Launching the Lenfest Local Lab

An evolution of the news lab model, and also an experiment in how local newsrooms can rethink, reorganize and reorient product development around their communities to truly transform their businesses for sustainability.

Sarah Schmalbach
Sep 12, 2018 · 15 min read
Photo by Leo Serrat on Unsplash

We recently announced the launch of the Lenfest Local Lab (more here), a home within the Lenfest Institute for local news product and customer experience innovation, and the industry’s response to the news was encouraging. We took this as a sign that the momentum behind journalism innovation is ever-growing, and that the need for tech, product and UX-focused teamwork within newsrooms is becoming self-evident.

It’s safe to say we’ve reached a turning point — or at least a definitive moment — for the future of journalism and its reliance on technology, and we wanted to explain the role we hope our lab will play in sustaining local news. We’d also like to elaborate on our thinking in setting up the lab and take you behind the scenes of its creation. We’ll explain where we see our work building on the work of news labs before us and relating to teams still working now, as well as underscore that we’re working out in the open and for industry, with an emphasis on experimenting with new forms of local news.

We’ll also touch on how we’re planning to measure success as well as give insight into something we’re particularly excited about when it comes to working in the open, which is being transparent throughout the entire process of innovation (think wireframes, public testing, Post-its, screenshots — all of it), on top of sharing the eventual outcomes of our work.

Who we are

We’re a small standalone product innovation team empowered by the Lenfest Institute, embedded within the Philadelphia Media Network and working in the open for the local news industry. We’re focused on experiments that reinvent the daily news user experience, exploring techniques or features that can apply to the majority of the journalism already being created by local newsrooms. Of course, we want to build products that are worth paying for in order to drive sustainability for local news. But we’re most interested in testing products that are worth supporting, through consumer revenue or other means, because they provide value to communities and create sustainable connections — not because they become addictive or play into the attention economy. We’re committed to this type of experimentation because we don’t think that journalism and storytelling is broken; but that sometimes, the product is.

What we’ll be working on

Some ideas we’re going to explore during our first few months in the lab, and in collaboration with the Philadelphia Media Network, will focus on ways to make relevant local news easier for area residents to discover. There are a lot of opportunities to surface local journalism in new ways, and right now we’re prototyping an app that sends an alert when someone passes a place that a story has been written about. This experiment will be opt-in, and only for people who download the app and give us permission to send notifications. We’re thinking a lot about the types of news that people might enjoy receiving this way, and how to make the experience clear and valuable. Another test will explore pairing reminders about community meetings with news stories written about topics or people that will be discussed there. The hope is that we can surface relevant journalism at the time when it’s needed the most and when it can be most useful in local life.

We believe that experimenting with more sophisticated uses of location information and technology to engage local residents will help reduce isolation within communities, create connections and highlight spaces or groups that would benefit from better news experiences. By building more seamless interfaces, and by adapting news delivery to modern habits, our team will explore how valuable these homegrown products could be to residents, and give us evidence on which to base the development of new business models that local news organizations can adopt and take ownership of themselves.

Why we chose a product focus

Journalism today is combination of the story being told and the product it’s delivered in. What if we realized that journalistic storytelling is thriving, but that our products are lagging behind? What if our product development efforts were equally devoted to maintenance, optimization and innovation? What if we had even better tools and systems to create journalism, support connections with each other and our community, and knew more about what news products are valuable to people? Would that unlock one or many more sustainable business models for local news?

Because for journalism to have its intended impact on communities large and small, it needs to reach people. It needs to be shared and talked about. It needs to fill an actual need. But if people don’t see it, or the need for it, then we’re playing to an empty room. We want to change the course of local news product development, and explore how journalism can fit into the lives of the people and places we cover, instead of asking our audience to fit us into their lives. How can we adapt to their commute? How can we fit into their community events? What role can we play in civic engagement? How can we become more visible in general? We want to build products that are crafted around people’s needs, that arrive without friction and are in a form people enjoy and understand.

And that’s very difficult to do. Most local news organizations create lots of different stories intended to reach many different people and communities but only have a small handful of ways to deliver them digitally. We need to do more discovery work around the types of functionality and user experiences that scale across lots of local news stories, and in order to do that you need a team focused on discovering product development insights that are complementary and reusable.

