How Design Thinking transformed Globe and Mail’s newsroom, audience reach

By Shelley Seale


Austin, TX, United States

The Globe and Mail reaches more than seven million Canadians on itsplatforms and has grown more than 150% in mobile unique visitors in one year. Design Thinking has helped that growth.

Audience Design Thinking developed by Cynthia Young was used to re-engineer, re-inspire and re-platform The Globe and Mail’s newsroom. As one of INMA’s scholarship recipients at The Berlin School of Creative Leadership, Young spent more than two years researching and working inside the newsroom to develop her Master’s thesis on Audience Design Thinking. 

Now head of audience at The Globe and Mail, Young led an INMA Webinar Wednesday that looked in-depth at how Design Thinking transformed that company.

“In the plethora of information and data we have today, there remains no way to predict what content the audience wants — as there is no way to predict the news itself,” Young said. “Newsroom personnel have maintained a privileged past, but are now realising that attention has changed — and with it, the confidence of newsrooms globally.

“Those who work in newsrooms assumed audiences no longer valued journalism — but they had no way to speak to newspapers about what they did value.”

Enter Young and her Audience Design Thinking approach to a newsroom.

“Storytelling is the heart and soul of journalism,” Young said. “It builds trust, and gives value. It’s hard to do nowadays with the amount of transitions going on.”

In an INMA Webinar on Wednesday, Cynthia Young explained why Design Thinking is beneficial to reaching audiences for a news media company.
In an INMA Webinar on Wednesday, Cynthia Young explained why Design Thinking is beneficial to reaching audiences for a news media company.

Why Design Thinking with a newsroom?

“The push and pull in chaos is where Design Thinking has been most successful in helping build confidence and reframe organisational problems. Rather than always looking at the lens of operations within newsrooms as spaces left over for advertising to make money, Design Thinking affords the organisation with a series of imperatives from which they gain insights into what the audience truly values.

“Where Design Thinking helps culturally is by repositioning the questions being asked about what the audience values most. That’s when you need it most — when things are messy and in chaos. It repositions the questions that are being asked ahead of things, rather than post.”

Build better signals

Think, Young said, about how you can influence people who are creating something every day — your journalists. “I felt that the more information we can give journalists to understand this background information, the more inspired and better they could be.

“The creativity within Design Thinking is that it allows one to study behaviours, patterns, and interactions as a mechanism of learning canvas and brush. Knowing what brush to use for what type of paper and paint you are using is vital.”

Embed new thinking

“Many people assume the design process and the creation of new and innovative items is a matter of time and place — and a little magic,” Young said. “Perhaps a framework is available that is embedded in how people learn and understand things that could help guide us in answering and solving problems from a consumer perspective, rather than from a producer who only seeks to capture value.

“Embedding new thinking into it was probably the hardest part of all this.” 

The Globe and Mail used a Design Thinking approach to reader data that allowed the news media company to connect more closely with what its audience wants.
The Globe and Mail used a Design Thinking approach to reader data that allowed the news media company to connect more closely with what its audience wants.

Value of attraction

“An overabundance of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever that information consumes,” Young said. “In the case of media, that scarcity is the attention of our audience. The goal is to figure out how to allocate that attention to our content.

“How we tell our stories has to also change — not only for the evolving audience, but also for the shifting ones. This begs the question: Is all attention the same? Does a small mobile screen compare to a 50-inch Dolby sound television? Are sight, sound, and motion easier to understand than words and images, or are they all just different designs of storytelling on different canvases?”

Young recommended James Webster’s book The Marketplace of AttentionYoung said.

“For us, it was the context of attention. This context is really interesting when we think about consuming content on a mobile device, which is really temporal. This made us think in terms of the audience actually valuing us differently than they have in the past.

“Design Thinking is prescient in understanding the connection between how we learn about things, how we can create content to help others learn, and how there is a sustainable framework from which this exists if you approach it from the lens of the audience.”

Ask better questions

The next step is embedding this thinking and asking questions about what the audience wants. This often means reorganising the newsroom based on audience insights, which may have never been factored into the production line before.

“You think about things like when would the content appear, on what platform, for how long? The presentation of the content needs to be adapted again based on these answers,” Young said.

The team had to re-engineer the production line. The production lines of newsrooms have traditionally been linear and built primarily on the timing of the actual press run. Digital was simply bolted onto an existing production line.

“But it wasn’t really an audience-forward way of delivering the news,” Young said. “How could you simply post the content and have it deliver to the audience in the right way, and the right place, easily?”

There were different needs on certain devices and at certain times that the audience had. And the newsroom needed to pay attention to those patterns and the context of the audience behaviour.

Behavioural context also matters, Young said.

“Adapting the voice, the presentation, and the content coverage for multi-platform and multi-news savvy audiences is extremely challenging without some kind of guidebook or pattern recognition advising which direction to move.”

Find a new pace

Young compared this approach to playing piano, how you build tempo. They authored temporal rules that enable journalists to understand the way the audience consumes their content, what the readers’ actual wants and needs and patterns are, and to adapt to that ahead of the curve.

