News Organization: AL.com of the Alabama Media Group
Person: Michelle Holmes, vice president of content for AL.com. Holmes has been in journalism most of her entire professional career, much of it as a daily editor in Chicago and northern Indiana. She also spent a year in business development for a live video-streaming company. Holmes was first exposed to design thinking while doing a Stanford-Knight Fellowship and taking classes at the Hasso Platner Institute of Design at Stanford.vi
Setting: The Alabama Media Group publishes the state’s largest news website, AL.com, as well as the state’s three largest newspapers, The Birmingham News, The Press-Register, and The Huntsville Times. The company’s digital growth has far outpaced the state’s population—in January 2016, AL.com received fourteen million unique visits. (There are fewer than five million people in Alabama.) Holmes is based in Birmingham, along with the rest of the management team.
The Process: Holmes had never heard of design thinking when she first went to the d.school for her Knight-Stanford fellowship. She remembers, in fact, the distaste she felt at her first exposure. “I thought this was the most ridiculous, absurd, stupidest thing I’d ever been involved with,” she said. Designers talk a lot about “a-ha” moments—that epiphany when suddenly, after all the work, the way forward is illuminated. Holme’s “a-ha” moment came in 2011, while standing in front of a whiteboard after a week of listening exercises:
I suddenly had this idea for an app and I thought, “Wait a minute, I’ve never had an idea for an app before in my life.” But now, after going through this process, I had an idea for a product that could really serve people’s needs. And I thought, OK, this isn’t just about the jargon.
When Holmes took the job at Alabama Media Group, she thought of herself as “reimagining our relationship with our consumers: What did they need from us? And what were the paths for us to reach them?” Holmes wasn’t looking to make new products like Majeed at BuzzFeed. She was interested in generating a different kind of coverage. She wanted stories to arise from the needs of members of the community, not from a group of editors sitting in a room. “I wanted us to talk to people about what interests them instead of just saying ’here’s the news, now leave us alone,”’ she said.
Holmes was inspired by the empathy phase of design thinking, and in particular a tool called needfinding. In his book Needfinding: Design Research and Planning, Dev Panaik advocates the practice as a way of discovering needs that people might not be able to articulate themselves. “Needs aren’t guesses at the future,” Panaik writes. “They’re existing opportunities waiting to be unlocked.”37 Robert McKim developed needfinding as a practice while he was head of Stanford’s Product Design Program in the 1960s. In keeping with the focus of human-centered practice in general, the emphasis, as the name implies, is on people’s needs rather than new technology. Needfinding emphasizes listening and observation as the first step of any design process. Panaik writes about the difference, in painting, between a figure in the foreground and the background—and how by focusing on the figure in a painting, as we tend to do in Western culture, we miss the importance of the background. He calls it “the surrounding contextual information.”38 This is reminiscent of John Seely Brown’s definition of good design as “listening to context,” or Rolf Faste’s concept of whole-person design. Holmes is very clear that she does not attempt to adhere strictly to IDEO’s five-step design thinking process. For example, she gave up on textbook-style brainstorming in the newsroom early on: “I just don’t believe wild brainstorming is a valuable part of our daily routine,” she said. “We have to publish all day long.” Instead, she said, she uses what she learned at the d.school to “create a culture that is open to new ideas, and where people build off each other’s ideas.” She continued, “I don’t feel like we have to dive into all the specifics of design work. It’s just: What can we bring from design that will make us better journalists?” Holmes was eager to try empathy work in the newsroom but knew she had to be flexible. “I knew if I got hung up on the quest to set up perfect empathy work, we’d just get derailed,” she said. “It would never happen.” Instead, Holmes wondered what they could do that wasn’t “perfect,” but also wasn’t “just going out there with all our already preconceived ideas?” Health care was one of the first topics to which Holmes tried to apply empathy work. Instead of editors deciding which stories to report on, she sent reporters into the field to talk to people—not in search of quotes about specific stories, but instead those health care issues with which community members were struggling most. “Let’s go out and talk to people in a different way,” Holmes said. “Where are the gaps in people’s knowledge about health care? And then, how do we deliver news, not in a vacuum but in a way that will actually matter to someone?” In February 2016, the organization launched a project called “Southern Girls.” Its first step involved sending five reporters out into different cities and neighborhoods to talk to girls about their experiences growing up in the south. One reporter spoke with five nine- to eleven-year-olds in North Alabama, who were preoccupied with Donald Trump and how boys are mean; another reporter spent time with adopted sisters originally from China in rural county schools, talking about how it feels to be perceived as different. A third reporter spoke with four eleven- to fifteen-year-olds in a church youth group in Birmingham who were concerned about getting into college; yet another reporter talked to five teenage girls in a Boys and Girls Club in Huntsville about puberty, sex, and pregnancy—and so on, across the state. As Holmes implied, the idea was not to get a scientific sample but to use empathy work to make decisions about what to cover. On another occasion, the organization was soliciting feedback from community and business leaders in Huntsville on major issues. Holmes knew these meetings tended to degenerate into the school principal talking about education, business owners talking about taxes, or doctors talking about health care. Trying to get more concrete about the community issues, Holmes ran a popular design thinking exercise with the group called “How Might We,” which is a way of reframing questions. For example, the question “why is traffic so bad in Huntsville?” points to a problem so complex it seems impossible to grapple with in any real way, while “how might we make sure the commute in Huntsville stays under twelve minutes?” suddenly creates a concrete problem that feels addressable. “How Might We” questions are supposed to name the right problem and imply a possible solution without being either too broad or too narrow.
