Redesigning Journalism At Stanford’s Design School

    by Chris O'Brien
    March 26, 2009

    I had the great privilege to be invited to sit on a panel earlier this month at the Institute of Design at Stanford to provide feedback on an effort called, “Redesigning Journalism.” I’ve been wanting to visit the “D School” for some time now. So I jumped at the chance to participate.

    In this case, design refers to the fundamental way a product is conceived and built. The D School teaches something called “design thinking”. It’s a powerful method and I’ll be writing more in the near future about using it to find new ideas for journalism.

    In brief, a design driven approach to creating something new favors a qualitative approach over a data-driven approach. Rather than amassing mounds of data from customer and marketing research, you go out and observe people to understand their lives and needs and how products could fit into them. Folks who embrace design thinking commonly refer to this as building empathy with the customers.


    One example of how that could look for newspapers can be seen in this recent post by Michelle McLellan about Carla Savalli, a former assistant managing editor who left the Spokesman-Review in Spokane in October. McLellan writes that Savalli’s “time away from the newsroom has upended the way she views the daily newspaper.” Savalli now sees the newspaper through the eyes of her community, rather than through the newsroom. She’s developed greater empathy for her community. Savalli doesn’t need piles of polls and surveys to understand the community outside the newsroom, because now she’s one of them. Everyone working in a newsroom today needs to have that experience. It requires listening to the community in a very different way.

    For an extreme example of this approach, check out this article from the Boston Globe about MIT’s AgeLab, where they had students wear an “Age Suit” to understand how the elderly experience the world.

    And if you really want a deep dive into design thinking and empathy, I highly recommend reading “Wired To Care” by Dev Patnaik with Peter Mortenson of Jump Associates.


    We used a design driven approach during our Rethinking the Mercury News project in 2007 and I found it to be incredibly powerful. Patnaik writes about how design thinking can “reframe” the way you see the world, and that was certainly true for me. I walked away with a number of thoughts about what newspapers should and should not be doing to reinvent themselves. (More on that in another post).

    Design thinking is a movement that’s gaining a toe-hold in the journalism world. Gannett is embracing it, and has hired one of the leading firms in this field, IDEO. You can watch a series of videos that IDEO and Gannett posted about their process here.

    And at the Next Newsroom Conference at Duke University last year, I was fortunate that John Keefe, program manager for WNYC in New York attended. He’s embraced design thinking to create a new newsroom for WNYC as well as reinventing some of its programming.

    More recently, I connected with Andrew Haeg, a senior producer and analyst for American Public Media in St. Paul, Minn. Haeg is spending this year in Palo Alto on the Knight Fellowship for Professional Journalists. During his time at Stanford, Andrew has delved into design thinking and through him, I was invited to sit on the D School panel.

    The “Redesigning Journalism” project grew out of a class being taught by Corey Ford at the D School. Ford recruited a number of folks from across campus, including several folks from the Knight Fellowship program and Stanford’s Graduate Program in Journalism, and broke them into three teams. Their broad mandate was to “Redesign Journalism.”

    The teams spent about six weeks on the project, doing observational studies, brainstorming, rapid prototyping, and some moderate testing. Again, the goal of the process is to understand the way people live their lives, and use that information to design products. It’s a highly intuitive and subjective process. On March 12, we gathered in a space at the D School where the three teams each had five minutes to present their idea.

    I was part of a three-person panel that was supposed to offer critiques and feedback. The panel also included Tristan Harris, CEO and Co-Founder of Apture, and Andreas Kluth, the Silicon Valley correspondent for The Economist.

    Andreas blogged about his experience that night here. One of the groups showed a video of a woman named Rebecca who talked about how she subscribed to the Economist because she thought it made her look smart, but never actually reads it.

    Two of the three groups proposed iPhone applications, and I wondered how much of that reflected their own obsession with the gadget versus what they were truly hearing from the folks they observed and interviewed. That’s a tricky thing in a process like this, to truly put aside your own interests to listen fully to what people are telling you. Still, both applications offered interesting services that I could see value in developing.