How and why we want to push the limits of transparency around innovation work

We would also like to be more transparent about our process along the way, so in addition to writing about the results of our experiments, we’d like to share insights into our process — showing openly where projects begin as well as how they turn out. Many news labs such as BBC News Labs, the Quartz Bot Studio and the Guardian Mobile Lab, all share the results of their experiments, providing a constant source of inspiration for news innovators. We want to build on those efforts and bring even more people into the innovation fold — even possibly, the skeptics. We think more transparency will help.

Innovation work can be perceived as one-dimensional — or cool — if you haven’t tried it before. At best, innovation projects within organizations are viewed as fun, and at worst they’re considered a waste of time and money. But those who have done innovation work for any sustained period of time know that it’s difficult and time consuming, and that there are ups and downs. Simply coming up with a framing for your work can take weeks or months, but the outcomes have the chance to be transformative rather than incremental. That’s why we need to invest time in innovation now, and always, to keep up with the rate of change that technology is bringing to our industry as well as many others. We also hope that more transparency about our process — through the publishing of early versions of documentation and designs, will help our team get more feedback along the way and foster a better public understanding of this new collaborative and user-centered process emerging within journalism.

OK, so what is a “product” again?

It’s worth defining in a bit more detail here what we mean by a “news product”, versus a story or a coverage area, since that’s what we’ll be spending our first year focusing on. Primarily we consider a product to be something valuable that is built and designed specifically for someone’s ease of use and understanding. A product also tends to have some type of network effect, where the experience gets better as more people use it.

News products contain stories, or narrative accounts of important events, but when you zoom out they also include how someone discovers it, how they engage with it and what they chose to do afterwards. For example: a news app is a product, and it typically contains many local news stories. Products also incorporate your organization’s business model, and can leverage new functionality made available by platforms or vendors.

To build a product, a team contemplates how a story or information will display for people as well as how it might adapt to their day, or their needs. How should a story look for someone who knows a city versus someone trying to learn more about the city? People want options for how a story looks, and product teams are equipped to explore new ways to present options and design around habit, devices, connectivity and other factors. Storytelling fits squarely into news products, but often is a part of the whole.

Ultimately, designing more news products around user’s needs is important if you want to improve, broaden or strengthen your relationships with your audience. Think about how you build and maintain healthy relationships with people in your life. Would you form the basis of a relationship on what you want from it, or what you think the other person should get from it? Or instead, would you consider what you both find enjoyable or useful about being connected? Right now in the local news environment, with its stressors and its daily grind, it’s easy for many of us to overlook this basic principle of business — to build a product that meets a need and expect fair compensation it — but if we can re-focus on this idea, we can change the course we’re on.

Why local?

Local news is worth saving for many reasons. It’s the driving force behind better local government spending and it also allows people to get informed about things that help them live their lives. Local news is also an area where reader trust is still high (or at least higher) and where there is a good chance to build products that improve civic health and preserve democratic principles from the ground up.

Local news organizations are also uniquely tied to the people and places they cover, which differs from the strengths of national and global news sources, and when taken full advantage of could open up possibilities for many new and different types of relevant products and services.

The key for local news going forward will be building products that are easier to use, are more inclusive and help locals see the relationship between pieces of information. Michael Days, the Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion for the Philadelphia Media Network, said it best when he told me that one of the most important things a local news organization can do is “connect the dots” for people, and this can take many forms.

How we plan to collaborate

In our Q&A interview with Nieman Lab we wanted to make clear that collaboration is built into the mission of our lab. Just how we might collaborate though, is worth detailing some more.

To maintain a quick pace of experimentation over the year, we need to pursue ideas that fit our mission of reinventing the daily local news experience and test techniques that could apply to lots of different stories. We have a few projects underway that fit that bill, and are currently looking for more ideas from within our team, within the Philadelphia Media Network and from the wider industry.

There are two main ways to collaborate with our team.

1. Replication. The first is if you’d like to try to replicate one of our experiments within your local news organization — either as your own experiment, or as an addition to your existing local news offerings.

