Journalism case studies that apply design thinking

Design thinking has become a popular method among journalists who are interested in boosting creativity and better engaging their audiences. Stanford University’s d.school offers a five-step process to kick start design thinking that you can use in your newsrooms. Those steps are empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test, which I laid out in another Poynter.org piece.

Here are two case studies to illustrate how journalists are using design thinking in their stories and projects.

Five step process of design thinking by Stanford University’s d.school (Image: d.school / Stanford University)

Voice of San Diego digs into residents’ concerns

Andrew Donohue, senior editor at the Center for Investigative Reporting, used design thinking to create radically different coverage of the 2012 San Diego city council elections while editor of the Voice of San Diego. Instead of publishing more stories on the candidates’ agendas, Donohue and his team assigned a reporter to each district for a week with one mission: find out what’s most important to residents from that community.

The resulting stories were unexpected. “It turns out, our coverage for years had been focused on things that didn’t seem to matter all that much to even active San Diego residents,” Donohue wrote in a Nieman Journalism Lab article.

Voice of San Diego reporters used empathy to understand what San Diego residents needed. Some did ride-alongs, discovering that San Pasqual didn’t have “city sewer, water or trash pickup.” In some communities, they realized, even discussing the safety of crossing the street was a big deal.

“Instead of starting with a story idea, you start with a question and work with a community, be it virtual or real, through live events or interviews,” Donohue told Poynter by phone.

Andrew Donohue (photo by Robin Evans)

Once reporters felt they had a good understanding of San Diego residents’ concerns, they focused on what the community wanted: “Our stories were based a lot more in real people’s needs rather than the story being dreamt up in our head about what we think is important or what document we happen to have or what sources happen to tell us.”

After Voice of San Diego published its coverage, the nonprofit news site received positive feedback from residents and from the journalism community, Donohue said.

He emphasized the importance of prototyping to achieve the result he saw: going out and doing.

“We still often think we need everything to be absolutely perfect before we try something or unveil it to the public. Clearly, the reporting needs to be there,” Donohue said. But there are “different ways of storytelling,” and “little experiments” can quickly “pop things up,” he said. It’s important to provide ways for people “to give feedback that’s not just their reaction to a story.”

Donohue spent the past year as a John S. Knight fellow at Stanford University, where he immersed himself at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, often called the d.school, to create a framework for journalists to apply design thinking to investigative reporting.

His work at the Voice of San Diego served as a prototype and test that led to a new model called Scratch, a new model for investigative reporting, that tries to “creatively engage citizens in government through live events, storytelling and the latest technological tools.”

Donohue said he wants to continue to evolve Scratch. He’s also thinking of conducting a design thinking workshop during the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference next June in San Francisco.

OrbitaLAB designs popup workshops for entrepreneurial journalists

Adriana Garcia, business editor at Thomson Reuters for the Sao Paulo bureau, was a John S. Knight fellow in the same cohort as Donohue. Also involved in the d.school, Garcia took design thinking in a different direction. Instead of using it to craft story ideas, she used it to develop her project OrbitaLAB, an organization that aims to diversify news media in Brazil.

Adriana Garcia (Photo: Knight Journalism Fellowship )

Currently, Garcia is considering teaching classes to “bring [together] people who want to do entrepreneurial things in media with people who are interested in” other fields such as business, design and programming, she told Poynter via Skype.

Her idea began when she discovered a defect in journalism education. She said journalists learn to be cynical and competitive.

“Those things are needed to be a reporter — you need to have that mentality,” she said. “But it doesn’t fit with the reality of creating stuff where you’ll need collaboration and a different attitude.”

Design thinking, she said, provides journalists with a framework that fosters cooperation and therefore innovation.

Garcia spent time empathizing, defining and ideating before she rolled out OrbitaLAB in Sao Paulo last January for Campus Party, a weeklong technology conference run like a hackathon. The annual event typically draws a young, predominantly male and tech-savvy crowd. She hosted a panel, “Journalism Reloaded,” at the conference and ran a design thinking “flash mob workshop,” asking participants to redesign news consumption on buses in Sao Paulo.

The workshop was Garcia’s way to test whether her plans to teach classes through OrbitaLAB would work. More than 1,100 participants from many backgrounds — including sales, design, coding, robotics and journalism — attended.

“It was amazing,” Garcia said. “They did the empathy work. The journalists were crucial in that part. Then they did the brainstorming and prototyping.”

Garcia said the trial run gave her confidence that molding OrbitaLAB into what she called an “idea incubator” could succeed. After her fellowship at Stanford, she went home to Sao Paulo to create design thinking workshops for OrbitaLAB fans, who stayed in touch after Campus Party via the organization’s Facebook Group. She said her goal now is to do empathy work to understand the kinds of “design journalism” classes she should teach to help aspiring journalists execute their projects.

“Journalism is facing so many distribution changes, business-model constraints and challenges,” Garcia said. “Design thinking is an experimental process that can help you come out with products and services that might bring to life things in media that don’t exist today.”

Garcia has set up shop in The Hub Sao Paulo, where she hosts meetings and recently taught her first “design journalism” class. The 20 spots filled up within 24 hours, which seems to suggest a demand even though many journalists haven’t heard of design thinking, she wrote to Poynter in an email. She finds that the communal space with flexible layouts and moveable furniture replicates the d.school environment.

The newspaper is “a product that’s not serving people as it used to serve in the past,” she said. She’s bent on finding a new way to keep people informed daily in a “world where the industry is not willing to pay for it in the same way as they used to do.”

When asked if she’s afraid it’s not going to work out, Garcia said: “I think design thinking is the best methodology to try to do new things in journalism and maybe fund it for the future if we keep on taking this approach. Otherwise it’s just a river of tears.”

Disclosure: I’m a catalyst for the Design Thinking Action Lab online course at Venture Lab.

Correction: This article originally stated that the Voice of San Diego hosted open-mic nights, meetups and design thinking workshops as part of its experiment. While Donohue has thought about the importance of having such events, they didn’t actually occur.

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