    The first iPhone app was called Newstiles: an iPhone application that aggregates stories by displaying photos into a slideshow on the phone. You can use your finger to slide across the phone and view the photos, and then tap on the photo to call up the story. The belief was that the visual nature of the photos would attract more people into the news.

    You can watch their presentation here:

    The second iPhone application was called Video DJ. The idea here was that a company, let’s say the New York Times, would hire brand-name DJs to mix video clips of the news into 2-minute videos, and at the end, the user could tap on any of the video clips to full a longer version of that news video. You can see a prototype here:

    A couple of my main thoughts: iPhones apps are absolutely worth thinking about. But also remember that there are now over 35,000 iPhones apps in the iTunes store. So you have to think hard about why yours is going to stand out. And you also have to think about clutter on the phone. How many iPhones apps will most people use, particularly news apps? I think not more than four or five at most. So newsrooms need to be thinking about how to get on people’s mobile devices, but it’s also going to be tough to get a spot on that piece of real estate.

    Also, the vast majority of news start-ups I come across these days are attempting to create some new way to aggregate stories. I’m sure someone is going to come up with a much better solution that what currently exists, but again, it’s a crowded field, so the bar will be high for standing out.

    I did like that both applications sought to offer functionality that took advantage of the way the iPhone worked, rather than just re-posting or re-formatting headlines. And they were both visually creative and very appealing to watch. Tristan and Andreas were bigger fans than I was, but I did think they were both very clever. Perhaps most important, they were trying to understand how people used their iPhone, and how they wanted to experience news and information on that particular mobile device.

    My favorite of the bunch was the third team’s product: the Reader Meter. They only had a conceptual framework and not a working prototype. But the idea in a nutshell is to create an application that would sit on every computer in the newsroom and serve as a kind of dashboard to monitor the community’s activity online, both on your own Web site and beyond.


    It wasn’t a total surprise this group came up with a solution for newsrooms, since the team included Ann Grimes, director of the graduate journalism program and a former writer and editor at the Wall Street Journal. But the Reader Meter solves a real problem for me: How to keep up with all the conversations happening in your community online. I liked the idea of something that tunes everyone in the newsroom into those conversations and activity. Also, as a business, hopefully this would be something that a newsroom might actually pay to use (even if it’s just a little bit for each copy, it could add up). When it comes to the Web, selling to other businesses is usually a better bet than trying to get consumers to pay for something.

    Given the compressed time frame that they had to work under, I was impressed that each of the teams came up with an intriguing idea that sparked good discussions. Did any of them fundamentally solve the problems plaguing the journalism world? No, of course not. But they all did represent fresh thinking, which is what really matters in a process like this.

    Tagged: design thinking innovation journalism nextnewsroom stanford
    • You should realize the design-based approach has helped to destroy newspapers.

      There is no evidence that any redesign has ever led to a sustained boost in circulation at any newspaper that’s not in a remote outpost.

    • @ Wenalway,

      I think you’re looking at “design thinking” as document creation. It’s true that most designers are in fact document creators. Their brief is usually “make it exciting”, “put in more color”. Given this kind of limited brief it’s not a surprise that they focus on decorating documents.

      But the thinking that Chris is highlighting is more like a humble empathetic anthropology. It’s what the great designers with great clients have always done.

      A great example of this approach can be seen at any Ikea store and much of the stuff at Martha Stewart Living.

      It’s much more about product development than merely graphic design. At the end of the day, newspapers and every other physical manifestation of information, including the screen, is a product that has to be invented.

    • @ Wenalway

      Let me say I 100 percent agree with you. Newspapers have tried to do 2 things to solve their problems: re-design the look of the print version and write shorter stories. These were solutions they felt were suggested by their customer research data. Both have failed to attract people back to the print version.

