Attitude and design can drive innovation

Journalists need a better attitude if they want to drive innovation in the news business, writes Skye Doherty, one of the inaugural winners of the Walkley Grants for Innovation in Journalism.

At a talk on Digital Futures in Melbourne last month, Deloitte’s Pete Williams said journalists needed a mindset of “what can I learn, what can I do?”.

He said while opportunities for innovation were abundant, the default position for media companies was to “denigrate, deny and sue” rivals. This was not productive, and instead journalists should accept that the world was changing and do something about it.

Doing something could mean a more designedly way of thinking about, and solving, the challenges facing the industry. Deloitte is one firm that has embraced the divergent and iterative approaches to problem solving used by designers.

Design, or design thinking as it is often called, essentially describes the way designers work. This piece by IDEO’s Tim Brown is a good introduction.

Design encompasses all aspects of the creative process, from research, generating ideas, sketching, building prototypes, and getting people to use them.

It is about problem solving, just not in the way that engineers or business managers normally approach it.

It is good for solving complex or wicked problems. Problems are wicked when they are difficult to define and it is not easy to imagine a good solution. Often such problems cannot be solved definitively because the constraints change over time. Issues such as climate change, poverty, health care, drug trafficking and the future of journalism, can be thought of as wicked problems.

Consider the situation for traditional media companies: falling revenues; free, rival news sources; transient audiences; reduced control over distribution; lack of computational skills in newsrooms; entrenched work processes; high production costs. It’s hard to solve.

Design is also good for inventing new things. It involves researching the problem, particularly the people and environment in which it exists, then coming up with multiple ideas about how to solve it. Some of the solutions may not be what you imagined.

My NewsCube project is the result of a design approach. I began by exploring better ways of using hypertext to tell news stories and asked “what if we used shape?” I then began a process of designing – sketching and prototyping – and then gave my design to users to evaluate. It has resulted in a unique idea for how to tell complex stories.

A design approach could be used to address other journalistic issues: building and retaining audiences; exploiting technologies such as augmented reality; funding news projects; among others. It also has the potential to drive economic growth.

In his 2013 book, Hidden Innovation, media academic Stuart Cunningham argued there was plenty of money to be made in creative industries and that  digital content would drive growth. Design thinking, he said, was the way to translate ideas into commercial applications.

“Design is a strong — and possibly becoming the primary — link between creative industries and mainstream innovation thinking,” he wrote. But to take advantage of the benefits of this approach, journalists will need to put less energy into working out how to preserve the status quo.

The media economist Robert Picard argues that too much worry about the effects the changed media environment is having on journalistic employment means not enough attention had been paid to opportunities.

“The changing ecosystem does not mean that opportunities for quality journalism have disappeared … only that the opportunities are different and that we require new ways of providing it.”

Design thinking is one way to understand the opportunities we have and come up with ways of exploiting them. As Williams said: “We are only at the beginning of the digital revolution”.

Skye Doherty is a recipient of one of the inaugural Walkley Grants for Innovation in Journalism.

You can find a podcast of the Pete Williams talk Skye references, here.

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