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When Is the Right Time to Introduce Design Thinking to Journalism Students?

Design thinking may be a buzzword, but it’s also a method to solve complex problems. And it has informed the work of many newsrooms, including the NYT, Buzzfeed and WBEZ.

So when is the right time to introduce it to journalism students?

I was going to find out.

Over about six weeks at the start of 2018, I was a guest lecturer for a series of sessions on design thinking that was part of an undergraduate journalism fundamentals course at Morgan State University in Baltimore. The course was led by Professor Denise Cabrera and, lucky for me, it was a small class. This was my first time teaching reporting.

My goal was to help the students understand news reporting as a design process, especially how audience engagement could play a role. Because the design approach informs every stage of reporting, I posited that students should learn about it as they learn about ledes and feature writing.

Class 1: News as a Product

Before digging into the design process in journalism, I wanted to make sure students understood the news story as a product, something journalists make to be consumed. Then we would discuss how to find out what consumers — or the audience — need.

My plan for the first session was to:

  • Look at how various outlets reported the same news event (my examples were the 2017 solar eclipse and the Parkland shooting), the differences in their headlines, tone, visual style, length, and what those differences suggested about their respective audiences;
  • Introduce methods of user research; and
  • Have students practice user interviews with each other.

Professor Cabrera had assigned each student a neighborhood near Morgan State to report on. The story they had coming up was on health. So in the user interviews, they would ask about media consumption habits, along with a person’s views on wellness and healthcare. My first assignment for them was 3–5 user interviews in their assigned neighborhoods in order to generate health story ideas based on what they heard.

Here’s how it went:
Liked: Students readily accepted the idea of news as a product and offered lots of smart observations comparing the content and audiences served in the coverage of the eclipse and shooting.
Learned: Some students were not yet comfortable with basic techniques in interviewing, and so it was a lot to ask them to identify audience needs and then potential stories to fulfill those needs.
Lacked: The transition from interview to story idea would be a challenge for any junior reporter. I should have given students more direction on how to do a user interview and walked them through how to get from interview notes to story ideas.

Classes 2 and 3: Reporting with your community

Our next session and a half, I provided comments on the students’ user interviews and story ideas, and we discussed prototyping a news story with your audience. I presented this kind of prototyping as a form of engagement, an idea I got from Jennifer Brandel from the tech company, Hearken, who observed that when you open the reporting process and let the audience participate before you publish, you get feedback from the consumer about your final product, i.e. the news story.

My plan was to:

  • Fit audience engagement in the design process;
  • Present examples of pre-publication engagement (largely from public radio); and
  • Have students brainstorm in groups of three how to bring the audience into their reporting.

Here’s how it went:
Liked: I loved introducing students to creative engagement projects. One student wrote that this session was a favorite because “it added a new dimension to our news writing.”
Learned: Prototyping is a pretty foreign concept in news reporting generally. An everyday example of prototyping a consumer product — say, a toy or laundry detergent — would have given the students a more accessible starting point. And while it’s good to mention big newsroom projects, the bulk of class time should have focused on simpler engagement. The students didn’t have adequate time or resources for most of the engagement/prototyping activities I described. Some students had part-time jobs or didn’t have a car.
Longed for: It would be amazing if there was a student publication that regularly covers the surrounding neighborhoods and is read by their residents so that journalism students could strengthen existing relationships and conversations.

Class 4: How do you know if you succeeded?

To reinforce what we were covering, I asked students to again do user interviews for their next class story, which focused on crime. Professor Cabrera had also asked for me to touch on distribution, which tied in well with metrics.

My plan for this final session was to:

  • Introduce how to measure a story’s success;
  • Have students discuss with a partner and then with the whole class possible outreach/distribution efforts for their health story and how they could track success;
  • Have students share in smaller groups their user interviews and come up with a crime story idea that would fulfill user needs; and
  • Conclude with some journalism career tips.

Liked: Dedicating more class time for small group discussion was a fruitful way to ensure all the students were engaged.
Learned: Since students weren’t going to publish their work, the discussion around metrics was mostly theoretical. While the students already had blogs and social media accounts (some with followers in the thousands!), their audiences did not necessarily include many residents from their beat neighborhoods.
Longed for: A site that’s connected to the community and publishes work from journalism classes would provide a great learning opportunity for students on both metrics and engagement.

So was this the right time?
Students caught on easily to the idea of news as a product, but their first set of user interviews demonstrated that some real grounding in the art of interviewing was critical before moving forward.

The subsequent user interviews improved but still lacked enough specifics to inform decisions about story topics, and the resulting stories often needed much more reporting (more research, expert voices) to actually meet user needs.

On the other hand, teaching design thinking to students at the same time as they learn the craft of reporting has its benefits. “This group of students seemed to develop more solid source relationships than I have seen in the past from students in this class,” Professor Cabrera observed. “They got to really know their sources’ individual stories better through this approach.”

Elaine Chen works at The New York Times on the Digital Transition team, which trains and supports the newsroom on how to learn about and connect with digital audiences. Before The Times, she worked in public radio and most recently led health-related engagement projects at New York Public Radio.