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Aug. 23, 2018, 9 a.m.

The Lenfest Institute is testing new products for local news, and it wants your help

“If we’re going to be a test kitchen, let’s cook some stuff!”

In the local news space, what’s missing? (Don’t say money.)

What about rigorous — maybe even fun — product development and testing? That’s what a new team organized by the Lenfest Institute, one of the newest kids on the local-news-innovation-and-sustainability block, is devoted to. Led by Sarah Schmalbach, the former co-leader of the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab and Gannett product manager who came up through Philadelphia’s local news environment, the Lenfest Local Lab is the institute’s collaborative attempt to dig into new ways that local news and information could be more useful and accessible for residents.

National and international organizations have their own innovation hubs, from the BBC’s four-person team testing 12 prototypes for mobile storytelling and that Guardian mobile lab that ended earlier this year. But there isn’t quite a systematic approach to analyzing options for the special space that local news occupies — sometimes as literally as geographic space.

Schmalbach already has the beginnings of a team assembled and will be testing some of the first ideas with the Philadelphia Media Network (PMN), the official name behind the Inquirer, Daily News, and Reminder: The Lenfest Institute, which was part of the legacy of the recently-passed Gerry Lenfest, is trying to develop sustainability for local news outlets across the country and owns the PMN as part of that. Schmalbach and Burt Herman, Lenfest’s director of innovation projects, spoke with me about what this Lenfest Local Lab will actually be doing, how you can work with them, and why mobile notifications are Schmalbach’s favorite food. (Okay, I made that last one up but you’ll get the idea.) Our chat has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Christine Schmidt: Where did the idea for this lab come from?

Burt Herman: At the Lenfest Institute, we ourselves are experimenting with and iterating on what we do to help innovation in local news and to create sustainable business solutions. We also want to experiment with ways to directly push forward how people think about local news products.

Newsrooms and organizations get very caught up in the day-to-day and what’s on the website and what’s in the paper and that kind of thing. They don’t necessarily have as many resources to experiment because they’re trying to keep their heads above water. I’ve been talking to Sarah from when she was at the Guardian Lab and learned she was originally from Philly, and the Guardian Mobile Lab was wrapping up, and it was a perfect storm where everything came together. You couldn’t have designed a more perfect person given her experience at the Lab and interest in local news.

Sarah Schmalbach: The Guardian Mobile Lab was one of the best jobs I’ve had in the industry of journalism. Part of that had to do with the baked-in collaboration and multidisciplinary-ness with the team and the freedom to experiment with products built around mobile user needs.

When I met Burt, I knew they were doing interesting things at Lenfest and I had known Gerry and his work and his philanthropy — he was our neighbor, we had a history there. It allows me to do innovation in local news, which I care deeply about. I couldn’t be more excited to get this off the ground.

Schmidt: There are already a lot of efforts trying to improve the local news space, including at Lenfest. [Reminder to reader: Here are 14 projects and groups already on it.] What’s different about your lab?

Schamalbach: When we were doing a little bit of analysis before deciding how this lab should be structured and what its focus should be, we didn’t see too many examples of fully functioning multidisciplinary product teams working solely on the problem of local news product.

The Institute has sponsored a lot of innovation projects in local news. Projects tend to be with smaller teams who are trying out a feature or an engagement experiment as opposed to — well, we’re really looking beyond mobile in this lab. How do we adapt to the daily news readership changes? We’re not about the homepage of a website, or an app that has all the sections of the news in it. We’re hoping to stand up fully functioning products that we measure and share whether or not they work and are broadly transformative.

Herman: The structure is pretty unique, given that the Lenfest Institute is a nonprofit that owns a for-profit paper, but we don’t control it. We work very closely with the Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News and We’re co-located with them; we can leverage the things they do and talk about their needs with all this. We still have some independence to do our own thing. It’s part of the whole vision Gerry Lenfest set up. We have more experimentation and not have to worry about the pressure of breaking even or making a profit or things like that. We talk a lot about how this is a test kitchen environment in Philly, not just with the Inquirer but the whole city, and I think that is the way we can leverage that. If we’re going to be a test kitchen, let’s cook some stuff!

Schmalbach: I also think that there are enough projects that need to be started that being different doesn’t have to be a bar for entry in trying to innovate for local news. My goal is to be additive, to seek out other people doing local news innovation work and collaborate with them and help new ways of working actually take root. That process has already started but the Lenfest Local Lab will be a focused way to do that and accelerate that process.

Schmidt: Let’s keep going with Burt’s kitchen metaphor — what are some of your first dishes? What ideas do you have planned already?

Schmalbach: When we brought the idea to the board, we pitched a couple ideas that came from a few months of research when I was embedding with the PMN. We wondered if we were to bring this lab team into the newsroom environment, what are gaps we can fill and opportunities we can pursue that you might not have the time or resources to work on?

The feedback was that they wanted this lab to work quickly, incorporate more audience-based research into audience development, to be able to explore things in unknown quantities related to news — geofencing, AI, new and interesting forms of personalization. We want to prove out these concepts before supporting them at scale. These are ideas I have come up with given my experience with the Guardian lab and I’d like to have the rest of the team fill in the rest of the concepts as we get started.

One of the first ideas we’re prototyping is exploring ways local newsrooms in particular can leverage someone’s physical location to deliver really relevant and interesting news. We’re working on a little bit of proof-of-concept around architecture content in the city, which tends to be evergreen content. It’s always centered around a location or a building or a block or a meeting place in the neighborhood. We’re going to launch internally what would happen if news arrives to you if you pass a location where news has happened or is going to happen. It’s similar to if you’re in a neighborhood and get a notification from Yelp about a new restaurant opening nearby.

