Andrew Donohue, now at the Center for Investigative Journalism, talks about using Design Thinking as a way to do journalism. 

I don’t remember what kind of car Mark Syverud drove, but I do remember that it was loud and it was messy. Come to think of it, so was Mark, though in ways that endeared him both to his coworkers and the readers of our newspaper.

He was also, I now realize, an innovator.

In the late summer of 1992, I sat in Mark’s car as he gave me a tour of Canandaigua, N.Y., the small city my wife, daughter and I had moved to from California so I could begin my first post-college gig as a newspaper reporter.

Mark was the city reporter for the small, family-owned newspaper, the Daily Messenger, but when we were done with this tour, he was not going to hold that title any longer.

I was.

My new job, as the name suggested, charged me with covering this city of 12,000 people in western New York’s Finger Lakes region. On our tour, Mark, who would be promoted to Sunday editor once he broke me in, had taken me to the important places that I could expect to frequent on my beat. We had stopped by city hall where I would go on to spend many countless hours chronicling the actions of local government in action.

But what I remember most about that day was what Mark said to me in the car as we were heading back to the newsroom. I can’t remember how it came about. I was very nervous and probably talking incessantly. What I remember is that Mark let me blab on and on and then, when there was a break in the chatter, he offered one observation.

“You know,” he said (I think he sighed as he said it), “you can do a lot more than write about what happens at city hall. You can write about anything that happens in the city.”

Now 23 years later, I’m finally going to take Mark’s advice and experiment with a new approach to journalism called Design Thinking. My hope is my students and I will discover stories that emerge through meeting with and learning from the citizens in the community rather than relying on political leaders to frame the news.

One River, Many Stories

This semester, my students and I will be joining news organizations around the region taking part in a project called One River, Many Stories. The goal of the project is pretty simple: In April, produce at least one story about the St. Louis River, its communities, its history and its people.

In my advanced journalism class, I’ve decided, we are going to focus on one neighborhood in Duluth: the West End. This area, now known as Lincoln Park, abuts the river and has a long history and connection to the water and the port back when many of the neighborhood’s residents had jobs connected to the mining and shipping industries.

Design thinking

Design thinking was born out of the tech industry. As I am beginning to understand it, the process encourages journalists to re-envision how they approach their work.

“Identify and try to solve a problem in your community using journalism,” is the mantra that University of Nevada Reno journalism professor Donica Mensing challenges her students with when she uses this approach in her journalism classes.

Roughly, Design Thinking is a five-step process:

  • Empathize: Get out into the community and listen, observe
  • Define: Narrow your focus. What needs to be done?
  • Ideate: Brainstorm (“dive into unexpected ideas”)
  • Prototype: Build a physical representation of your solution (“fail quickly and frequently,” the experts say)
  • Test it: Put out an early model and see if it works

For me, it took an example to really understand Design Thinking; the Voice of San Diego used this approach to cover the local city council elections.

Andrew Donohue, a former editor at VOSD who is now a senior editor at the Center for Investigative Reporting, wrote that instead of focusing their coverage on the people running for office and what they thought was important, journalists at VOSD went out into the community and spent time with the citizens themselves.

Donohue said the approach gave the power of journalism to the citizens. It let them set the agenda for the discussion. It let them define the problems.

“The approach sparked a series of revelations that have reshaped how I look at the fundamental choices we make as journalists,” Donohue wrote. “It turns out our coverage for years had been focused on things that didn’t seem to matter all that much to even active San Diego residents.”

Innovation not born from journalism

It’s an uncertain time to be teaching journalism. The traditional ways of gathering news are in flux as newsrooms scramble to stay relevant to audiences that now have myriad choices to satisfy their information needs.

Journalists have long resisted the opportunity to engage with their audiences because they are wary of being vulnerable, writes Mark Briggs in the foreward of the book, “Engaged Journalism,” authored by Jake Batsell.

“Journalists pride themselves on authority, credibility, and influence,” Briggs writes. “These traits run directly counter to vulnerability, which (both within and outside journalism) have been seen as weakness.”

Briggs is inspired by newsrooms that have followed the urging of Brene Brown whose viral Ted Talk (23.3 million views) challenges people to “dare greatly” as they embrace the power of being vulnerable.

It strikes me that many of the great innovators in my profession weren’t trained to be journalists.

Mark Syverud studied film at the University of Southern California. He came at his work in the newsroom in an unconventional way. He took chances.

He once wrote a weekly series of articles about a diet he was on and encouraged many others in the community to join him.

He wrote a story about how difficult it was in our city to find a public bathroom, and, if memory serves me, went around the city rating public toilets.

In fact, I learned after doing a little background research, he’s still looking for ways to connect with audiences: Mark is fighting a battle with leukemia and keeps a blog called Leukemia Shmukemia: A playful romp through chemotherapy.

Journalism needs to become loud and even messy if it wants to survive.

I’m pretty sure Mark Syverud would like the sound of that.

John Hatcher is a member of the One River, Many Stories grant team and an associate professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota Duluth. 

“One River, Many Stories” is a journalism, media and storytelling project and resource hub for journalists, educators, and citizens to foster deeper conversations about our community. This University of Minnesota Duluth Journalism program project is funded in part by the Knight Foundation Fund of the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation.

St. Louis River, April 2016: See what happens when journalists and storytellers in one region turn their attention to one topic.

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