Design at business: What we started with Rev 2.0

Big problems need big solutions. The problems facing newspaper companies today need some of the biggest ideas available. But finding those hasn’t been easy — lots of people have tried.

On Saturday, the Society joined a day-long event in Washington aimed at helping the struggling newspaper industry find online revenue solutions in a few key areas. We believed design thinking could help frame the issue.

We thought that by approaching the question differently we would come up with some new potential solutions. RevenueTwoPointZero pulled together two dozen innovators, editors and designers with a wide variety of experiences in newspapers, web sites and management, and challenged them to consider how user experiences with ads might be different.

The invited participants worked from a collective understanding of all the regular studies and reports that we’ve all read. They also drew on their own experiences and research. We were thrilled to see the invited participants answer the charged with such terrific early results.

In just about eight hours they generated some compelling ideas around four main areas of opportunity:

The links above are for longer pieces that focus on the process that informed the starter prototypes. You can find executive summaries of each team’s work on the main site here.

What’s so special about this stuff?

How was this different from all the other smart workshops and symposiums that have tried to generate a better news experience? We had a laser focus on revenue, since that’s a critical bridge for bolstering our collective journalism future.

Many others have already discussed editorial content in intelligent ways. This group used design thinking to see the challenges in a new way, which pushed toward unique solutions on advertising and other ways to make money.

Design thinking seeks to position the challenge or problem from the perspective of the customer and focus on the experience users have with a product or service. By considering how we can serve up a more meaningful, satisfying experience, and helping users get the kinds of information and services they want — not the ones we think they should want, or the ones we have to give them — fresh ideas are often born.

Design thinking also encourages rapid prototyping — it’s a quick way to take an idea from two dimensions into a third and also show others what the potential solution might be. By collaborating in groups and building out prototypes, sharing progress intermittently, and asking a lot of questions, the groups were able to push each other beyond their initial ideas, and further refine their thinking. That’s what we hope to do with the work you see being released this morning. These are starters. Only that.

What else did we learn?
Patrick Cooper, one of the participants, who works at USA Today identified three other realizations from Saturday worth sharing:

1. How to make money to save papers is not someone else’s problem. Nothing’s stopping you from bringing together good people, tossing ambitious goals on the table and sharing what happens.

2. We have to treat advertising as content, and misinterpreting what that means is a ridiculous waste of time. Ethics are ethics, and money shouldn’t affect editorial content. If you can’t assume that, you win the hand-wringing contest and lose in everything else. The industry has to move storytelling techniques, interface design, content tools, and Web fundamentals forward if we’re going to chase business as aggressively and creatively as we chase readership. As one participant pointed out, even with the economy the way it is, there’s plenty of potential money out there that we’re not getting. We have to be more compelling — journalistically compelling — in seeking business. If we had started anywhere else, like a position of worry, we wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far as we did. Labeling an ad as an ad is easy. Coming up with a better ad or system is critical.

3. Futurism isn’t the only way to the future. Patrick mentioned fundamentals in the previous item, and how much they were in practice in the room shouldn’t be overlooked. The participants were equal parts aware, critical and seeking of newspaper workings, digital possibilities and themselves. In blind spots, they listened to understand and built from there. Futurism, like editorial responsibility, was assumed — with much to be done on the way there. Newsrooms have been awful at this kind of practice, sweating the small stuff quickly and productively, and Saturday showed big promise for expectations of leadership. If your newsroom leaders aren’t aware, critical and seeking throughout their roles, they need to change or you need to change them.

Those are all excellent takeaways, even if you don’t like a single prototype we’re showing.

Many thanks to everyone who helped. The full list:

  • Deborah Acosta, University of Miami
  • Chris Amico, PBS NewsHour Online
  • Patrick Cooper, USA Today
  • William Couch, USAToday.com
  • Chris Courtney, Tribune Interactive
  • Steve Dorsey, Detroit Free Press and SND Secretary/Treasurer
  • Tyson Evans, New York Times Digital
  • Alan Jacobson, Brass Tacks Design
  • John Kondis, National Geographic Digital Media
  • David Kordalski, Cleveland Plain Dealer
  • Chris Krewson, The Philadelphia Inquirer
  • Greg Linch, University of Miami
  • Wesley Lindamood, USAToday.com
  • Vernon Loeb, The Philadelphia Inquirer
  • Matt Mansfield, SND President and Medill School of Journalism
  • Logan Molen, Bakersfield Californian
  • Kristen Novak, USAToday.com
  • Carlos Roig, USAToday.com
  • Eric Seidman, AARP magazine
  • Jay Small, Scripps Interactive Newspapers Group and Small Initiatives, Inc.
  • Ernie Smith, Express and ShortFormBlog
  • Mary Specht, Gannett
  • Kathleen Sullivan, Gannett
  • Patrick Thornton, BeatBlogging.org
  • Yuri Victor, Gannett
  • Kris Viesselman, National Geographic
  • Jon Wile, The Washington Post
  • Chrys Wu, Washington Post Digital
  • Kaitlin Yarnell, National Geographic

What’s next? Others ways to share

We have written about the opportunity we see to explore how advertising becomes content and context when done well. The people we gathered helped see through to some answers. There are many more.

We want to get your reaction and then plan next steps, which could take the form of another prototype day or a conference day where the Society hosts a free public event to talk about the products and the process. We’re open to ideas. You tell us.

Please check the site and help us in the effort. If you have an idea, post it in the comments. And if you have something you would like to write as a longer piece that would help spur thought, email me. On behalf of the Society, thanks again for being part of the solution.

Follow us on Twitter @rev20h

Matt Mansfield is president of the Society and an associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism.
Steve Dorsey is secretary-treasurer of the Society and a deputy managing editor at the Detroit Free Press.