Last fall I was part of a gathering for solutions journalists with journalists from around the country and world who focus on stories about problem-solving. The term “solutions journalism” sounds positive, but this form of journalism isn’t focused on feel-good stories or “fluff” pieces. Instead, these stories look for what people are doing about a problem, and evaluates whether these attempted solutions are working or not, for whom, and why.
At the Solutions Journalism Summit, I spent one lunch session chatting with a writer who is building a health and parenting newsletter for her regional readership. “I’m creating something I really believe has value,” she told me. “But — does it? I can’t really tell.”
People were reading her newsletter; thanks to increasingly-sophisticated analytics tools, journalists and publications can tell a lot about reader behavior. Her data could tell her who was reading, what content they opened, how much of it they read, how many times, at what times of day, on what platform, and whether they passed it on to others.
But what the data wasn’t telling her was why they were reading her newsletter — and what impact, if any, it was having on them.
Like design, journalism is in the business of delivering “the data + the why” of human behavior in the world. Publications, and the journalists that write for them, tend to have clear and thoughtful answers to the “why” of their own work: “What are our ideals about the importance of reporting on the state of the world?” and “How is our content unique from other outlets?”
But many — especially those that aren’t investigative-driven — don’t have a clear grasp on the “why” of their audience: “What do our readers need from journalism? In what way do they rely on us to meet that need? How do we know? Is our publication demonstrably changing readers’ perspective, understanding, or behavior? How do we know?”
For an industry that describes itself as a service — delivering something of value that people cannot provide for themselves — this inability to evaluate is a fairly large miss.
Publications know, of course, that understanding reader preference is a necessity — so in addition to tracking analytics, editors will often try to capture preference by sending out reader surveys, asking people what they like. But social scientists and designers know that what people say they care about is often different than how people behave.
Instead, service designers rely on behavioral questions like these: “How, exactly, do people use this service? What need are they meeting, or trying to meet, by using it this way? How do we know?”
Service designers attempt to understand how a product, system, company, or policy delivers value to its users by solving needs they can’t solve for themselves — be it in the hospitality industry, transportation, hospitals, schools, the government, or journalism. Designers identify the pain points where a service’s value promise is falling short with users, and then build and test new versions of the service to address these gaps.
This makes service design necessarily “human-centered” and participatory. Designers conduct research by sitting with users in their context — talking with them, observing how they use a service (or not, and why), and assembling a nuanced, holistic understanding of their lived experience.
The resulting insights from readers can often directly complicate accepted, top-down industry wisdom. For example:
- People don’t trust “the news” — but they do trust voices they know and admire.
- People don’t want to pay for journalism — but people and institutions do pay for specific services journalism provides. Namely, knowledge: including real-time data, analysis of complex problems, fact-checked quotes and statements, research and knowledge-building over time, and indexed resources.
- People don’t trust “the news” — but they do rely on reporting in times of crisis and disaster.
If a publication were to conduct design research and encounter these findings above, its leadership would be in a great position to ask:
- How might our service establish reader trust and familiarity through the voices we feature?
- How might we feature more voices that our readers already trust?
- How might we get news to all readers who need it, in a way that they can access, regardless of cost?
- How might we make our in-house knowledge available to other institutions and industries that could benefit from it?
- How might we provide the same degree of real-time, inclusive, need-to-know information that people rely on in disaster, to ongoing issues of civic importance?
Framing these questions as a matter of “how” allows designers to immediately begin to try answering them — by building ideas, and testing them to see what works.
For example: Say you’re a journalist at a mid-sized publication, who wants to provide more valuable information for your local city readership. You’ve noticed that in times of disaster, like a recent flashflood, your publication seems to capture the trust of the community — thanks to your diligent social media editor who basically lives on Twitter and Facebook. But that surge in social media engagement doesn’t necessarily translate to your homepage; and when it does, it tapers off as soon as the crisis recedes. You think you could be doing a lot more in those moments — but you also wonder if you could replicate that model in daily scenarios.
Look at these “how might we’s.” What could you try to build?
How might our service establish reader trust and familiarity through the voices we feature?
Our social media editor could tweet in the first person. Our reporters could take over our publications’ Twitter and livestream during their reporting. Each new reporter that joins the staff could answer readers’ questions about themselves. We could include an “ask the reporter” button on every story (and in every Insta story) — reader-submitted questions for the writer to publicly answer.
How might we feature more voices that our readers already trust?
We could hire more writers from groups that are historically underrepresented in media. We could rely on and feature “citizen journalists” reporting issues in real-time. We could hire people that have deep networks in our city and put them through journalistic training, versus flying in trained journalists with shallow or no ties to the city.
How might we get news to all readers who need it, in a way that they can access, regardless of cost?
We could partner with local caregivers, social worker services, community halls, houses of worship, libraries, shelters, and hospitals to provide on-site access to our publication for free. We could do the same for breaking news for the city. We could provide our publication in multiple languages. We could add close-captioning and voice text.
How might we make our in-house knowledge available to other institutions and industries that could benefit from it?
We could bundle our “institutional expertise” on city issues for paying subscribers, including the government, universities, philanthropies, and businesses.
How might we provide the same degree of real-time, inclusive, need-to-know information that people rely on in disaster, to ongoing issues of civic importance?
We could combine all of these services above by reimagining our publication as a front-end community service / back-end business: One that highlights a real-time civic problem on its home page, accessible to all, and provides a historic deep dive for paying subscribers.
All of this from three insights into our readers’ behavior!
This is just one quick way we can rethink how journalism could function more as a service. The idea is not radical — it’s not even particularly unique! But this is the process of service design — to center users, to synthesize their behaviors and motivations, and to attempt to creatively solve their needs.
Ironically, this process is almost exactly the same process journalists already use to create articles. It only requires a simple adjustment to also apply this process to how publications improve their service for readers. Those readers are counting on it.