Getting down to business: design thinking and viability

“I got into journalism because I hated math.”

I heard variations of that statement over and over again. A journalist’s job, I was told, was to write and report. The money stuff? The business stuff? Leave that to the advertising folks.

I heard it first in journalism school. I heard it again meeting journalists at McClatchy. I’ve even said it myself.

Yet as innovation manager at McClatchy, I think a lot about a money, math and business. The innovation team at McClatchy trains employees in design thinking and explores new products and services through the principles of human-centered design.

Graphic by Chelsea Brown

In the design-thinking framework, there are three considerations when considering a new idea: desirability, feasibility and viability.

We focus, first and foremost, on desirability. What do people need? Are we fulfilling that need?


We describe it this way during our design-thinking trainings: If no one wants what you’re building, it doesn’t matter if you can technically build it. And if no one wants it, you won’t be able to get anyone to pay for it.

This is a good model.

But like any model, it requires thoughtful implementation to be effective.

There are some in design-thinking circles who, in response to questions about feasibility and viability, answer with “It’ll work itself out.”

In reality, feasibility and viability are hard work. Journalism, especially, is facing a viability crisis.

So when I went to speak to the Reese News Lab class at UNC’s School of Media and Journalism (covering for McClatchy’s Director of Innovation Jeremy Gockel), I thought I should get down to business.

Reese News Lab students develop new media solutions using the design-thinking model every semester. My years at Reese shaped my view of journalism and business, and was a similarly transformative experience for many of the Reese alums I know.

This semester’s class included mostly reporting students. The student teams had already gone through a “business-plan-in-a-box” exercise, a Matterinspired framework we use with McClatchy teams as well.

McClatchy National Growth Editor Paige Ladisic presenting her team’s “business-case-in-a-box” at a recent training.

But based on my experience, I knew students needed a deeper dive, especially the reporting students that would never take a business-focused class during their time at UNC.

Journalists today have to worry, at least in general, about money. As a result, employees in “traditional” media companies are having to increasingly adopt a startup mindset. I don’t mean this in a vague, “attitude” sense.

Everyone, including reporters, have been asked to adapt quicker, understand more parts of the organization, balance multiple job responsibilities and keep up on the competitive landscape. Understanding the basics of business, revenue streams and money is in everyone’s best interest.

Kristen Hare’s recent “Local Edition” newsletter for Poynter went into this new dynamic in detail.

With this in mind, I started off going through the basics of an income statement and balance sheet (thrilling, I’m sure) and some of the non-traditional revenue streams popping up at legacy and startup media companies.

Some revenue stream examples.

Then we moved into the buzzwords. There are tons of business buzzwords, and not knowing these terms can leave non-business folks out of very important conversations.

I collected my list of relevant terms using the very scientific method of soliciting Twitter and group-chat suggestions.

“What business terms should journalism students know?” or the group chat version “What words did you pretend to understand when you started your first job?”

Here’s that (edited) list:

  • KPI.
  • Scalability.
  • Break-even point.
  • ROI.
  • Market share.
  • Brand equity.
  • Valuation.
  • Sales funnel.
  • Barriers to entry.
  • SaaS.

The students had a few other words they wanted defined too (“What, exactly, does “sustainable” even mean?”)

To finish out, I asked the students to answer these questions:

  • What non-cash resources you would need to develop your product or service? (Time, connections, partnerships?)
  • Who are you missing on your team? Whose perspective would you need to be successful?
  • What are two other revenue streams you could experiment with?
  • What products or services could you expand into once you’ve “nailed” your original?

On the McClatchy innovation team, we’re always looking for new ways to take design thinking from abstract to practical. Contact meat or @_abbyreimer to talk more.

What other questions should teams working on experimental projects answer?

What other terms should journalists looking to better understand the “business-side” know?

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