The “How Might We” exercise originated with a Procter & Gamble creative manager in the early 1970s, Min Basadur, who was charged with competing with Colgate’s new hit product, Irish Spring soap. Basadur eventually got his team to move from “how can we make a better green-stripe bar?” to “how might we create a more refreshing soap of our own?” This led to the Coast brand.39 Since then, it has become a popular tool at IDEO, Google, and Facebook, among other places.
Holmes also reached out to other former Stanford-Knight Fellows as consultants. Andrew Donohue, now a senior editor at the Center for Investigative Reporting, ran a workshop with reporters. Donohue was an early proponent of using design process steps as a way of practicing good community journalism. When he was at Voice of San Diego, he led election coverage not by sending reporters to politicians or their city hall sources, but instead into neighborhoods to talk to residents: “Show us what needs fixing,” is how Donohue described it.40 The reporters spent days riding along with people in their cars and quizzing them about “city-level issues [that] mattered to them.”41 They heard stories about “a promised bus route that never came. A park that never got built. A broken drain that’d become a rubbage dump.”42 After this, the reporters went to politicians and their other high-level sources and asked them what they were going to do about the problems residents had identified. What emerged dictated coverage. Tran Ha, another former Stanford-Knight Fellow and now media experiment project lead at the d.school, also came to Alabama to consult. She led eighteen AL.com journalists in a needfinding workshop. Ha sent the group into Birmingham in teams of two to interview residents about their media habits. These were not “I-need-a-quote interviews,” Holmes said. “But instead they were designed to get to people’s needs that they might not even be able to articulate themselves.” After the needfinding workshops, Ha asked AL.com reporters to make “point of view” statements, another classic design thinking method. A POV statement is supposed to help you articulate the actual need of an actual person. While some people advocate creating a composite character based on your research, the designers I spoke with for this paper all recommended focusing on a real individual. The d.school says that a good POV statement “saves you from the impossible task of developing concepts that are all things to all people.”43
“The best POV statements unify the quotidian and the universal,” Holmes said. Here’s an example from AL.com’s needfinding workshop: “New business owner Animeeta, twenty-seven, needs information on how to maintain customers on US 280 because she’s a recent transplant to the area and her primary news sources are not local.” Central to the concept of POV statements is that you are designing for a specific person (even if it’s a composite), as opposed to people in general.
“You can’t hide in generalities when you’re dealing with a specific individual,” Holmes said, adding:
It’s easy in journalism to fall into shorthand: “We need the rural perspective!” But there’s a big difference between the chicken factory worker and the family with forty acres. POV statements are just a tool to help us hone in on good details and not get lazy with the shorthand.
When I asked Holmes if she had been successful in shifting the nature of reporting and the reporter-reader relationship, she replied that while she had brought in consultants, she would ideally like to send all her reporters to design thinking training sessions. She would, however, never be able to afford that—design thinking workshops are notoriously expensive. On the other hand, the organization won a community engagement award from the Associated Press for a package it produced with the Center for Investigative Reporting on prison reform, using the empathy and needfinding work as a central part of the journalism. And morning page-one meetings have been replaced with a more open format. “It’s a very different feeling from a traditional news meeting,” Holmes said. “Things go very differently when you start with the question: What does our audience want today?”
“How Might We” statements can offer new insights. Correctly naming a problem is not as easy as it might seem. How it’s framed is crucial.
Listening is the starting place for the reporting process. This is a profoundly bottom-up, community approach to journalism that can change coverage and lead to deeper relationships with your audience.
Create POV statements. Although this is usually a method for marketing departments and product development, the trick of designing for specific people as opposed to general audiences can alter the nature of coverage itself.
Open up your morning meetings. Holmes has people stand, rather than sit around a table. Also, by starting with a set of questions in place of reports from desks, she has seen more collaboration between different departments and more creative thinking around specific stories.