2. Ideation. The second type of collaboration could be with joint idea generation within our focus areas. Many of you have reached out to us over the past few weeks expressing an interesting in collaborating, and we’re open to testing new ideas with audiences in Philadelphia and beyond. We look forward to seeing how that goes and being transparent about the process.

Where we fit into the evolution of the news lab model

Before launching our lab we looked at other past and present forms of experimentation in the journalism industry to ensure that our work would fill a specific need — and we found many examples to learn from, as well as ways to differentiate ourselves.

In terms of broader experimentation, we admire the exploration of public news funding in New Jersey, and we’re also intrigued by City Bureau’s experiments with how open newsrooms provide better support and drive dialogue in Chicago communities. We admire Broke In Philly’s collaborative reporting on economic justice, Project Facet and these many other examples of newsroom collaboration as a model for sustainability. We also think that newsroom-facing community managmement and engagement services built by The Coral Project, GroundSource and Hearken are essential to journalists’ efforts to build trust, and a future with their audience. We’re also grateful that publications like, Nieman Lab and the Institute’s own Solution Set are constantly buoying and supporting local news innovation through their coverage.

We’re also following the product development experimentation happening within larger news organizations, including McClatchy’s new ventures lab and Gannett’s Storytelling Studio, and hope that the outcomes of those teams’ work starts being shared more widely with the industry. At the same time we appreciate The New York Times’ transparency around new product development in their Times Open blog.

We also benchmarked ourselves against past news labs specifically, and it became clear that the thinking around news labs has evolved significantly over the past five to ten years. In particular, we think earlier news labs at places like The Boston Globe, The New York Times and The New York Daily News faced three main challenges:

  1. finding the right proximity to newsrooms to effectively transform them
  2. organizing themselves in a multidisciplinary way and focusing on the user experience
  3. evolving into an ad tech-focused innovation group

And because of these challenges, a lot of earlier news labs succeeded in some ways but weren’t able to have a tangible, long-term impact on the sustainability of digital journalism or how it is made day-to-day. Today we’re still trying to find the right formula for an effective lab, but we now have more examples to look to when gauging success.

Initiatives like the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab (which I co-led with Sasha Koren), the Quartz Bot Studio and multi-disciplinary product innovation efforts at places like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have begun to shed light on the type of collaboration and vision needed to start transforming newsroom practices.

But there are still few, if any, of these types of teams focusing exclusively on local news, just on new products (rather than improving existing ones), and also working in an open and transparent way. We wanted to fill that need.

How will we measure success?

Our broader metrics of success for the lab will be our ability to consistently bring experiments to market and measure them. We’re aiming to launch about six to eight experiments in our first year and hope that one or two of the most successful ideas are integrated or adopted by a local newsroom — in Philly or elsewhere.

We’ll measure engagement with new products, with an eye toward experiences that will increase local support, including a rise in engagement or an increase in contributions. But we expect these metrics to expand and adapt over time as projects evolve, particularly in the area of user satisfaction.

We also need to focus on understanding other dimensions of what causes people, or organizations, to pay for or support local news. We will explore ways to measure satisfaction and value in ways that keep audiences coming back, recirculating or paying for news and information services.

Without further ado, please meet the team!

The range of skills and backgrounds we’ve brought together on the team reflects our focus on community engagement, location-based product experimentation and designing around the real needs of local communities. Many of us will be based in Philadelphia, with a few of us working remotely from New York all the way to Japan. We’re thrilled to introduce you to the Lenfest Local Lab — welcome!

Sarah Schmalbach, Lead and Product Director

As the product director in the lab, I will draw on my experience as a journalist and a product manager to help build and test ways local news organizations can provide better user experiences and provide more value.

I studied journalism at NYU before becoming a mobile product manager for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and where I helped build the first mobile product development team. I also led digital product development at USA TODAY, overseeing launches of their Android app, mobile site and other experimental projects.

