Too much reverb in this chamber: How cross-discipline collaboration makes innovation easy
And how the journalism industry can do more of it.
I’d hate to burst some bubbles, but I have to. Actually, that’s a lie. It is with great pleasure that I announce bubbles officially banned from all journalism-related products. Just don’t do it. If you want a good product, get out of the bubble, think outside of the box and work with people who are not journalists.
As the 2016 election demonstrated, journalists have largely failed to focus their attention between the American coasts. A disconnect between the media’s perception of America and the reality means that now the media’s working to burst a bubble created by neglect. For the last few months, I have helped burst bubbles in journalism as well, albeit a little differently.
I’m a former USC journalism student who became quite unhappy with his major and the state of news media. I now study communication and music industry. This semester, I worked on a team whose aim was to build a journalism product for USC Annenberg Media. This experience helped me identify the true cause of my split with my former major and identify some helpful techniques for the industry going forward.
I worked with a business student, three journalism students, one cognitive science student, an engineer and two journalism professors. Through the process, one thing became clear to me: Collaboration was the key to building out the concept we came up with: Annie the appbot. The journalism industry would do well to increase this kind of collaboration between people with different backgrounds and who sometimes even lack the same training as journalists.
Why? Well, journalists tend to live in their own world. The reason for this seems to be two fold. One part of it is that their jobs are so time consuming that they tend to mostly spend time with other journalists. The other is that they seem to purposefully put themselves into boxes based on the idea that they are gatekeepers of the truth.
Because of this, I noticed a sort of reluctance to accept certain models of news and platforms. It seems to me that when journalists try to build innovative products that could help distribution and build engaged audiences, they rarely go far outside of their comfort zone. They rarely seek new perspectives and that could lead to radical change.
Within our team, each member had a defined background that led them to a particular role. Nick, the cognitive science major, approached every problem thinking of a way to improve the user experience. The journalism majors — Gio, JT, and James — first and foremost reminded us that the product needed to exist within the realm of journalism. Additionally, James assessed the design of our product as he also had experience as a designer. Darrell, the business major, looked at the ways our product would even be viable in the market. George, who’s getting his Ph.D. in engineering, calmly reminded us all of what was possible or not from a coding perspective.
The most beautiful part of this experience was that I learned to let all of these backgrounds rub off on me too. As a creative, I struggle to constructively implement others’ ideas into my own because I tend to see my ideas as whole and non-deserving of any sort of outside perspective. Through building the prototype for Annie, I was able to increase my collaborative skills by accepting creative concepts as building blocks for greater ideas. I learned to properly listen and respect every opinion presented by our team. Regardless of the project, building a well-rounded team is crucial because it increases the perspectives each member is exposed to, which can truly change a product from something promising to something great.
Here’s an example of the way this blend of experiences played out when we were designing Annie: One of the biggest problems I identified when it came to working with journalists on a product was that they always referred back to the inverted pyramid model of writing, the traditional headlines and the article format for pieces that no longer needed to be written as articles. We talked about examples of this when analyzing other news products this semester, and it sparked a discussion about what headlines would look like for our own product. After a few debates, our team agreed that the headline format for articles in our appbot needed to resemble push notifications, rather than traditional headlines. In this way, a user could scroll through a feed of push notification-style headlines and still be informed regardless of whether they actually decide to read the article.
This gives every single user a base level of knowledge that some other traditional news sites and apps do not. It also shows the app’s audience that its creators care about what they’re learning — not just what they’re tapping on. While other platforms use headlines as one-sentence advertisements for a click (or tap) on an article, Annie’s article headlines give a reader a sense of the news in one sentence and provide more information upon a user’s choosing.
At the end of the semester, when we showed our prototype to members of Facebook’s product team, the first thing they commented on was the language we used for our headlines. Even in a product-focused class, this brought home the importance of writing for an audience, as opposed to writing for a format. This is something the journalists in class were good at and were learning to implement. The fact that an outside perspective from a respected company commented on our use of headlines highlights the importance of language in the creation of a good news product.
Now, I am not pretending like the Annie appbot prototype is better than every other news app out there, but I sincerely believe that, given the right funds and a team composed of similar people, it could be. The clash of ideas that emerged from the fusion of five different areas of study truly surpassed everything else I had seen from the journalism industry.