‘Is there something innovative we can do to tell this story?’: How journalists and developers can work together on creative solutions for the audience’s needs

As part of the American Press Institute’s Changemaker Network, which seeks to connect and support journalists from newsrooms around the country, we sponsored a few journalists in the network to attend the 2017 Online News Association conference. They were all first-timers at the conference, and we asked them each to share something that they learned by connecting with other digital journalists from across the world.

Starting a new job can be equal parts daunting and exhilarating. Becoming a new manager at a new job in a new city 2,000 miles away from home can definitely tip the balance toward daunting — and that was just the situation I was in before I attended my first ONA conference in Washington, D.C.

I was two weeks away from starting a position as a digital editor for Gannett’s southwest hub. In that role, I help oversee a team of web producers, working on 14 sites in four different states.

That may seem like a complex task, but I have learned by networking with other journalists at conferences like ONA one important thing: Every newsroom is facing a similar battle. From staff reductions to waning public trust, the prospect of shaping a nimble, innovative newsroom becomes … daunting. (There’s that word again!)

So how does a soon-to-be manager create a culture of innovation on a digital team, particularly one that works on so many sites?

The best answer I found came during a session called, “Creating the Next Generation of Product Thinkers.” Attending this session was a bit of a mental and creative stretch for me. The description screamed, “Only developers will understand this.”

Luckily, I was proven wrong.

Yes, there’s a disconnect between developers and their newsroom peers. Aron Pilhofer, a professor at Temple University, addressed the frustration many developers feel by saying, “All they [newsrooms] want is stuff.” Guilty as charged.

I want to encourage my team to ask, ‘Is there something innovative we can do to tell this story?’

But developers and journalists can join forces to work toward the same thing: creative solutions for our audiences’ needs.

For example, one presenter discussed the charts and visualizations that newsrooms create each election cycle. You know what they look like: pictures of the candidates at the top, a list of hot button issues on the side, with quotes about each candidates’ standing lumped in the middle. What if there were a better way to deliver that information? Perhaps some sort of tool or content piece that could be repurposed each election cycle?

That seemed like a fitting example given my new job. Areas of interests on our different sites overlap, and when they do, I want to encourage my team to ask, “Is there something innovative we can do to tell this story?”

Hong Qu, a UX designer with the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, listed five key areas to consider when deciding whether or not to build a new product. These can be applied, in part or in total, to everything we do in newsrooms – from individual story ideas to projects to true products. The five areas include:

  • Audience needs: Is there a clearly defined audience for this product? Why does this audience need this new product? What problem are we solving for them?
  • User experience: How will our audience use this product? And how can we make it more appealing and efficient for them to use?
  • Product culture: Is there buy-in from team members and management alike? Are team members able communicate in a way that enables them to tackle difficulties along the way?
  • Tech innovation: Does the newsroom have the tools necessary to build the product? Or is the product perhaps a new tool itself?
  • Revenue: Can this new product bring in revenue opportunities?

That last point is a slam dunk in particular for management. If they’re going to reallocate an employee’s time to build something new, it needs to make money. Most newsrooms can’t afford to move someone otherwise.

Now that I’m up and running in my position, I’m working to set innovation goals for 2018. I know the areas of production my producers are most passionate about. After holding a training session to walk them through what I’ve learned, I’m going to task each one of them to come up with a creative solution in their area of interest. I’m certainly excited to see what they come up with.

Katie O’Connell is a digital editor for Gannett, working out of the Arizona Republic newsroom in Phoenix. Previously, she was a multimedia journalist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where she worked on music and entertainment journalism and as a podcast producer. She was the producer of Unsolved, a cold case podcast that reached No. 3 on iTunes in its first season. Follow her on Twitter.

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