Most recently I co-led the Guardian US Mobile Innovation Lab, a small cross-disciplinary team of developers, editors and reporters exploring new ways to display stories on small screens. We were embedded in the Guardian’s New York office, launching nearly two dozen mobile storytelling experiments over the course of two years thanks to generous funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

“I am thrilled to be back in my hometown doing this work. It’s a critical time for newsrooms and publishers to be evolving, innovating and trying new things to reach existing as well as new audiences. Our lab will be a test bed for local news products that empower people and leverage technology and design to more closely and actively build journalism’s value to local communities.”

André Natta, Editorial Director

André started and maintained the local independent news site, The Terminal, in Birmingham, Ala. for more than 10 years. A 2018 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow, he spent his year exploring how local and regional journalism can best evolve to be more accessible. André has also written columns for the Poynter Institute and B-Metro Magazine in addition to serving as a digital news producer for both the Southern Education Desk, a Corporation for Public Broadcasting funded regional journalism collaborative, and NPR member station WBHM. He served as part of the organizing team for #wjchat for six years.

He’s previously worked for years in both hospitality, serving as a general manager for a historic inn, and in economic development for agencies in Savannah, Ga. and Birmingham, Ala.

“I’m looking forward to getting out and learning from Philadelphia, and hoping it will be able to better listen to and learn from itself as a result of what we discover along the way.”

Faye Teng, User Experience Designer

Faye graduated this summer from Drexel University’s Interactive Digital Media department. At Drexel she gained impressive experience using experimental interactive technologies in her design projects and learned a broad range of innovative user experience tools and techniques. For her senior project she helped create an interactive pop-up exhibit highlighting the work of two minority creators. The exhibit utilized NFC and Leap Motion technology, as well as a 60-inch multi-touch screen and web apps optimized for an iPad to help visitors engage in learning more about the artists’ creations and their cultures.

“I feel lucky to join Lenfest Institute’s Local News Lab as a UX designer. Ever since I was introduced to user experience design, I truly see the value of user-centered design, and my goal is to design things to be practical before they become beautiful. Nowadays, with more and more people using smartphones and being active on the internet and social media, news organizations have so much potential to innovate and create better user experiences by devoting close attention to emerging technology trends.”

Brent Hargrave, Engineer

Brent is a full stack engineer based in New York, NY focused on building digital products whose aim is to help shape behavior for the better. Previously he contributed open source code to projects for The Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab and Open mHealth. He also co-founded Sonar Media, Inc., where he was the lead developer for Sonar, an app that showed users how they were connected to others via public social media profile information and location information from Foursquare, Twitter and Facebook.

Ajay Chainani, Engineer

Ajay is a software engineer with years of experience helping build and advise startups in the United States and Japan. He specializes in iOS development and has helped build multiple award winning mobile applications, including Spring, which was recognized by Apple as one of the “Best Apps of 2014” and Sonar, which launched at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2011 and won second place in the Startup Battlefield competition.

Throughout the year we’ll be looking for more collaborators in Philly and in other local news markets. We’ll be on the hunt for new ideas that fit into our focus and most importantly critiques of ideas we’re testing or thinking about trying. Please contact us anytime at or you can find us on Twitter @lenfestlab.

Thanks for your interest in this experiment. We’re looking forward to a great year.

The Lenfest Local Lab is a small, multidiscplinary product and user experience innovation team located in Philadelphia, PA supported by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

The Lenfest Institute for Journalism is a non-profit organization whose mission is to develop and support sustainable business models for great local journalism. The Institute was founded in 2016 by entrepreneur H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest with the goal of helping transform the news industry in the digital age to ensure high-quality local journalism remains a cornerstone of democracy.

The Lenfest Local Lab @ The Inquirer

A Philadelphia-based news product innovation team within…

The Lenfest Local Lab @ The Inquirer

Product & UX team at The Philadelphia Inquirer exploring and sharing publicly how innovation work can be adopted in the local news business and culture. Established in 2018 at the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

Sarah Schmalbach

Written by

Leading the Lenfest Local Lab (@lenfestlab) for the Lenfest Institute (@lenfestinst). Philadelphian and former product @GdnMobileLab @usatoday @phillydotcom.

The Lenfest Local Lab @ The Inquirer

Product & UX team at The Philadelphia Inquirer exploring and sharing publicly how innovation work can be adopted in the local news business and culture. Established in 2018 at the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

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