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The innovative spark: This month’s Carnival of Journalism wrap

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How might journalists spark more creative innovation in their work? Is design thinking a useful igniter for journalistic innovation?

This was the focus of the latest Carnival of Journalism conversation, which attracted low numbers but high quality responses from dedicated carnivalists. Defining design thinking, understanding audiences and working iteratively were three themes that emerged from the discussion, along with some overall thoughts on innovation.

What is design thinking?

David Cohn (Carnival leader and Director of News at Circa) started the conversation off by providing one view of design thinking: “the TED-talk of market research.”

Adam Westbrook (a web video maker in London and Paris) followed up with a detailed analysis of how design thinking can be much more, applying it to story design. He provided this elegant definition:

Design Thinking is about taking a disciplined, objective and methodical approach to solving a design problem: clearly defining the challenge, creating multiple solutions, picking the best and executing.

Carrie Brown-Smith, a journalism educator at the University of Memphis, praised design thinking because it “can be taught and practiced, making innovation more practical than relying on a sudden brilliant insight that may never come.” And Jonathan Groves, a journalism educator at Drury University, connected design thinking to Clayton Christensen’s “jobs to be done.”

As David noted, design thinking has a faddish tinge that, like all TED-ified ideas, can be overly simplistic. However plenty of people and organizations have found the process valuable for leading to innovative solutions, as Adam and Carrie noted.  Steve Outing (journalist, analyst, educator, and media futurist) described five useful tips for innovative thinking unconnected to design thinking, demonstrating there are many paths to innovative destinations.

Where does the audience fit in?

Everyone agreed that innovation requires considering the needs of users. How to do this can be tricky for journalists who value independence and avoid “pandering” to audiences as a point of pride. Negotiating audience needs, desires and behaviors is clearly part of the post-industrial journalistic process; how to do this in a way that is insightful and intellectually honest is something we’re struggling to develop.

David identified the emphasis on audience as an integral part of design thinking:

I think as D-Thinking’s spread to other disciplines, what translates the most is the idea of sympathy for users and trying to identify their problems.

Carrie sees the emphasis on audience as a key focus:

The most important thing we can do to build news products that people will actually use is to learn what our audience really needs and wants. [Design thinking] reinforces the need to start building a new product only after talking to users…

 Joy Mayer, in a comment on Carrie’s post, added:

The idea of starting with users — and with a need that needs to be filled or a workflow/habit that needs to be respected — is so, so important.

Jonathan Groves picked up the theme, concluding:

As we develop the next generation of news content, we must embrace the audience and its needs. Such a focus doesn’t mean we should shamelessly cater to all audience wants and desires. It just means we must consider the audience and the contexts of media consumption more completely as we develop our content, whatever form it may take.

Adam, who did a brilliant job applying design thinking to the creation of a narrative story, wrote about the importance of user experience (UX) when creating any kind of journalism displayed on any type of device:

…the design problem is identifying and delivering the meaning of your story in the mind of your audience in the most memorable way.

He showed an example storyboard, plotting not just the content, but his understanding of “the audience’s frame of mind at each stage. What do they know? What don’t they know? What do they want to know?”

Finally, Steve Outing wove in elements of audience considerations in his first tip to sparking innovation in your own thinking. In Tip #1 (Clear the past from your mind) he used as an example innovation at the Washington Post:

For purposes of innovation proposals for the Bezos team, you should focus solely on what new products consumers want or are likely to respond to in a big way.

My take away from all this is that attention to audience is permeating journalistic thinking far more explicitly than in the past. But figuring out best methods for understanding the needs of the audience could use much more analysis. Who do we imagine we are working for, and to what ends?

 Model early and often

A second theme that emerged in the posts is that of rapid prototyping, agile development, of mapping ideas and building on them using simple materials, rather than investing serious resources in a product that hasn’t been well tested.

Carrie emphasized this idea as an educator, explaining how design thinking helps journalism students learn to “iterate constantly rather than waiting until you’ve invested many hours in your ideas to test it.”

Jonathan focused on the value of iteration for news organizations:

To survive in this environment, news organizations must become as experimental and nimble as the upstarts. They no longer have the luxury of lengthy content testing; they must push nascent products into the marketplace and iterate while learning from the audience.