They named this The Globe Clock. It highlighted the times of the day and what type of content readers wanted during different parts of the day:

  • 5:30-9:30 am: Tell me what I need to know. Fast, factual bullet points of emerging news.
  • 9 am to noon: Tell me what’s trending. People are on desktop more, in their offices, and the stock markets open. This is when people want to see what’s happening in the world beyond the basic news.
  • Noon-4 pm: Tell me what it means. People are contextualising what the things they have read during the day mean and going to social media, etc – a sort of “water cooler” effect.
  • 4-7 pm: Tell me what I missed. Both qualitative and quantitative research backed up that they are looking for an overlay of what they might have missed during the day; audiences are also distracting themselves from their day.
  • 7 pm-midnight: Tell me what I should spend more time on.

“One of the biggest things we have learned is to stop basing yourself off of what others are doing. Base it on what your audience is doing,” Young said.

“It wasn’t so much about telling journalists what to write about, but rather to guide them to listen to their audiences and what they want. We had stopped doing that and instead started chasing the wrong things, i.e. clicks, devices, pageviews, etc.”

Think through the lens of clarity — where and when is your audience consuming your content? There are different things they will consume during different parts of the day. Think about the context of engagement, dig into the “use and utility,” and decode the human experience.

Be agile in programming

We know that these audiences are different, and they’re coming at different times, Young said. If as an organisation all you’re chasing is unique visitors or pageviews, you would be obsessed by that without understanding it fully. There are still people, often the same people, “coming to the store” at off-peak times, and we need to merchandise correctly to them.

Find the gaps

The Globe and Mail found weekend traffic declined 50% on weekends, yet a regular audience was engaged without any staff or new content on the site. This gap in audience utility was one of the first tests that Young’s team implemented and tracked in the newsroom.

“The team set up weekend editorial teams of content creators to evaluate content, programming, and presentation — both leading up to the weekend and during the previously unstaffed weekend hours” Young explained. 

By focusing on providing more relevant programming and prioritising weekend reader preferences, audience traffic increased 55%.

“We tend to chase the peaks and not the valleys,” Young said, but Design Thinking leads them to pay attention to the gaps in those valleys.

Explore user experience DNA

“Measuring the audience’s taste can provide a historical analysis of when, where, and how often they are reading certain pieces,” Young said. “The Globe and Mail utilised a unique set of marketing-based taxonomy for site categorisation of its content, using those to understand the tastes of its audience. The company then pivoted the volume of unique visitors per page against the time of day and day of the week.

“Think about the way that their tastes are factored into this. These seeds of insights formed our understanding of how audiences like to consume and the levels of programming that we could adapt into that.”

Chase value-driving initiatives

“We have to stop this idea of trying to shove analog rules into digital products,” Young said. “Publishers manufactured the rules of analog into digital, which altered audience behaviours to consume content freely. As news media companies around the world tackle their revenue models, Design Thinking puts forward a different set of lenses from which to look at the problem.

“Rather than chasing how often you can get in front of the biggest audience and get their attention, organisations should focus on keeping that attention and maintaining trust, by delivering value every time the audience shows up.”

Build better toolkits

“We have to continue to build tools and ways in which we can listen better to our audience. When did they pay attention to us, and what changed to cause them to pay attention? At what points and time are we letting the audience teach us? If you don’t keep coming back and learning from your audience, you will not continue to evolve and develop.”


INMA: When you brought this foreign concept to the GM, how did you get them to accept that?

Young: I didn’t actually tell them it was “Design Thinking.” I presented it more as knowledge sharing, and in doing that it became clear that what they wanted was a synthesis of this information in a digestible manner. We never said that “we are re-designing or re-organising you.”

INMA: Is there something you can say about how this translates to print?

Young: When we redesigned our print product, we based it on these insights; we used a framework that was influenced by this design thinking.

INMA: Is it hard convincing the newsroom to adopt this?

Young: One of the biggest challenges is traditional metrics and measurements; we have a proprietary system that we developed. Knowledge sharing is essential. We deliver the analytics we form ourselves quite differently. We aren’t chasing page views, for example because it’s hard to understand what that means. Who those readers are and what they really want has no value to us with those kinds of analytics. The more knowledge we can share internally, the better off we are.

INMA: With the fall of print media, digital media is facing a paid content problem. How would you apply design thinking to this?

Young: If we think about lenses of understanding, part of the problem may be that we are thinking about things the wrong way. The Globe and Mail’s digital subcription rates have gone up. It goes back to use and utility. If I don’t provide value, and measure what that value is, how can I get people to pay for it?

INMA: How do you test and experiment with this?

Young: This is the most exciting part of this. An example was shared that their younger female audience wasn’t as interested in their male-heavy financial content. They looked at where the gaps were to reach this audience, and for this that gap was Instagram. They used Instagram successfully to reach that audience. We wanted to learn how to talk to them better. Those gaps are really important to us, and we used that to develop three different products out of the result of that, that are geared toward this young female audience.

INMA: What is your advice to an organisation that wants to apply Design Thinking?

Young: It’s really about finding advocates and then ladder up to share more and more as you can. Design Thinking helped us change the newsroom, but it wasn’t the only thing. Many different things went into it. Ultimately, it’s about the culture of the organisation.

About Shelley Seale

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