Ask not what consumers can do for news, ask news what it can do for the consumer

If there is anything I have learned over the last few weeks it is that the consumer is king. Through my various experiences with entrepreneurship and conversations with entrepreneur Diana Kander, this point has been pushed above all others. So this week I decided to see if I could learn a thing or two about how people consume news on their phones, by, well, talking to a few strangers. I focused my questions on phone use habits to discover how people use their phones during free time. My hope was to gain some insight into the needs and desires of young phone users to have a better understanding of how news companies could target these people. I was especially interested in people my own age because I believe their news consumption will hugely impact the future of the industry.

Tanzi, 20

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Can you tell me about a time you had a free 10 minutes and were on your phone?

“Usually I go through Instagram or play 2048 because I can’t beat it. Or I’ll go on Twitter. I’m a j-school student and I follow a lot of accounts with news, but I don’t always click on the links.”

Why do you like to visit those sites?

“I like finding a different ways to connect with people and see what they’re doing and see if they’re close by. If I’m on the quad, I’ll post a picture of where I am. I want to share a part of my day with someone else.”

Why do you like to connect with people and share parts of your day?

“I’m a big experience culture person. Even though I’m an introvert, I like to know what people are doing with their life.”

What’s a problem that you have that you think news could solve?

“Sometimes I’ll be sitting and I’ll hear people talking about news, and then I’ll feel behind because I’m not caught up on it.”

Josh, 19

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Can you tell me about a time you had 10 minutes of free time and were on your phone?

“Usually I check my messages, but I don’t text all that much. Usually I’m trying to avoid looking like I’m not doing something, or I’m browsing the Internet.”

Why do you try to look like you’re doing something?

“It seems in today’s culture everyone has to look like they’re doing something. It’s socially awkward not to be doing anything.”

Why do you think it’s awkward?

“Maybe it’s just become the norm because everyone’s on their phones.”

Why do you think it’s the ‘norm?’

“I just don’t feel productive whenever I’m not doing something. Idle hands are the devil’s play things. Maybe I feel like I’m not progressing enough in life.”

Where do you get your news?

“Usually I go to Reddit because of the vote based system on what gets seen.”

Why do you pick that over local media?

“Well, the Missourian doesn’t really have people’s input. It’s not a community based thing that can rank its importance.”

What’s a news app you think you might use?

“An app or something with local events going on or summaries of world and local events.”

Emily, 19

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What do you do when you check your phone?

“I check up on Twitter and then when I get to the end of my feed, I’ll go on Pinterest.”

Why do you like to visit those sites?

“Twitter I visit because I follow things I enjoy. I don’t always tweet a lot, I’ll just read. Pinterest, I pin a lot of things and I have a lot of boards.”

Why do you like those sites?

“I really like books and movies, so anything that references those I enjoy, and I also enjoy anything that makes me laugh.”

How often do you read news?

“I don’t really read news. I guess it’s our generation. Sometimes I’ll see things on Twitter, but I don’t pay much attention.”

When you see news links on Twitter do you click on them?

“If it’s something I feel connected to or interested in I click on it, otherwise I just skip over it.”

What’s a problem in your life, big or small, you wish you could solve? How do you think an app could solve it?

“I’m bad with patience. So something that controls patience. Maybe an app that gives rewards for waiting.”


Although I only talked with three young students for a few minutes each, I learned quite a bit about their phone use habits. The thing that was most interesting to me was how technology seemed to be such a go to for people my age. Nearly everyone I saw on the quad was on a phone or computer. Yet, after I approached these people (A couple of them even had headphones in at the time), they warmly responded to my conversation and presence. Josh’s comments about the need to seem busy in today’s world were especially thought provoking.

News organizations have a huge opportunity to reach people on their phones. Like Josh said, people have a need, especially a social one, to solve the problem of free time using the technology immediately available to them. But even though these consumers were all alone when I talked with them, most of them were in pursuit of a social experience of some sort online. They had free time and they were by themselves, but they didn’t want to feel alone. It wasn’t acceptable to spend free time idly. What an opportunity for news.

Yet, every person I talked to didn’t primarily use their phones for news consumption. And, if they weren’t consuming news on their phones, they also weren’t consuming much news anywhere else. This is troubling because reading the paper used to be a socially acceptable and common way to solve the problem of free time. Now though consumers have an overwhelming amount of distractions to chose from. They want to feel connected to people and they want to pursue their interests. A plethora of social media sites target these needs well, and my generation is hooked. However, they’re not flocking to news apps like they are to social media sites.

I would have to talk to more people to further build research about phone habits, but the experience gave me some thoughts on how news organizations could better target millennials on their phones.