Adam illustrated his process of mapping narrative, using [the ultimate design thinking tool] post-it notes. He writes:

Great storytellers in fiction and non-fiction from John McPhee to Rebecca Skloot to Vince Gilligan have praised the simple Index Card as crucial to their Story Design and I feel the same.

Then again, David points out:

…perhaps Design Thinking has a method of clearly exploring potential solutions through sketches, prototypes and mind-mapping, etc. But I don’t think these are specific to Design Thinking. If they are – then who isn’t a design thinker?

Other paths

Design thinking isn’t the only way to come up with innovative ideas though, as both Steve and David pointed out.

For David, innovation has important moments:

    • The aha moment (It’s the most adrenaline filled. The initial idea is a spark and the goal during this period is just to take that spark as far as you can.)
    • The spidey-sense (In almost every project I’ve worked on, at some point, I get a “spidey-sense” that something is wrong about a specific aspect.)
    • The pivot (It’s how projects iterate and push forward. And it is wholly creative both in that you are re-inventing the project and in the sense that creating anything is also about what you choose NOT to do.)

Steve provided five tips for sparking innovation, all worth attending to, ending with this final tip useful for faculty, journalists and designers:

Set aside time in your schedule for innovation work. Being more innovative requires more than good intentions; it requires committing at least part of your regular work schedule to regular “innovation time.” A weekly team meeting on Innovation Initiatives and Ideas for your news organization would be a good start.

And, of course, you’ll want to get everyone in your team involved. Innovation in the news industry is not a luxury, and it can cover a lot of ground.

Here are the posts, worth reading in full:

Written by Donica

March 10th, 2014 at 12:12 pm

Design thinking is useful for journalists. Discuss.

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[UPDATE: This was part of a  Carnival of Journalism conversation in 2014. Responses to the question have been posted separately: The Innovative Spark]

Have you applied design thinking in your work? Has it been useful? Why or why not?

Plenty has been written about the need for news organizations to be more innovative and entrepreneurial. Now the challenge is how to be innovative, both at the organizational and individual level. Design thinking is one process that many people have found useful for sparking innovation.

The Knight Foundation recently selected 24 projects to receive $35,000 each from the Knight Prototype Fund. As a first step, Knight provided each of the grantees an intensive two-day workshop in design thinking. [ADDENDUM Feb. 17: See this useful post from the Knight Foundation on using design thinking for community information needs.]

In December, the New York Times featured a story on the at Stanford, which champions design thinking, calling out the work of two students who created a news-reading app bought by LinkedIn for $90 million.

David Wright, formerly with NPR and now a designer at Twitter, gave a design-thinking presentation at ONA 2012 that received a lot of attention: Design is how it works.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a process that helps journalists think more explicitly about their work from the perspective of the people who read, watch, listen and share what journalists create.

This doesn’t mean that journalists give up their independence or dish up what they think audiences want. It’s not about focus groups or reader surveys. It requires, first of all, letting go of what we think the problem/story is and really listening to and observing the people who are experiencing whatever we’re concerned with. It starts with people, not technology.

Slide by Twitter Designer David Wright from a 2013 SND presentation Platform ≠ Content

Choosing people to talk with is key. Once the interviews are complete, the team focuses on looking for connections from the various interviews that lead to new insights about the challenge at hand. Discerning people’s needs (articulated or not) and how journalists might better respond to them, can spark new ways of approaching any problem or goal.

The next step also subverts traditional newsroom routines. Rather than planning to make a change and writing memos and forming committees, design thinking encourages people to sketch ideas, get feedback and iterate their ideas quickly. Rapid prototyping forces ideas to be articulated, tested, and improved in a short and low cost way. “Demo don’t memo” can be a useful mantra in faculty meetings or news meetings.

Slide by Twitter Designer David Wright from a 2013 SND presentation Platform ≠ Content

Building, implementing and marketing are separate activities from the design thinking process. The usefulness of the approach is in coming up with innovative ideas for addressing whatever the need is: a better process in the newsroom or classroom, a better story idea, better storytelling, better news product. It’s one way to improve routines, habits and products that we have long stopped seeing.

