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Better By Design: The Overlooked Factors Behind Saving Local Journalism

Design thinking for journalism
Design thinking for journalism

With the COVID-19 pandemic having exposed all that is wrong with journalism’s business model, the search for sustainable solutions has taken on new urgency. Many of the early approaches, such as ending print runs and working remotely, were quick wins, accelerating the digital transformation of newsrooms large and small. But there is another, longer-term element that should not be overlooked: putting people at the centre of the systems and processes used by journalists to make the news. 

Design thinking is a method of innovating that draws from techniques traditionally employed by artists, architects and other creative thinkers to find solutions that work for real people and real life. One of the standard texts on design thinking explains it as a process based on “(re)defining the problem, needfinding and benchmarking, ideating, building, testing”. Because design thinking frames issues in terms of the context and relationships in which they are embedded, it is known for its usefulness in tackling the kinds of “wicked problems” that arise from some combination of social change, market failure, and policy shortfall. Reforming education, healthcare, and the food system are all examples of wicked problems addressed with design thinking. Historically, journalism has taken such problems as its subject. 

Now we must acknowledge that the technological disruption of journalism has become a wicked problem of its own -- one ripe for the intervention of a design thinking approach.

How design thinking makes local journalism more people-centred

The Local Journalism Initiative in Canada is an example of how this could look in practice. 

Launched in 2019 and renewed for an additional three years in early 2021, the CAD$50 million fund provides the salaries of local reporters in areas of Canada considered to be news deserts. In that way it is similar to other subsidy schemes such as the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) in Britain and Report for America (RFA) in the United States. But LJI is distinct in applying a few key design-thinking principles that are contributing to its success. 

First,  LJI is prioritising the specific needs of people —news consumers and news producers —over general project objectives. For instance, unlike other schemes that limit journalists to reporting only on the workings of municipalities such as local councils, LJI defines local democracy broadly. Each reporter’s funded mandate is for a specific local news beat, such as Indigenous issues, urban housing, environmental investigations, or the integration of immigrants. But the programme is set up to be flexible, so that reporters can cover other community concerns related to their mandate, as well as emerging stories. 

As the first round of LJI grants went out between January and March of 2020, many grantee news organisations first had to adapt their hiring plans because of the coronavirus. Then, once their reporters were in place, they had to incorporate the pandemic itself into their news coverage. Ollie Williams, head of Programming & News at Cabin Radio in Yellowknife, capital of the Northwest Territories, said, “We've been able to report the politics of the Northwest Territories' Dehcho region in much greater depth than would otherwise have been possible, and we've been able to cover the pandemic's impact on the region in a way that wouldn't previously have been possible.” 

This is a good example of the co-evolution of problem and solution typical of design thinking approaches: reframing the context of the problem to be solved as new developments emerge.

Empathy and ease of use in design thinking

The second key principle of design thinking at work in LJI is empathy. Specifically, the software being used in the project has been designed to make things easier for LJI grantee newsrooms, rather than more complex. 

Under the auspices of The Canadian Press, the country’s national news agency, a dedicated newswire was created to distribute content written by LJI reporters. The idea was to make it easy for partner publications to share and use stories in their own publications. To achieve this level of collaboration, the agency opted for an open-source solution created by Sourcefabric, in partnership with several news agencies, including the Australian Associated Press. Both the back-end content management system as well as the client-facing News Portal itself were pared down to only the most essential publishing functionality. At the same time, features that would promote wider exposure for news articles, such as different levels of tagging, were retained. “We wanted people in different regions to see the content relevant to them by region but also be able to flag interesting content from anywhere,” said Gerry Arnold, Executive Editor at The Canadian Press. 

It’s also worth noting that the LJI grantee news outlets are continuing to use their existing editorial systems. All an editor or reporter has to do to work with LJI is copy-paste their stories from those internal systems into the LJI News Centre as the publishing platform. “It's a very simple and straightforward content management system and stories can be published using it in a matter of seconds,” said Ollie Williams of Cabin Radio. 

Designing for cooperation rather than competition

Finally, design thinking is centred on the idea of building tools for collaboration rather than competition, a philosophy that the news industry must embrace. Attempts to reinvent the media can only be successful to the extent that they incorporate a mindset shift toward working together for the good of the industry as a whole. The LJI encapsulates this new way of thinking in its beautifully simple conditions for use of content, which stipulate that any Canadian news organisation can share and distribute content produced by LJI reporters irrespective of whether that news outlet is an LJI grantee itself. Because all LJI news is surfaced on this dedicated content hub for which the syndication and sharing rules are straightforward, it gives news outlets an incentive to publish their peers’ stories. 

In all of the media projects I have been involved in over the years, I have seen that putting the principles of design thinking in service of a larger goal is an under-appreciated success factor. In the case of  LJI, it has paid substantial dividends. In the project’s first six months, over 200 grantee news organisations were on-boarded into the News Centre, with nearly 3,000 stories going out on the wire each month. “Those are stories that didn’t exist a year ago, and are now benefiting Canadian journalism,” said Gerry Arnold. 

Saving the news is a wicked problem. But putting people at the heart of it may be our best bet to find a solution.