The future of news is prototyping in the open

(Photo via Flickr user

(Photo via Flickr user

There's a propensity, when you're in the process of innovation, to hide behind a cloak of secrecy. If you're really into holding onto your intellectual property, that's all well and good. Continue on in your basement, garage or behind your locked doors and good luck to you. 

But if you're trying to change the very nature of an industry, practice or product essential to the functioning of society and that depends on society's continued investment in your mission (*cough* thenewsbusiness *cough*), I recommend a different approach. (Even if you're in the locked room, you may want to peek out and take a listen.) 

Prototype in the open. Share what you're trying. Be honest about the fact that it's imperfect and invite your users to learn with you.

If people pay extraordinary amounts of money for an education, there has to be a business model around paying to learn from a company you like, respect or (even if the previous two attributes don't apply) frequent/can't resist. What if you paid a subscription fee to a news publication that offered, in addition to the wonderful news you know and trust, access to their prototypes and their thinking behind their work. News organizations are, at their core, educational institutions. There's no reason that commitment to inform needs to stop at their cycle of innovation and creative process.

While prototyping in public can be anxiety-inducing — sharing an unfinished product! — it made our newsletter so much better in big and small ways.
— Millie Tran - Editor, BuzzFeed News

If you haven't heard about BuzzFeed yet, allow me to help you out from under your rock. It is an incredibly fast-growing news and entertainment web publication. They have been prototyping a newsletter and a news app, and they haven't been keeping their process a secret. 

I happen to know Millie Tran, who wrote two blog posts about their prototyping work and is an editor of mobile news at BuzzFeed. She's a smart cookie, and writes about the process of her team's being open with their audience in addition to the incredible amount of learning they gleaned from having been so. Was it easy showing the soft underbelly of news innovation? Nope. But did it pay off? Yep, at least according to Millie. 

Read the chronicling of their innovation work here and here. Oh, right, they also integrated the learning from the newsletter with their prototyping work on the news application. Yeah, there was a lot of failure in public, but also a lot of shared success and, more importantly, empathy. 

What this type of innovation requires is a change in language and tone -- going from authoritative to vulnerable and from top-down to across-the-aisle. The days of tossing information to people and knowing they'll consume it because you're one of maybe a few games in town is over. Now the audience IS the game in town, and they want to play along. If you invite them to play with you, it's amazing what they will provide you as they learn about your organization.

The days of informing without audience involvement are long gone. The days of shared curiosity and learning are upon us, and they couldn't have come soon enough. 


Emi Kolawole

Emi Kolawole earned her B.A. in international relations and theater studies from Wellesley College and studied abroad at both the Panthéon-Sorbonne and the National Theater Institute.  She joined the Annenberg Public Policy Center's in November, 2005 after working as a news researcher for Congressional Quarterly on issues of defense, foreign policy, intelligence and homeland security. Previously, she was a production assistant at PBS's "NOW With Bill Moyers," and worked in the Washington area office of a defense contractor.

In addition to her work as a staff writer and researcher for FactCheck, Emi was the host, writer and video editor for's weekly video feature "Just the Facts!"  She is a level 1 certified Final Cut Pro editor and earned her master's degree in producing for film and video at American University. She also led the fact-checking review effort for "UnSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation."

Emi served as the associate producer for "Washington Week with Gwen Ifill & National Journal." In June 2010 she joined the Washington Post as a producer for PostPolitics. She served as the founding editor for Ideas@Innovations (now "Innovations") and co-host for the Post's daily news program "59 Seconds." In 2011, Emi was named a Young Global Shaper by The World Economic Forum. In 2013 she was listed among The Grio 100, was named a French-American Foundation Young Leader and accepted an invitation to become the Editor-in-residence at the at Stanford University. She has served for the past three years at the, most recently as a senior media designer working on the media experiments collaboration between Knight Foundation and the She is currently the founder of the media and design consultancy Dexign LLC.