Design thinking is not new (read this wonderful article on Wicked Problems in Design Thinking from 1992) nor is it new to the news business (see these Gannett videos from 2008) and it’s not always well received (Gannett partnered with design thinking firm IDEO in Detroit in 2008 to some ridicule). Plenty of people have written about the limitations of design thinking. Helen Walters wrote a thoughtful piece in Fast Co. about what design thinking can and cannot do:

…design thinking does not replace the need for design specialists, nor does it magically appear out of some black box. Design thinking isn’t fairy dust. It’s a tool to be used appropriately. It might help to illuminate an answer but it is not the answer in and of itself.

Instead, it turns up insights galore, and there is real value and skill to be had from synthesizing the messy, chaotic, confusing and often contradictory intellect of experts gathered from different fields to tackle a particularly thorny problem.

No tool is a panacea for every problem. But plenty of people are finding success with incorporating design thinking skillfully at the right moments.

For example, media entrepreneur start-up accelerator Matter uses design thinking to foster the development of projects such as Zeega and OpenWatchmetaLAB projects at Harvard incorporate design thinking. Poynter wrote about design thinking at the Voice of San Diego and a news project in Brazil.

Have you applied design thinking in your work? Has it been useful? Why or why not?

Or, Plan B: How do you get your own creative juices flowing? What sparks innovation in your own thinking, your newsroom or classroom?

Blog your answers, post links in the comments below, share on Twitter (hashtag #jcarn) and I’ll provide a round-up of the responses after the Feb 28 deadline.

More resources on design thinking:

TED talk by IDEO CEO Tim Brown: Designers — Think Big!
TED talk by IDEO founder David Kelley: How to build your creative confidence
Helen Walters, Fast Co.:The Seven Deadly Sins that Choke out Innovation
Book by Jeanne Liedtka, Andrew King, and Kevin Bennett: Solving Problems with Design Thinking: Ten Stories of What Works, Columbia University Press
Sarah Soule: Why Design Thinking Is an Effective Tool for Social Entrepreneurs

MORE RESOURCES (added November, 2015)
Design Thinking for Educators (IDEO)
Design Thinking Comes of Age (Harvard Business Review, Sept. 2015)
Welcome to the Virtual Crash Course for Design Thinking (Stanford
Use Our Methods (Stanford d. school)
Free online course on design thinking, (+Acumen)

Written by Donica

January 26th, 2014 at 11:29 pm

Advice to an educator

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Working at a university is interesting. One spends a great deal of time with people who never age. To counter the angst this can occasionally cause, and to remind myself that I’ve arrived where I am by choice, not accident, I’ve written the following letter from my young self to my present self. (Thanks to this month’s Carnival of Journalism for inspiring this reflective moment.)

Park Güell, Barcelona, 2002.

It’s Christmas, 1977. I’m a junior in college and still haven’t chosen a major. My strategy has been to take classes that sound interesting. My father gives me another lecture and pulls out the latest Berkeley catalog. He tells me to write down every course I’ve taken and figure out which major will get me the closest to graduating. It takes me a number of hours to work through by hand all the possibilities but I finally figure it out: Political Economy of Natural Resources. The following semester I declare my major in a subject I don’t even understand and by May, 1978 I’ve graduated.

Now it’s Christmas, 1980, and I’ve nearly finished my master’s degree in Science, Technology and Public Policy from George Washington University, another degree I only partially understand. I am facing a choice: do I stay in Washington DC and look for the perfect DC career job? Or do I move back to California, my family and a boyfriend I’ve been breaking up with for years? A professional job in an exciting town or a friendship I need closure on?

I decide I can find a job anywhere if I try hard enough; finding what would make me happy might be harder. So I choose California, heading back west where my parents and grandparents also made their way.

Within two months I am engaged. The boyfriend turned out to be even better than I remembered. But now we face a choice together: do we look for career jobs and figure out where to settle down? Or do we take this chance to do something crazy?

We go for crazy. We work temp jobs for the Forest Service. I drive a garbage truck called the Maggot Wagon. I work as a temporary clerical worker at Pier 39 in SF. We save all our money and decide to marry on the sixth anniversary of our first kiss.