      But @MichaelJ is right on the mark. “Design Thinking” suggests we get away from the data, and try to understand how people live their lives, and create products based on those direct observations. When you do that, it suggests very different ways to improve the print and online experience for people. I’m working on a follow up post about that topic, but to give you sense, it’s pretty clear that people who like print associate it with “quality” and “substance” and so we should be giving them more of that in their print product.

    • @Chris,

      I think it’s important to take account of the fact that very few people read newspapers. They scan, search, and nibble what looks tasty.

      Newspapers are not about reading, they’re about something else.

      Another thing to consider is that actually readers are a niche of the population. Even in college, the number of readers is a minority. Different at different campuses, but if you take the college population as a whole…my guess would be about the same % as in the general population. Say about 20% read as a normal part of life.

      It’s a little hard to see that in the journalist bubble, since all of them are news/information junkies. So my guess is that reader percentage may be as high as 65%.to 75%.

    • @MichaelJ:

      A couple observations. My project here (The Next Newsroom Project) was aimed in large part at college media. One thing that’s been striking is how conservative college media organizations are. It was a real shock to me, until I started visiting a lot of campuses and talking to college journalists.

      Here’s what they told me again and again: Every morning when they get up and walk to class, the news racks containing their paper is empty. All of their peers are reading the print version of their paper. So they would ask me: Why should we have to worry about the Internet now if everyone on campus is still reading us in print?

      There’s plenty of good reasons, of course. But the point is this: The demographic that supposedly won’t read print is in fact reading a lot of printed newspapers. They won’t subscribe to the New York Times, but they’ll read their campus paper because it fits the way they consume news and info. (And I suspect a big chunk are doing the crossword puzzles in class, as I did 20 years ago).

      But I think that percentage of print readers is much higher than you suspect. But again, the lesson here is that newspapers have an opportunity to reinvent their print version in a way the fits people’s lives. The real problem is selling one version at one time. People want greater choice.

      And while print readers are a minority (as you note), they are also quite passionate about print. And as such are still willing to pay now, even though they could get it all free. I believe (and I’ll post longer thoughts on this in a few days) that newspapers need to turn their print version into a premium product and charge more for it. They need to keep their content online free.

    • @ Chris,

      I think I haven’t yet been able to make the distinction I’m going for. Maybe the best, but still imprecise, pointer is to people who subscribe to the New Yorker. I think it’s fair to say that they enjoy engaging the world through words. That’s the niche audience of readers that I mean.

      My contention is that newspapers are not about “reading” in that sense. The very “pyramid” style of journalism is testament to that very fact.

      But, as you point out with your experience in college, print newspapers are wonderful information appliances. Games, tidbits, ads. Plus you can fold it, keep it in a pocket than throw it away, when done.

      I’m not trying to being ironic. I think when the anthropology is done, it’s going to turn out that reading isn’t the value created. My bet is that people will pay more attention to the ads, than the journalism.

      The irony is that journalism on the web has a much more intense audience. For most people the time and focus invested in accessing the web is much higher than needed for print. For that increased investment, they need a bigger pay off.

      Journalism which is good enough to fill a news hole in print, is not necessarily good enought get buy in from a viewer/reader on the web.

      So, I’m thinking to win on the web, journalism will have to reach much higher standards than in print.

    • “I think it’s important to take account of the fact that very few people read newspapers. They scan, search, and nibble what looks tasty.”

      A prime example of concoct-and-chant. People think if they just keep saying this, then somehow their belief in redesigns will be justified.

      The approach has yet to succeed. But people keep on chanting.

    • Wenalway,
      It may be “concoct-and -chat.” But it’s still true.

      Here’s another one:
      The business success of newspapers has almost nothing to do with the “news.” It’s about sports, comics, gossip, pretty pictures and the convenience of being able to have something to keep you busy until you do the next thing you have to do and to wrap fish or start a fire.

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