We think there’s a huge opportunity to do that in local news, but I think you can get that wrong a lot of time. You can be interesting, you can be annoying — somebody might not have a lot of time or be in the context to read a whole article. We’re thinking about how we might need to adapt content if it’s going to be delivered based on those people. It’s a space where local newsrooms are particularly equipped to be able to organize information in that way and understand what articles or content is going to be available for them. We’re just at the beginning of that in terms of experimentation.

The second idea that’s been kicking around in our head which we’re really interested in is ways to pair journalism with information about local meetings or local events to help people have more informed dialogue. An example to illustrate it is scraping public information about zoning meetings or town hall meetings and letting people know “this event is happening at this time in your location, and here’s some journalism to have some context about the conversation and participate more.” You can imagine other things like making an automatic transcription of that meeting and having that transcription available to the newsroom and what’s top of mind for residents and that may inform news coverage going forward.

We’re trying to imagine ways that journalism might inform people’s lives and provide more value than if it’s living in a homepage or in an app. There’s a lot of space there but we won’t know until we try.

Schmidt: What do you think different about the opportunity in local news product innovation than in national or international news product innovation?

Herman: The unique thing that local news has is that it’s really expert on a local level. With the people, neighborhoods, the communities — it doesn’t scale. This is where you could actually set yourself apart by delivering something unique that is relevant to that community and it goes beyond just the content. What we’re really getting at is what are the products you can build that give value on a local community.

Facebook is not going to build something for Philadelphia and other big cities. They always have to build on a global scale.

Schmalbach: I started at eight or so years ago, then went to Gannett and USA Today in product development and then The Guardian on an international scale. It’s become somewhat clear to me how those opportunities differ. Even within local news there are different opportunities for startups or niche products. Location really does matter. You can start wrapping your head around how this content is being written and should be on the homepage of a website that should be finding not a broader audience but a smaller audience that that link might be particular relevant to.

One example is if you wrote a story about 45 free summer activities to do with your kids, those activities get displayed in alphabetical order. We’re not doing enough from the product development perspective to make sure the activities that are closer to you are at the surface. You’re not going to go down to the 44th option to see what’s relevant to you.

That’s just on the article level. You know where your residents live, where they have fun, where they go for social services. How can journalism just help make civic life a little easier and help people perform tasks or jobs for their lives, producing their content and getting it in the hands of the people who need it the most?

Schmidt: So what does the team, the rest of the Lenfest Local Lab, look like?

Schmalbach: The Lab’s primary goals are, one, to actively experiment and make sure it’s successful with audiences — but two, to continue to prove out collaboration and different skillsets and perspective to build really great editorially sound and technically stable products that fill a user need. I’ll be the lead and the product person, then we’ll also have somebody who is more of a community editor or editorial director. We’ll also have a UX designer, then we have two engineers we’re working with who have experience in location-based products. We are likely going to be working with the same analytics consultant we did at the Guardian lab, because they’re local in Philly, to put together a success framework for us to track and measure the framing.

Schmidt: What is the timeline for rollout? How many products are you expecting to test at a time?

Schmalbach: The lab is funded for a full year, so we’ll start around now! At The Guardian, we were giving ourselves openness and flexibility with what we achieved but we’d like to have a handful of active experiments at a time here. You can imagine us running five, six, seven experiments at a time over the course of the year which gives you time to think of an idea and launch it and measure it. We’d like to see at least one to two of the most successful ideas in other newsrooms so we can make a tangible impact.

Herman: The initial funding is for a year, but we have every expectation that it would continue beyond that.

Schmidt: So who will be the newsrooms testing this? How can others get involved?

Schmalbach: We will be testing with PMN, since we’re embedded with them in Philly. Absolutely our goal is to help people implement or replicate certain techniques or technologies over time. I learned in the Guardian lab that you need to put some things out there and work really hard for the collaboration to make sure it makes sense on both sides. We are definitely looking for all sorts of collaborators and replicating it in their organizations.

Herman: I want to underscore what Sarah is saying: While we’re located at the Inquirer, in the unique arrangement of Lenfest, we are very much about working for people in the city of Philly and all around the country. We’re going to find partners. We’re already talking to people in other cities about things we can collaborate on. This is very much designed to be an open effort where we hope these lessons learned will be useful and used by other people across the whole local journalism world. We will be writing about what’s going and sharing where it’s relevant. We want it to be something that has a wider benefit.

Schmalbach: There are a lot of people already imagining the future of niche news coverage, like sports news with The Athletic or financial news coverage. This idea of experimenting toward improving civic engagement of major cities is core to what we’re trying to do and making it more accessible on a local level and more useful.

The mission of the lab is about repeatable and scalable experiments. We’re also trying to prove out a more repeatable and scalable idea of teamwork in newsrooms, which is very much a work in progress in a lot of places, but to keep driving home that concept. To scale transformative digital products, that cross-disciplinary team is really necessary and really fun. I would like local news to be more fun! At least from a making perspective.

It’s not always easy, but everybody’s really eager to let go of their own expectations about people’s news needs and try out things that are new and interesting and exciting, for the people in Philly and beyond.

Photo of test tubes by Dimitris Sideridis used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 23, 2018, 9 a.m.
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