By Christmas, 1981 we are in New Zealand. We eat strawberries and play tennis. In April we fly to Australia. We spend two months working temp jobs in Sydney. We spend a week on the Great Barrier Reef. We drive across the outback and break down.

In August we fly to Bali, totally unprepared for life in a foreign language. We figure it out and spend my birthday at an archeological site on Java. After a month we go to Singapore, another month in Malaysia. We find our way to a baby elephant training camp in Thailand and spend time in Chiang Mai. In October, we land in Calcutta, seasoned travelers.

We trek for a month in Nepal and eat our Thanksgiving turkey in Kathmandu. By Christmas we are in Delhi and we spend sunrise on New Year’s Day at the Taj Mahal. We ride camels in Rajastan and tour a toothpaste factory in Bombay. In the spring we head for Europe, luxuriating in a tiny pension in Rome and a cooking for a Servas host in Paris. We skip Frankfurt but land in London with a sister for a month.

And then it’s over. We return to California, broke, happy, together. We find jobs at a non-profit in Marin County. We decide to go back to graduate school and have children at the same time. We spend seven years living in a 500-square foot apartment in Berkeley, have three children, live on the cheap, scrape by.

As your younger self, I want you to remember other Christmas’s too. The one in Strasbourg, France, when you took the kids to Europe for seven months and taught in Spain. The year you spent New Year’s with your son in Patagonia. The Christmas just a few years ago when all five of you drove from Rome to Switzerland in an old van and went skiing. The years you spent holidays playing bunco with friends in the Bay area.

Remember? And now, now I see into the future — it’s Christmas, 2013. You are worried that you’re not productive enough. You think you never spent enough time working as a professional journalist. You never won any prizes. You haven’t landed any big grants. You didn’t submit any conference papers this fall. You know you need to be writing more research articles for publication. You need to grade faster and answer all your email. You think you should have paid more attention to your career and achieved more.

I’m writing this letter to remind you that you made some really good choices back then. You know what? You just celebrated your 32nd wedding anniversary. Your children are happy and doing their own crazy things. Your students will get over waiting for grades. You can still write something worth reading. You’ll dump all your email and no one will suffer.

So … here’s my advice to my older self: Own your choices. Remember what’s important long term and remind your students. Live your values and don’t get caught up in comparisons. Don’t play it safe. Keep making those risky choices you made when you were 21, and when you’re 90, you’ll be really glad you were wild in your 50s.

Written by Donica

December 21st, 2013 at 11:20 pm

Transforming the college media experience

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Prototyping room at the, Stanford University

This month’s Carnival of Journalism delivers a rich conversation about the future of college media, full of excellent advice about what college media could be and should be: a local community news source, entrepreneurial, innovative, radically experimental, process rather than product oriented, and ready to drop the “student” label.

So, how do we get from here to there? And what is the role of journalism educators in this transition?

I can speak only to the situation on the Nevada campus; mileage varies in terms of how this might apply more universally. But on our campus the journalism school has no official relationship with any of the college media outlets. We don’t offer course credit, internship credit, formal mentoring or resources. Occasionally editors will ask for advice informally or form an advisory board that lasts only as long as one editor’s tenure.

The result is that when we have strong editors and engaged students, the newspaper, magazine and budding radio station provide an invaluable experience, preparing students for jobs at respected national media outlets and serving the campus community. But when we don’t have adept students with the passion and means to work long hours for little or no pay, the outlets don’t get close to fulfilling their potential.

Serious innovation isn’t going to happen just because we hope it will.  Short-term commitments, financial pressures and inexperience are barriers to innovation that we as educators need to address much more directly.

What are some levers educators could employ to help the process along?

Value the work: Consider offering course credit or internship credit for participating in campus media. This would enable students to commit more time to their efforts and cause educators to take the work more seriously.

Improve recognition of high quality, innovative work: When students produce exceptional work, take notice. When they do something radically experimental, recognize it. Encourage regular post-production quality review; build a school culture that recognizes and makes explicit standards of excellence in regards to journalistic quality and to innovation.

Help students build support networks that inspire innovation: Invite alumni, community leaders, faculty in other colleges, and student media leaders from other campuses to visit and talk about innovations in community and college media.

