The Student becomes the Teacher: Mastering Design Thinking

Written with Jennifer Groff.

Photo by Kristine Villanueva

Social journalism wouldn’t exist without community engagement. While it’s new territory for many journalists and newsrooms, its importance to shaping highly relevant and news with impact is gaining momentum, especially in digital media.

Founded in 2005, Reddit, a social news aggregation and discussion website where community members submit content is the epitome of successful community engagement. reveals how this platform established its place among the online giants:

“Reddit is a critical platform for news and technology. At the same time, it is a space on the web to find conversations without the anxiety of likes and followers. The latest data published by Alexa, an Amazon analytics subsidiary, shows that Reddit is the fifth most visited site on the web in the U.S. (after Google, YouTube, Facebook and Amazon).

Reddit shows us that people want to engage with their news and journalism is responding to that desire. One way for journalists to cultivate effective community engagement is through the design thinking process. This process includes five steps:

As describes this process, she believes that “If all journalists did this, I think journalism would begin to look different. I think it would be more inclusive, more honest, and more real.”

“The steps of design thinking beg users to repeatedly go back and forth to the people they first listened to for feedback” (DiPento). The effectiveness of design thinking is in how the process requires you to listen, define and refine until the service, product or solution is tested and the user’s needs are met.

While traditional reporting may begin and end with an interview, journalists using design thinking can foster deeper connections with community members. “People don’t owe us their stories. They’re gifted to us. Only then can journalists start to understand community engagement and the importance of empathy” said. “By exhibiting empathy, journalists can build relationships that better inform a piece or project.”

Whether it comes naturally or it’s a learned skill, journalists have to also be careful with empathy. For working with undocumented immigrants, she found, “their paralyzing anxieties had become mine.” Empathy is a powerful tool, but Jennifer realized she had to also stay focused on the “attainable objective to the work I was doing with my undocumented neighbors. My grief was not an end to itself. There had to be something beyond that.”

Much like social journalism strives to help communities reach their goals and to serve them, explains how design thinking has the same intention.

“Design thinking is all about creation that’s done with the recipient’s needs in mind. Community engagement is, in fact, at the heart of design thinking. It’s about interacting, listening and responding to your audience.”

Our CUNY Social Journalism class recently presented a design thinking workshop to undergraduate students at the. The students were representatives of their school’s media productions or publications.

“They are leaders with, frankly, more journalism experience than me. What they didn’t have was experience using design thinking to engage their audiences in making journalism” said.

Student participants seemed eager to try out a different way of approaching a problem. Since they were all students with an interest in journalism, we asked them to envision how their student media platforms could better serve the community (DiPento).

“Our workshop was aimed at designing the perfect media platform for your partner. The task is a bit more difficult than the typical design thinking exercise, but not impossible if you introduce the exercise properly” ()

Photo by Alyxaundria Sanford

“It felt really good that a few students got the idea quickly, and also managed to successfully complete a whole exercise applying that frame. We need those kind of journalists in the making. We need them to be eager use the notion of engagement as a concept way much bigger than something you translate to some metrics to score some ads” said.

With design thinking journalists are working to reach communities. But how can we be sure? says social media is one way, “social media allows journalists to track their audience’s interest and create content tailored to them. They can see what their audience is in favor of or against.”

As we all learn the strategies of social journalism, one thing is for sure: empathy is the core. “Empathy helps you identify the needs of your community. Design thinking helps create useful products and services to serve those needs.” ()

Social Journalism #SocialJ

MA students building new ways to engage communities at the Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY

Alyxaundria Sanford

Written by

Freelance Audience Engagement/Homepage Editor, New York Daily News. Program Coordinator, Newmark Graduate J School. Clevelander in NYC. @sanfordreports

Social Journalism #SocialJ

MA students building new ways to engage communities at the Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY