying alive digitally. I think that on some really nuts and bolts levels, collaboration seems to be increasingly important. But collaborating is actually really, really, really, really hard.

So what can people in news organisations do to be better collaborators? One of the exercises that I facilitate (and learnt from Nina Ong) is to map out the different kinds of conversations you’re having at different points, so that everybody is up to date.

  1. The levelling conversation: This is where everyone gets on the same page. What are we trying to do? What information do we need so everybody knows what’s going on?
  2. Ideation: This is an open conversation, Don’t censor yourself, tap into your creativity and your imagination and really try to not worry about being the tyranny of the possible. Obviously, you can’t end there because then you just have a bunch of wild ideas and you don’t know what to do the next day.
  3. Connecting themes that emerge: Interrogating ideas, what is it that we have just generated? Talk about what you’re trying to achieve. Can we narrow it down to maybe two or three things that seem possible?
  4. What would it actually take to make this idea happen? Choose the idea you want to go with. How do we bring it to life? What kind of team do we need?

My critique of a lot of design thinking is that it only really takes you through to the second step which is coming up with a crazy idea. This is a lot of fun, but it leaves you hanging the next day. You have to interrogate the ideas you have in order to close the loop and bring the idea to life.

I think also adopting a common language is very important. Designers think in a really different way to reporters, who think in a different way and communicate in a different way to programmers or ad people or marketing people.

So the reporting side and the design side need to be put together in this collaborative approach?

When you’re trying to think of different products or new ways of doing things, you want to have different people at the table. But collaboration is hard and it’s not traditionally baked into journalism.

At the same time, reporters need to be thinking about the reporting process: who is this story for and what need am I serving. And I don’t mean that soft. I don’t mean come and let me rub your feet. What I mean is asking if your kid is at risk of being disciplined in the schoolroom where now, in certain states, they bring in the justice system which leads straight to prison.

What can I, as a reporter, do to help people break these vicious loops that they’re stuck in? What information can I give them so they vote for somebody who’s actually going to do something to help and not exploit them?

Keeping those things in mind and building your relationship and empathy with the people that you’re writing for is not traditional, I don’t think. It’s certainly not how I was taught to do journalism, but I think there are ways that these strategies can be adopted for reporters.

Can we go as far as comparing journalism to activism?

I mean that’s definitely the question that we get asked a lot.

I don’t think that what I’m describing is activism. I think journalists pretending that they’re not part of the system, that they’re not stakeholders in the world or in the community with the issues they cover, is crazy. As a journalist, you’re supposed to be a referee right? You’re not supposed to vote for one side or the other. But if a referee sees somebody stick out their foot and trick their opponent, they’re supposed to say something about it. So is that activism?

To me journalists have become so obsessed with not taking sides that they’re basically walking around with their eyes closed and not reporting fouls. So to me what I’m talking about is just reporting a foul play. If somebody who is very powerful is coming in to a community to get money or create a system that unfairly penalises people for not having had a good education or coming from a traumatic childhood, that’s a foul. And it’s our job to call it a foul and to let people know that this foul took place.

Could you pinpoint specific skills that a journalist needs?

I would say comfort with uncertainty.

At the end of the day, I feel like the programme that we have at the New School is really just helping people not to freak out when they don’t know where they’re going. What does it look like to be able to stay calm and keep your cool and be able to continue to think clearly when you have no idea what’s going to happen?

And that’s no joke. That’s hard.

Thanks, Heather!


Editors Note: The four step method is credited to Nina Ong. In a previous version of the story her name was not mentioned.