Build skills related to innovation: Conduct design thinking workshops or enable students to attend design workshops elsewhere; facilitate entrepreneurial learning through courses or others means; sponsor films, events and speakers focused on processes of innovation; teach prototyping and usability testing; partner with other units on campus and community businesses/organizations engaged in innovation and entrepreneurship.

Identify new roles within media organizations: Most college media are built around long-established newsroom roles: reporter/editor/photographer. Educators are in a good position to talk about emerging roles in news media: community managers, social media coordinators, visualization experts, data journalists, coders, interactive designers, multimedia storytellers and more traditional roles of increasing importance: investigative journalists and breaking news teams. Help students see the possibilities of specialized focus for themselves and their student news organizations. Facilitate partnerships, online training resources and courses to help students learn the skills necessary for the jobs they want to pursue.

Facilitate connections with the local community: If campus news media are to expand to the surrounding community as advocated by Aram Zucker-Scharff, help build connections with the local community by embedding community relationships in course work and inviting local community leaders to speak and engage with the school.

Increase interaction with faculty and students from strategic communications and marketing:  These folks specialize in engagement and attention; news students could learn a lot from some of their approaches. It’s not enough to simply push content. Understanding audiences and what people pay attention to and why will improve the findability, shareability and relevance of  journalism.

Involve advertising students: The advertising model for online journalism needs as much (or more) innovation as the news side. Encourage advertising faculty to engage with these questions in their classes and use college news organizations as examples and clients.

Provide seed funding: Encourage small teams of students to build collaborations and college news experiments by sponsoring challenge grants, seed grants and securing local funding and in-kind donations.

Require students to create and maintain online portfolios of their work: Show students the value of creating a professional online identity and of producing work that is evidence of their talents, skills and experience. Stress the value of creating a college media experience that helps them produce this work.

College media has the potential to:

  • Provide excellent training for students for their future careers
  • Make valuable contributions to local communities through journalism
  • Build noteworthy examples of sustainable journalism for the future
  • (Addendum: Teach students habits of citizenship that will benefit them regardless of their future careers (as well as strengthen our democracies)

How else might we facilitate this potential?

Written by Donica

November 10th, 2013 at 1:35 am

The journalist as small business owner

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In this month’s Carnival of Journalism Michael Rosenblum urges journalists to go into business for themselves:

“We should arrange ourselves the way lawyers do, as limited partnerships.  Then some of the partners can carry on with their ‘investigative journalism’ while the others engage in more lucrative PR or Image Control and others launch web-related IPOs.

And instead of ‘working for’ the NY Times or NBC, we should simply license our work to them.  For a fee.”

Sound advice for two reasons:

(1) Journalists need a more intimate connection with the people who will read, watch and listen to their work. Nothing focuses attention like a paycheck. Nothing will improve writing, focus and creativity as much as figuring out what people will pay for directly with their money or time.

(2) News corporations have to re-invent themselves as people and information companies, not industrial factories. If they want to attract and retain the best, they have to act like 21st century companies and produce genuine value by investing in their most valuable resources — their employees. Competing with small, nimble and smart companies of journalists might be the kind of competition that will goose the entire industry.

News corporations are finely tuned to deliver mass content that they’ve sold to advertisers.

Networked media feature highly specific content and are decentralized, flexible, and interactive. A journalist can do a tremendous amount to add value to a community that is working through its public problems. A group of journalists who have joined together in a common purpose can keep costs low, differentiate their work and add value in much more strategic ways than a news corporation.

To the degree that responsible capitalism can improve journalism, amen. Teaching students the value of labor, capital and their place in the market will improve their chances of success in far more ways than another class in AP style. This isn’t a panacea for all places, people or types of journalism. But it’s an excellent suggestion for creating a new layer of sustainable journalism. Let the journalism shops/partnerships/small businesses and experiments flourish!


Written by Donica

January 30th, 2012 at 12:45 am


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Robin Hutton on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

The best gift I can imagine from a software developer is a WordPress-like publishing and collaborating platform designed for doing journalism.

According to WordPress’s State of the Word, nearly 15% of the top million websites in the world are using WordPress. Twenty-two out of every 100 new active domains in the US use WordPress.

