How the Philly papers are experimenting with design thinking in the newsroom

If the digital revolution holds one enduring lesson for the news industry, it’s that, in the long run, the internet tends to reward those publishers who are most attuned to their audiences.

People respond to the kind of uniquely relevant, useful and timely journalism that happens when publishers listen to the signals sent by audiences, understand their needs and commit themselves to meeting those needs. When people spend more time with this journalism, their attention and loyalty translate — slowly but surely, and through multiple business models including digital subscriptions — into revenue that can sustain the work.

Convinced that better audience empathy was key to our long-term success, Kim Fox, Patrick Kerkstra and I of Philly.com, the Inquirer and the Daily News, spent much of 2017 experimenting with ways to build greater audience awareness into our newsroom’s daily work.

With the upcoming launch of a digital subscription program, we had already put the notion of service to readers front and center. The problem was, we still didn’t know exactly who we should be targeting or what they wanted. Sure, our analytics gave us great insight into how current users reacted to work we already produced, but we didn’t really know what topics and approaches we might be missing, because we hadn’t talked in a meaningful way to digital news consumers in the market — including those who weren’t regular users of our products.

As an experiment, we chose to take a design-thinking approach to the problem. We would invite people to talk with our journalists, in the form of a moderated user interview, about their lives, their communities and their information needs, and then challenge our journalists to incorporate those insights into their daily work.

What follows is a description of a pilot “user-centered story meeting” we ran in October 2017 and what we learned. We had the help of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism’s J+ professional development program and user experience expert Laura Cochran. (The Philly newsroom continues to experiment with this approach, and my former colleagues will be sharing insights from future iterations.)

What we did

We invited 3 guests recruited via social media to spend half a day with some of our journalists talking about their information needs and habits. (We offered each a gift card in exchange for their time.) Our guests were people who were familiar with our brand but not loyal users of our products — exactly the kind of casual users we need to do a better job of understanding and appealing to.

Here’s how we structured the morning:

Our design thinking process

1. Interview

We made three groups, and each interviewed a guest for about 20 minutes. We coached our journalists to approach these interviews not in the way a journalist might interview a source but as user researchers interviewing users. That meant using open-ended questions about habits, such as, “Tell us about your morning routine. What happens after you wake up?” and asking “Why?” a lot. Each group summarized what they heard from their guest and reported back to the other groups.

2. Define problems

Together we clustered the needs and found trends that were common in the lives of our three, very different, guests. We were looking for areas of friction — things that were less than ideal, processes that failed to reach a goal — because that is where we would find opportunities to help with our coverage.

Gathering what they learned from guests, journalists organized their observations into attitudes, behaviors, motivations and goals. (Photo: Eric Ulken)

3. Gather ideas

We brainstormed possible solutions to these needs in the form of story ideas. We brought these ideas back our guests, listened to their feedback and then tweaked or discarded ideas based on that feedback. We zeroed in on two problem statements: “How might we help people feel at home in their communities?” and “How might we support open-mindedness and togetherness in the community?”, and we asked our journalists to propose story ideas in the form of headlines.

4. Vote on solutions

A few examples of the story ideas that came out of these prompts:

  • How to meet people in Philly across life stages
  • The ultimate guide to Philly Facebook groups
  • A feature on the guy who greets people at Home Depot
  • A guide for renters
  • An email newsletter for dog parents with coupons and dog-friendly events
  • A look at the work of block captains in Philly’s neighborhoods

Were all of these ideas worth doing? With unlimited resources, maybe, but not in our reality. So we asked our guests and our internal participants to vote. A vote meant, “I’d click on that.” Our guests got more votes than our journalists, and everyone was free to allocate their votes in whatever way they wanted. When the votes were counted, we saw some agreement and some divergence between the ideas our guests were interested in and those our journalists thought were worth pursuing.

5. Critique finalists

Finally, we asked our guests to talk about why they voted as they did — realizing, however, that asking them to react to a hypothetical (i.e., “If we produced this, would you read it?”) is not the most reliable way to get feedback. Ideally we’d prototype actual stories and then ask, “How useful, interesting or otherwise valuable was this story to you?” But to do this in half a day, we needed to take a few shortcuts.

Results

This exercise shaped or inspired a few ideas that ended up as actual stories:

While none of these pieces has done blockbuster traffic, many were well-received, generated positive feedback from readers and resonated with new and core audiences alike. The “We the People” series, in particular, consistently receives positive responses from readers and engages users from the start of the reporting process, with many profiles originating from reader suggestions.

What we learned

  • The process will feel messy, and it is. Some people will not like that. It also feels wrong to only talk to three people. We wouldn’t necessarily do that as reporters. But it’s the only way to dive deep into what our audience does, not just what they say they do.
  • “Aha!” moments can be useful teaching tools: There were important such occasions during this exercise, including the realization that our guests rarely seek out news but rather wait for it to come to them on social media or via push alerts. This may be no surprise to those of us who follow digital media trends, but it made an impression on some of our journalists.
  • Processes like this give a face to “the audience,” a group we too often think of monolithically.
This exercise is meant to change our thinking and our culture. Here you see a large, open meeting space that we outfitted for the day with Post-Its and other tools familiar to anyone who has ever participated in a design thinking exercise. (Photo: Marie Gilot)

What we’d do differently next time

There are plenty of things that didn’t go as we expected — for example, some things ran long while others took less time than we’d planned for — but the things we learned will help make this exercise better for next time. If you are thinking of running your own user-centered story meeting or something like it, here’s some advice gleaned from the Philly crew’s experience:

  • Pay careful attention to the demographics and psychographics of your external participants. Ensure they are representative of the community you are looking to reach. If your organization has done a persona exercise, consider seeking out people who map to one or more of your target personas. A good survey questionnaire and phone screen can help.
  • Make it worth people’s while to come, and consider running sessions in the evenings or on weekends to make it possible for weekday workers to attend. We compensated our external participants with gift cards and swag. If you don’t pay, you will severely limit the kinds of participants you can attract.
  • Keep the ratio of internal participants to external participants at about 2:1. (That way you can have one interviewer and one scribe per interviewee.) We had too many internal participants, which may have inhibited our guests from sharing as freely as we’d want.
  • Make sure your internal participants understand the purpose of the exercise and are prepared to play an active role in interviewing, idea generation and follow-up. We didn’t do enough communication and prep of our internal team in advance of the event.
  • Follow up. Ensure the best ideas that come out of the meeting are acted on. And, ideally, follow up with participants as well and ask them if the work produced based on the exercise met their needs.

Are you doing similar work in your newsroom? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Find me on Twitter at @eulken.

Marie Gilot, director of CUNY’s J+ professional development program, contributed material for this report.

Useful materials

If you are looking to run a similar exercise in your organization, here are some artifacts from our experiment that could help:

Finally, here are some of the physical things you’ll need:

  • A flexible space conducive to breakouts and full-group conversations with as many tables and chairs as you have groups/participants
  • Plenty of sticky notes, whiteboard pens (which are more forgiving than permanent markers), adhesive dots (for voting) and a lots of empty wall space to put everything on
  • Coffee and snacks to fuel the creativity

Further reading

We were inspired by a few readings, methods and efforts undertaken by others, including: