Insights for publishers: How to build a culture of innovation with design thinking

Sheena Bhalla, Elena Shloma / March 2020

The internet, smartphones, and the technology revolution have changed the way people across APAC read the news — and how news organizations operate. Even the most prestigious newspapers are still trying to figure out the best way to maintain their online readership and drive revenue.

Like many traditional industries, news publishers have long-standing structures that are hard to change, and even more difficult to innovate. Take Japan’s Asahi, where editorial and business departments were siloed, and invisible barriers prevented them from sharing crucial data, KPIs, and product offerings with each other. These roadblocks made it hard to execute key initiatives. News organizations need to overcome these hurdles so they can focus on nurturing the next generation of readers.

Organizations led by a user-centric mindset can bring about positive changes to their businesses, and design thinking can help them in this journey. Here are three key steps that Asahi and Malaysia’s The Star followed that other news brands can learn from.

Design thinking practices embraced by Asahi and The Star


1. Create a safe and friendly work environment

Embracing design thinking starts by creating an environment where each team member is encouraged to share their ideas. By creating a “fail forward” culture of experimentation, team members are empowered to collaborate and take the risks necessary to meet the challenges of an ever-evolving media landscape. For example, Asahi formed a diverse team to encourage employees to take risks and learn from the experience.

With that said, brands should not take undue risks and should generally aim to mitigate them where possible. For example, instead of rushing new editorial formats, styles, or concepts to market without proper testing, The Star started running small A/B tests with select readers. The exercise gleaned valuable insights, allowing the paper to incorporate customer feedback and continuously improve site updates before launching them widely.

2. Understand your consumers

News organizations looking to succeed in the digital era need to learn more about readers’ needs and motivations to deliver relevant content to them and keep them coming back for more. For example, when The Star learned readers desired recipes based on the ingredients they had available in their kitchens, it used image recognition technology to meet their needs. The publication partnered with a mobile app to suggest recipes to users based on ingredients identified in the photos they submitted.

Asahi also used this reader-centric approach to create two successful pieces of digital content. When covering the events of the Saidaiji-eyo festival at the Kinryozan Saidaiji temple in Okayama last February, Asahi’s photographer was encouraged to think beyond legacy photography rules in favor of artistry. Instead of using a templated format of pure event reporting, such as focusing on people’s actions and using well-worn angles, Asahi’s photographer took a more creative approach, playing with lighting and shadows and capturing raw emotions that he believed would resonate with readers. The photos went viral, attracting both Japanese and foreign readers, and the article ranked among the top 10 most-read pieces in the week it was published.

In another instance, Asahi’s user interviews revealed that its readers prefer entertainment content over political or social opinions, so the publication decided to create more content with crossover appeal. An entertainment reporter and political reporter were tasked to work together to write an article on gender inequality — an issue experienced in both industries. Despite working on different beats, the two writers created an engaging article that proved popular among readers of different interests.

3. Ensure transformation occurs across the organization

For true business transformation, it’s not enough to get a few individuals to buy in; everyone needs to embrace collaboration in order to avoid silos.

Before embracing design thinking, The Star’s content and tech departments lacked communication and would come up with solutions to their problems separately. For instance, The Star’s content department once hired a third-party developer to create a 360-degree video without realizing its own tech department already had those capabilities. Since embracing design thinking, the departments ensure they communicate regularly and reach out to see if any resources they need exist internally, creating avenues for collaboration and mutual wins.

The benefits of design thinking

Both Asahi and The Star faced several challenges in their bid to keep online readers engaged. But by participating in workshops conducted by the Google News Initiative across APAC, the editorial and business leaders at both organizations learned how to incorporate design thinking into their content creation, distribution, and product development as well as how to break down silos by introducing a culture of cross-functional collaboration within their organizations.

In fact, Asahi’s design thinking approach was so successful that the organization even won the APAC Innovation Challenge 2019. Other news organizations can also follow the principles of design thinking to incorporate a culture of innovation throughout their business and transform digitally to stay up to date in the news industry.

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