Hundreds of news sites are using WordPress. The Bangor Daily News uses WordPress for production and publication. The newspaper in Barga, Italy runs on WordPress. So does CNN’s PoliticalTicker as well as countless student newspapers.

WordPress is wonderful; it enables easy access to publishing for millions of people. I’m writing on a WordPress blog right now and I have nearly a dozen class sites in various stages of use.

But it is software for blogging. Journalists need a platform that enables a wider range of content to be published by a wider range of users using a much wider range of design tools. Journalists desperately need a content management system that is as easy and flexible as WordPress but built to enable collaborative, beautifully designed, multimedia rich, social media integrated news.

Image a tool box of widgets and plug-ins just for different types of journalism: wiki pages for context building, storify for all types of media with lots of design options, non-templated templates that allow for multiple size photos with captions, for large headlines, small headlines, contributed stories, rating tools, live chats, live coverage, crowdsourced maps, data visualizations, interactive databases and crowdsourced databases. Imagine a WordPress-like CMS that includes a work flow suitable for use by small and large newsrooms, by classrooms, nonprofits and neighborhood associations. It could be drag and drop, pop and play, easy to use out-of-the-box and open for all types of customization. It would look good on any browser and any device (I know, asking for the moon, but since you asked…)

A content management system built to accommodate all the amazing tools that developers are creating for journalists and that enables strong and beautiful design and is easy to use — that would be a gift of the decade.

I also have a related gift request, one that might not be so pie-in-the-sky. I would love a go-to-wiki that incudes a directory of all the cool tools developers are making that relate to journalism, with links to examples, how-to guides and user comments. So many experiments are flourishing around the world it’s impossible to keep track of all the wonderful gifts developers are already creating for journalists. People are using and customizing new tools in all kinds of unexpected ways. It would be incredibly useful to have a user-generated wiki directory that provided a one-stop place to learn about new tools that relate to creating, doing, producing, distributing and sustaining journalism. If anyone is interested in collaborating on such a project (or knows if such a thing already exists!) please comment below.

Those are my two wishes for this month’s Carnival of Journalism. For the record, I also wish for world peace, an end to hunger and a happy new year to all!

Written by Donica

December 9th, 2011 at 10:31 pm

The rise of the moving image

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This is my response to this month’s Carnival of Journalism question: ” “What is the role of online video in the newsroom of the future?

My speculation is that video will grow to be a dominant form of communication in the near future. Newsrooms will learn to use video along with the rest of us — through testing, experimentation and messing around. The role of video will naturally grow until it’s so natural we don’t even think about it.

I think this for two reasons:

First, I am pretty convinced that we are entering a new era of communication. My belief has been shaped in part by Mitchell Stephens in his 1998 book, The rise of the image the fall of the word, who argues that we are transitioning “from a culture dominated by the printed word to one dominated by moving images.”  In the preface he writes:

In the sixteenth century Rabelais exclaimed, “Printing…is now in use, so elegant and so correct, that better cannot be imagined….” Almost half a millennium has passed. My contention, simply stated, is that we are finally ready to imagine better, that once again we have come upon a form of communication powerful enough to help us fashion new understandings, stronger understandings.

This argument on behalf of video may discomfit my fellow print lovers. I have tried, however, to write with an appreciation for the grand accomplishments of the written and printed word and, therefore, for what it means to state that the moving image will surpass those accomplishments.

(Interestingly, like a snippet of lost video found on an old hard drive, an annotated conversation about Mitchell’s argument published in FEED mag is still available online.)

What this means to me is that we are in the throes of a much larger shift in communication than newsrooms can contain or manage. The transition is happening. Newsrooms will adapt or they will shrink, morph or disappear.

The second reason I believe this is that video is inherently more social than printed words, and social is where we are. My students read less and less; they love to watch video. They love to watch it in class where we can follow along at the same pace, laugh at the same places and transport ourselves — together — in ways that would be impossible in print. (Print can also transport us in ways that video can’t, but reading is essentially a solitary experience. My students crave connection and rarely allow themselves to experience solitariness.) Given that they are the future and they choose video, I think that’s our future, too.

Written by Donica

September 30th, 2011 at 7:36 pm