What happens when you apply a design mindset in the newsroom

Sharing the main learnings from the first News Impact Academy of 2018

Asia Martin Lopez
May 25, 2018 · 5 min read
Participants at work during the Amsterdam Academy

After months of preparation, the 2018 News Impact Academy has finally kick-started. Last year we launched this unique training programme and we’re thrilled to be able to continue and expand it with the support of the Google News Initiative. The Academy offers the opportunity to explore and learn about new methods for innovation in the journalism industry while creating a network of European digital innovators.

This year’s first edition was held in Amsterdam on 17–18 May. Building upon what we learned last year, the Academy focused on how design methodologies can help to solve newsroom challenges. We experienced what it’s like to talk and understand our users’ needs and worked to identify a range of new opportunities through agile processes.

In Amsterdam we brought together 20 selected participants from 10 European countries, each from different types of news organisations and with diverse journalistic backgrounds. Flavien Plouzennec and Gerald Holubowicz, experts in UX, guided the cohort.

The Academy provides a safe and open space where everyone is encouraged to share the problems they face in their daily work. Whether editors, designers or product managers, the struggles are similar: dealing with time constraints, getting frustrated because of hierarchical barriers and the fear of change so widespread within news organisations.

Our illustrations of newsroom challenges

With the exchange of experiences and challenges we did at the beginning of the programme, we quickly realised that we all, in fact, share similar problems. Problems that sometimes can seem so difficult to grasp and that are related to organisational culture and inefficiency of processes. The design approach we explored at the Academy was not meant to provide the silver bullet for all those challenges but to give tools to break down big questions into small bundles and identify new opportunities in the editorial process.

User-centred approach is at the core of design. If we want to provide a better experience for our audiences, we first need to understand the people we are designing for. By talking, engaging and empathising with our users, the focus and direction of our efforts get clearer and the complex problems we face become more manageable.

At the Academy we experimented with Guerrilla Interviews, an accessible tool to get started with user research. Our participants went out on the streets and talked to different people to better understand their habits and behaviours around news consumption. For some, this might seem like an obvious starting point, but many organisations rarely test their assumptions about their audience.

This experience helped us realise how the time we invest in listening and knowing our audience, instead of sticking to assumptions or jumping to conclusions, will save us time and energy in the long-run.

Prototyping and testing our solutions before creating them are also key steps in the design process. Working in teams and in just a few hours, the participants built storyboards and prototypes of new products and services aimed at improving the engagement rate of local news.

One of the teams came up with an application that enhanced community building in hyperlocal contexts by combining real-life experiences and radio podcasts. Users of this service could sign up for activities such as visiting the rooftop garden of a neighbour together with a reporter. Their memories would then be captured and aired in a weekly podcast and on the local radio station.

By guiding us through the user experience of the app, it was interesting to observe the user’s reactions. It led to surprising findings and valuable learnings that were not as obvious as one thought.

Testing the prototype with a user

Journalists can benefit from the holistic approach implied in design thinking. Besides putting the user at the centre of the process, it also encourages collaboration and teamwork, something that was fantastic to see happening during the Academy.

Each participant brought a unique point of view, different skill-sets, experiences and background. This diversity increased our creativity and enriched the whole design process.

We started the team-work with an exercise that, at first, raised a lot of eyebrows: let’s build the tallest possible structure using 20 spaghetti, one meter of tape and a marshmallow on top. It was a fun experiment with a clear takeaway: not one single strategy led to the perfect solution but, eventually, it was the combination of several different ideas.

A collaborative culture is needed to combat rigid structures that hinder innovation. Also, in any news organisation, change doesn’t happen overnight. It’s always best to team up and start with small experiments. Then, present convincing appealing suggestions to the one person who you believe can potentially push change forward.

Although complex challenges might seem difficult to unpack at first, we saw how adopting a design mindset can turn problems into opportunities. We learnt how to understand our audience and how to build solutions according to their needs. The Academy also offered the unique opportunity to break out of daily routines, think outside the box and get inspired by other journalists. Since we all share similar challenges, we should keep exploring how to tackle them together.

On 27–28 June, we will dedicate our next News Impact Academy in Paris to explore how design tools and methods can improve the way we listen to and build meaningful relationships with our communities. During two days we will offer a hands-on training around engagement strategies and a space to share and discuss your challenges and experiences around the topic.

The Academy can be joined free-of-charge and we also cover travel and accommodation costs for all participants. Application can be submitted via https://newsimpact.io/registration/academy

You can learn more about design and journalism and get inspired by the brightest minds in this field during our first News Impact Summit in Paris this year. While mixing presentations, panel discussions and collaborative formats we will explore the intersection of journalism and design to provide learnings on design processes that journalists can easily implement in their newsrooms.

All News Impact Summits are free of charge and you can already register via https://newsimpact.io/registration/summit

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