Knight Lab’s Class Brings Design Principles to Local News

A new Northwestern University class called Design for Local News isn’t trying to make minor tweaks in the current media environment.

It’s going straight to the question of what information the public needs and starting there to invent new products.

“It’s like a Zen beginner’s mind, a ‘first principles’ sort of thing. Pick your metaphor,” said Associate Professor Zach Wise.

As local news outlets suffer from a disrupted business model that has led to widespread layoffs and news deserts, new thinking unfettered by the past is most welcome.

Design for Local News is part of a Northwestern project called the Medill Local News Initiative, launched last year to help local journalism find greater relevance and financial stability.

The class is run by the Knight Lab, which is part of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Knight Lab is best known for creating a group of free tools for digital storytellers that includes TimelineJS.

The Knight Lab believes that journalism is in dire need of product innovation. ...

Joe Germuska, Executive Director, Knight Lab

“The Knight Lab believes that journalism is in dire need of product innovation – that most journalism organizations are still doing what they’ve done for a long time but not getting the successes they used to get from that,” said Joe Germuska, Knight Lab Executive Director.

A partner in the class is the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. McCormick adjunct professor Susan Curtis co-teaches with the Knight Lab’s Wise and Germuska. She said the Medill graduate students and those seeking a master’s in Engineering Design Innovation (EDI) bring different talents to the class.

Concepts are carefully analyzed in Northwestern's new Design for Local News class.

“The journalism students are very, very well versed with the challenges inside of journalism and the challenges inside of news and information consumption,” Curtis said. “EDI students know less about it. What they bring to it is an understanding of how to do research and uncover user insights and basically build products and experiences. There’s also a shift inside EDI. If you think of them as engineering students, most people think about engineering as hard products. But there’s also an incredible shift of people who are more interested in building digital products inside of EDI.”

In this class, MVP doesn’t mean “most valuable player.” It’s “minimum viable product.” Design for Local News started in the winter quarter with product conception and continued in the spring quarter with product design. For the summer, the Knight Lab will build at least one of the new products.

… Most people think about engineering as hard products. But there’s also an incredible shift of people who are more interested in building digital products. ...

Susan Curtis, adjunct professor, Segal Design Institute

What happens then? Hard to know.

“This is all still very speculative because we’ve never done this before,” Germuska said. “The design process is fundamentally unpredictable.”

The students came up with several ideas but have narrowed them down to two, called Buoyant and Atlas.

Buoyant is a news product featuring user-generated content, organized by communities, whether they be geographic or topic-centered.

“We were thinking, are we focusing too much on how to make newsrooms survive, and not thinking about why they’re trying to survive?” said student Louis Oh. “At the end of the day, it’s about making sure people are informed at the local level. The way we’re making them do that is to do it themselves.

“This is based on an insight we found: A lot of people might find big news sources as untrustworthy, but they tend to trust people around them  —  people they know or can recognize as part of their community,” said Oh, who like most of the Medill students is enrolled in the Media Innovation & Entrepreneurship specialization, a master’s program in which they learn how to develop and launch publications and media products.

“There are already Facebook community groups and Nextdoor, but there can be a lot of clutter for people to dig through. Buoyant lets communities crowd-source not only information but also the editorial process. Like in Reddit, where you upvote or downvote, users can float or sink the information.”

We were thinking, are we focusing too much on how to make newsrooms survive, and not thinking about why they’re trying to survive?

Louis Oh. Design for Local News student

The second proposed product, Atlas, is an attempt to record audio of official meetings and instantly create transcripts.

“I was thinking the whole time that it would be perfect for Hillsborough, my hometown suburb of San Francisco,” said student Ally Holterman. “It’s small, they don’t have a local newspaper, and most info such as school board meetings and budgets is found out through gossip. When you look at the neighborhood demographics, they’re working, they have kids, and people want to know about board meetings. In that sense, I think it would be the perfect setting. It would also work well in a metropolitan setting, but the difference is there are currently more tools in metropolitan settings.”

Student Danny Hwang, who also is working on Atlas, noted that maintaining focus is a challenge in product design.

Danny Hwang, a studen t in the Design for Local News class, explains Atlas, a proposed product that would create transcripts of community meetings.

“One of the hardest things in developing this product was we kept straying away from users’ needs because we saw potential benefits for other groups involved in this picture, such as meeting organizers or local news. But our design thinking class helped us focus explicitly on the news consumer and keep us on track to really make the product fit the needs of one group.”

The technical issues in Atlas are daunting. For example, how do you tag the recording and transcript efficiently so it’s clear who is speaking? The students are bearing down on issues like that.

Senior Associate Dean Tim Franklin, who oversees the Medill Local News Initiative, said the Design for Local News projects demonstrate a creative energy that can help local news providers better address citizen engagement.

“One of the more important elements to any local news organization is to connect community. Now we have vastly more ways to do that. I like the ingenuity behind some of these ideas and their ability to use new technologies to connect each other,” he said.

Wise hopes exposing journalism students to the human-centered design process helps them understand people’s needs from a different angle.

Starting from the bottom up is the approach that leads to structural change in a time that we desperately need it.

Zach Wise, Associate Professor, Knight Lab

“There’s a saying in design that design doesn’t warrant change unless the fundamental architecture underneath it changes. Otherwise it’s putting a different wallpaper up,” Wise said. But much of the innovation in the industry is more wallpaper than reform. “Starting from the bottom up is the approach that leads to structural change in a time that we desperately need it.”

New products must be both creative and practical. A key challenge for the instructors is to get students to consider their feedback but not let it force them into hasty conclusions.

“Anything I can offer or Zach can offer or Joe can offer, it’s an opinion based on expertise,” said Curtis. “I’m not the person using it. So the only person who should be held in the highest regard is the end user  — when you can tell me you’ve tested that feature, you’ve tested that experience, you’ve sat down with hundreds of people and you have data to tell me that’s the right decision. Everything else is nothing more than opinion up for debate and discussion amongst the group.”

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