Good Story, Bro–Now Here’s How To Make It Better

In today’s scrum, the staff examines Anna Li’s “How Journalists Can Improve Their Storytelling By Embracing Design Thinking,” hindsight’s shortcomings, the chasm between interpretation and reality, and willful, scientific ignorance.

Good Story, Bro–Now Here’s How To Make It Better

Today’s News Scrum Discussion: “How Journalists Can Improve Their Storytelling By Embracing Design Thinking” by Anna Li on

This is a great crash-course in design thinking for journalists, but it’s missing some context. What’s the goal of design thinking? I’ve been led to believe (by books like this one) that the outcome should be two-fold; when you’re finished asking the questions that Li lists in this article, you should know

  • The overall message behind your product or service (or in this case, an article)
  • The format of your product or service (or article)

The “message” can be thought of as a hypothesis, and should have all the same characteristics. It should be non-obvious, somewhat controversial, and ultimately provable. The best headlines you read online have
these traits. Also, it should be forward-looking, not based on past events (since no one learns a backwards-looking hypothesis, Captain Hindsight).

The format is the proper vehicle for your message. If you’re trying to get the word out about a real-life event, a paper flyer makes more sense than an e-book. Design thinking will help you identify your audience and why you’re talking to them; it will also help you figure out what you should be saying to them. But you’ll need to extend this process to questions about format and content type to figure out how to reach them best.

Luckily, on the web, your format doesn’t have to have the highest production value–people will still attend to a crappily made YouTube video if your message is right-on. As the senior editor of PostTV, the Washington Post’s new video organ, said in an interview published today:

It’s important to figure out what you’re good at and what your audience can connect to…One of the things that’s attractive about the web is that it doesn’t have to be fully produced. The unfiltered, the raw, the grainy, sometimes that appeals to viewers because they feel a connection to that. Find the right voice for your operation, and be authentic. That’s what it all adds up to.

Chris Dannen

I first read about using design thinking for journalism in a 2010 blog post from the Stanford Institute of Design. In the post, Andrew Haeg, a 2008 Knight Journalism Fellow, talked about changing the mentality behind reporting to bridge what he saw as a widening gap between what journalists think is going on and what’s actually going on.


I hope [design thinking] will become a widespread, concerted response to the disconnections that have imperiled journalism and distanced journalists from the public they serve. The reality of the modern journalist is, in practice, not that far off from any other cube-farm denizen: Work the phones, stare at your computer, crank out the copy. It’s not a stretch to blame the feed-the-beast, factory model of production for the commodifying of news, rising distrust among the public, a distancing of journalist from community, not to mention thin business models based on cheap traffic instead of rich engagement.

It seems like it could work, in a sort of elevated, idealistic way. As Li mentions, design thinking’s emphasis on empathy translates in journalism to undirected observation, reassessment of assumptions, and intelligent scrutiny. These are definitely things that make journalism sharper, more accountable, and more relevant. She writes, “Once you think you understand, dig deeper. Go back and interview your sources or audience again and test the conclusions you’re making.”

But in this financial climate especially, design thinking in the context of journalism raises some concerns. The approach is meant to aid journalists in pitching and reporting stories that will resonate with readers, but it’s easy to see how being “focused on users,” as design thinking is, could degenerate into catering to readers and trying to write what they want to read. More unique views, more money. And something journalism needs badly is more money. A stable bottom line can embolden a publication to publish tough stories alongside the daily traffic drivers, but this compromise can erode the integrity of news, and is not the journalistic utopia that it seems like proponents of design thinking are looking to achieve.

Journalists are supposed to report on everything, from topics that everyone wants to read about, to topics everyone is trying to avoid. There are noble goals behind implementing design thinking in journalism, but specifically basing a reporter’s workflow on a process that is inherently and expressly consumer-driven seems unnecessary. Why inject ethical ambiguity when so many other organizational methods and guiding principles exist? Journalists can take the good lessons from design thinking and apply them without adopting an entirely reader-driven philosophy. Lily Hay Newman

Where design thinking could really help journalists is in rethinking the format in which we produce journalism, the second outcome mentioned above. Journos already have to be good at defining the message of their story and how it is relevant to the audience. But as David Cohn from Circa told us in an interview, news is still dominated by the article format, which was defined by the constraints of print and paper but is still dominant in the online world. Why?

Circa is making object-oriented news. The interactive news team at the New York Times creates “news products” rather than articles, some of them short-lived and designed for a particular story like Hurricane Sandy. Editor’s Lab throws together journalists and developers to use software to create new ways to communicate news.

Forcing journalists to cast aside their assumptions about format, and make their own news product prototypes, could be the biggest contribution which design thinking can make to journalism. Ciara Byrne


Design mentality towards writing brings to mind how creative scientists often dream up new questions. As Andrew Donohue, senior editor of the Center For Investigative Reporting, puts it in the Poynter article:

“There’s something… empowering about using the design thinking method, where you’re not actually going out to interview [sources] about a specific story you have in your head.”

When you go into reporting with background, hypotheses, and questions, but not preconceptions about the shape of the story you’re going to tell, there’s room for discovery. I found this when MIT neuroscience PhD student Steve Ramirez told me lately how Hollywood inspired his real-life sci-fi experiment:

“We sat down, about a dozen of us, in a conference room for hours saying ‘Well what about this experiment?’ ‘What if we labeled this memory?’ and it was this unbelievably fruitful dialogue. Sort of like: You have an idea, and give it your all… We began touching on these ideas because all of us are huge fans of movies like Inception, the ideas behind movies like Total Recall and Eternal Sunshine or Memento. For me personally, looking to Hollywood is a great source of questions.”

Ramirez, like the proponents of design thinking, is all for brainstorms and rapid try-and-fail. The enormous Tonegawa lab, where he works, has 50 people in it, around half Japanese and half Western researchers.

“This is fifty different perspectives, fifty different criticisms, fifty different contributors to a given project. That’s in the service of trying to make your science as watertight as possible. Imagine when you’re presenting your ideas at lab meeting: fifty [MIT scientists] are sitting there saying ‘Hey, this is good. Maybe you could improve on A, B, and C.’ It’s great to shave off the fat of a project and get to the substance very fast.”

The story “Definition” proposed by Li (“____________ (name) needs a way to _____________. Unexpectedly, in his/her world ____________”) brings to mind Storycraft, a terrific primer on long-form writing by Oregonian editor Jack Hart. Desire, Hart says, is the driver of narrative: A story is a person wanting something. Not that this is news to journos, but good to keep the formula in mind. Taylor Beck

[Image: Flickr user RUBEN NADADOR]