How might we redesign public media newsrooms to increase their creativity and innovation?

What is your journalism challenge? What problem are you working to solve?

Public radio has so far weathered the disruption of the journalism industry better than most legacy media. However, networks and local stations are facing an increasing array of technological changes, from mobile devices to internet-connected vehicles, which give audiences infinite choices for news formats. In order for public media to fulfill its mission of providing meaningful content to increasingly diverse audiences, newsrooms need to foster a culture of innovation and experimentation. Small staff sizes and modest budgets at public media outlets make it difficult to keep up with daily responsibilities, let alone take risks and experiment with new approaches. I am exploring how applying design thinking to newsroom organizational structures could create more creative cultures to address this challenge.

How would solving this problem help journalism?

Design thinking is a way of facilitating innovation and eliminating roadblocks by exploring individual users’ needs, some of which may be small, overlooked issues. Low-cost prototype solutions are then tested to see if proposed solutions help before organizations make big investments. Since the method doesn’t necessarily require a complete organizational overhaul or large up-front expenses, it’s an ideal tactic for helping journalism flourish during financially challenging times. The intended result would be to help newsrooms do even more innovative work, make staff feel better about their jobs, and find ways to deliver content in more engaging ways.

Who is tackling a similar problem and how is your approach different?

Most news outlets have gone through some sort of organizational redesign in the past decade, often compelled by the disruption to the industry or changing audience expectations. Many of these shifts have been reactionary. Proactively applying design thinking to newsroom cultures is just starting to gain steam. One prominent example in the public media space is WNYC. When the station created a new show with partner organizations, it used design thinking to reconsider everything from hiring decisions to workspace layouts. Other journalists who have used design thinking to enhance public media storytelling include Andrew Haeg, a 2009 JSK Fellow , and Michael Marcotte, a 2011 JSK Fellow.

Another related approach was the Knight News Challenge-funded Next Newsroom Project, though it was specifically focused on physical space needs for news outlets of the future. Academics have also analyzed how organization design has changed employees’ perceptions of a newsroom’s culture, but this did not involve design thinking.

What are the first questions you plan to pursue?

  • In what ways do the current structures of public media outlets support or impede their abilities to innovate?
  • What would it take to assess the organizational problems and opportunities at public media outlets?
  • What skills or resources are necessary to support public media outlets in addressing their organizational needs?

What are the first steps you plan to take in working on your challenge?

  • Consult thought leaders in organizational design and design thinking in public media, Stanford, IDEO, and beyond.
  • Develop partnerships with public media stations that are open to and interested in organizational redesign.
  • Interview journalists and spend time in public media newsrooms to understand how organizational design may be affecting opportunities for innovation.

Charla Bear’s bio. Have suggestions or questions about this challenge? Email