Redefining Innovation

The word “innovation” is both overused and under-defined. It’s used to describe just about everything — from technology startups to new refrigerator models.

On the McClatchy innovation team, this is how we’ve defined the word:

“Something that fundamentally and positively changes the why, how or what.”

Why: Developing products, services and processes because a human needs them, not simply because they are new.

How: Respecting and valuing diverse voices and needs, while recognizing that our own preferences may very well be irrelevant to the task at hand.

Our team largely focuses on the “why” and “how” through teaching McClatchy employees the design-thinking framework.

Sometimes the “why” and the “how” lead to a new app or digital product. Other times it leads to a new process or program. Other times, it simply helps us to build more empathetic and respectful relationships with our users (advertisers, readers or even coworkers).

We hope our work causes employees to think critically about who they picture when designing a product or coming up with a new idea. Too often, we design products for ourselves and those like us. Given the well-documented lack of diversity in technology and media, that often means we are leaving out wide swaths of our population when we build and market products.

Sometimes the most radical and innovative thing we can do is simply shift who we view as our “user.” That takes work.

From challenge to solution:

With this year’s Ignite, a five-month McClatchy innovation program dedicated to exploring a new product or service in partnership with Matter, we aimed to do that work well.

Teams across the company could apply to the program, with only one constraint. They would spend the five months answering the question: How might we best serve new arrivals to our markets? The winning team, Mary Pruter, Uday Dorawala, Ryan Spalding, Dan Morgenstern and (later) Camila Molina, hailed from the News & Observer in Raleigh.

Six months later, the team had launched a pilot for Loro, a video dictionary platform for English learners that uses McClatchy produced video and user-generated content to put language into context.

Loro prototype, design work by Chelsea Brown.

The team’s journey from vague challenge to living product was a lesson in embracing the design-thinking process and getting outside of personal experience.

Pretty soon after getting started, the team narrowed in on one key group of new arrivals: Spanish-speaking immigrants. In the U.S., 37 million people speak Spanish at home. By 2025, 19 percent of the U.S. population will be Hispanic. In McClatchy markets, many of which are in Texas, California and Florida, we’ve already hit that percentage.

These numbers shouldn’t be surprising. McClatchy has been producing Spanish content through El Nuevo Herald and Vida en el Valle for decades. But Spanish-speakers and Hispanic communities are still largely underserved, especially in places that have seen more recent demographic shifts (e.g. North Carolina).

A focus on Spanish-speakers made sense on just about every level. But the team had a problem. No one spoke Spanish.

In this case, “co-creation” and “collaboration” weren’t just buzzwords. They were absolute necessities.

Co-design in practice:

The team got some early advice from Roxann Stafford, Matter’s New York Director of Program. She encouraged working closely with Hispanic community organizations, not just as “users” but as partners, among other tips.

And so, the team got to work. They worked closely with the Hispanic Family Center in Raleigh and other community organizations throughout the process, from initial brainstorming to testing. The team also sought out the expertise of McClatchy employees who have been working with Spanish-speaking audiences for years — such as Juan Esparza Loera, editor of McClatchy bilingual paper Vida en el Valle and Javi Cuiriz, a McClatchy design-thinking coach who has been experimenting with Spanish SEO campaigns in Modesto, California.

Empathy interviews, the first step of the design-thinking process, informed the team’s every move. An early empathy interview with a News & Observer intern introduced the team to its new Spanish-speaking team member. Camila Molina, who has since been hired on full time as a real-time reporter at the News & Observer, was instrumental in the team’s success.

Another empathy interview with Jairon, a Durham high school student and recent immigrant from Honduras, inspired the team’s final product. The team tested its prototype with Jairon and his classmates at Hillside High School in Durham. Hillside students recorded more than 100 video definitions in the following couple weeks.

Students used sorting cards to decide what features should be included in the app.

Of course, not every idea landed with users.

The team started with an idea for a English-to-Spanish translation service that could translate McClatchy content into Spanish. That was a resounding failure.

First of all, Spanish-dominant readers wanted content tailored to their concerns, not just in their language. Second, many people deeply distrusted machine translation.

When the team presented the idea at an early Matter design review, the founders of art platform and Matter startup Dada, had lots of feedback for the team. Beatriz and Yehudit, both Spanish speakers, encouraged the team to think more visually. The Dada founders ended up helping the team through each following iteration (thanks Dada!)

Matter’s New York office.

The team went back to the drawing board, and started testing visual guides in important content areas. While the team ultimately went another direction, the visual guides put us on the right path. We ended up sharing the Raleigh transportation guide created by our team’s UX designer, Chelsea Brown, with the Hispanic Family Center to pass out to its clients.

Part of the foldable guide to Raleigh’s bus system. Design by Chelsea Brown.

Loro is not perfect. Our process wasn’t either.

The fact is, a few months of empathy-driven design isn’t going to solve the systemic problems shaping our media environment. Our team is working toward a reality where every team at McClatchy would reflect our diverse population. We’d make sure every single product and publication were built for and by diverse groups — beyond surface level inclusion.

(A note on this: MacArthur Genius fellow and New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones was asked at this year’s Online News Association conference what we could do about the media’s diversity problem. Her answer? Hire people of color.)

Loro isn’t the end-all solution. But it’s a start.


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