Ideas for news organizations:

  • Emphasis on social commenting platforms like Kinja
  • Competitive elements based around the news consumption (Ex: social consolation of some sort for winning a contest)
  • Tailored news according to location and previous searches
  • Convenience-designed mobile content (Ex: a feature story on a coffee shop that gets pushed to a phone when user is close by)
  • Elimination of paywalls (Paywalls, at least on a mobile phone, will turn users away from a “quick” experience)
  • Partnerships with other apps to include relevant news (Ex: money management tips from experts promoted under a news brand within a banking app)
  • Social emphasis on mobile apps (Ex: voting system exists within news app only)

How do you think news organizations should target millennial mobile users?

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Lessons in selling from a Girl Scout dropout

There are plenty of things I remember loving about being a Girl Scout. I loved the mother/daughter sleepovers, the craft badges and the dance parties, to name a few. But, my overwhelming memory of Girl Scouts is how much I hated selling the cookies. Nothing was emphasized more every year in my time as a Girl Scout Brownie (heck, even the title is a reminder of the pressure to sell desserts) than cookie sales. Every year I strained myself to reach the minimum required sales level. I’m pretty sure my parents were the only reason I sold any cookies at all. They would take the order forms to work and save me from the absolute horror of personally knocking on someone’s door to sell them cookies. I never wanted to ask someone of their time and money. I felt bad selling the cookies – like it was terrible to use my youth and pity-value to convince someone to actually buy my product (which is actually pretty illogical because everyone loves Girl Scout cookies). Most of all I was pretty shy and self-conscious at that age, and I feared rejection. So I became what I’ll call a Girl Scout dropout after fifth grade. Pretty rebellious, I know.

When Diana Kander challenged me to sell people something last week, I once again felt like a terrified 11 year old, doomed to never earn a cookie badge. Kander challenged me and student Kara Tabor to turn $1 into as much money as we could in one hour. I was worried. First of all, I have no skills that easily translate into a product. I can’t sing or dance or play guitar. Secondly, I just didn’t want to bother people with whatever product I could come up with. After all, I didn’t want to bother people with cookies, which I already noted, is illogical.

After a lot of brainstorming, Kara decided we should sell haikus to strangers. Both of us can count syllables on our hands and we can write fairly well. We thought maybe people would pity us. It turns out pity is not a good business model. We only made $2.37, but I also gave a homeless man $2 for a sandwich, so we really only made 37 cents (So far I have only lost money on these challenges like last week when I gave away $5). But, I am happy to say that I learned an incredible amount from the hands-on experience and talk with Kander afterward. I can’t say that I will ever allow my daughter or any future generations of mine to participate in Girl Scouts anytime soon (I’m mostly joking), but I am much less intimidated by the selling process. Here are some of my top takeaways from the conversation with Kander:

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Kara Tabor and I set out to make as much money selling haikus as we could in an hour last Friday, May 2. My favorite haiku from Kara reads,”You are sweeter than a baby panda eating tons of Nutella.”

1. Your skills don’t matter

One of the most insightful things Kander explained post-challenge is that it is most important to focus on what people want when selling a product. My approach for this second challenge was to brainstorm all the skills I had and then try to force people to want my “best” skill. However, that approach doesn’t solve a problem for people. People don’t need haikus. Sure, we made some people laugh and we got some pocket change, but profit can’t be made from a product that doesn’t solve a consumer problem. Kander told us that she had seen students make $100 in an hour by focusing on the customer. For instance, students selling back rubs or challenging people to bets solved problems of stress and free time.

2. Don’t convince someone they have a problem

Even if a seller thinks they’ve identified a problem a consumer has, it doesn’t matter if the consumer isn’t aware of it, Kander said. Kander explained that just like there are different intensities of headaches, there are minor and extreme problems. A seller will only be able to sell a product well if the consumer can’t ignore a problem they have. This means that the consumer also has to have the desire to fix the problem. They have to have taken steps to solve the problem, and, better yet, they have to have money set aside to fix that problem. Without the combination of these variables, a product is very hard to sell, Kander said.

3. Your market isn’t everyone

Not every customer will recognize a problem, want to solve the problem and want to pay to fix the problem. This means that inevitably, the target market for a product is not everyone. This also means that consumer problems are incredibly specific and unique, and that marketing to broad demographic groups doesn’t not work. Kander said that the best way to sell a product is to focus on an consumer archetype and sell to a category of people in which 99 percent of the group are potential customers. That is a true target market.

Once again all of these lessons can be applied to journalism as well. I especially think the lesson on target markets would be interesting to implement in a newsroom. What if we talked to a specific archetype of readers before a story pitch meeting and then tried to write a story an extremely high percentage of that niche group would read?

Sneak peak: 

Over the next two weeks I will be interviewing the founder of a young startup about their business. I will ask them all of the hard questions I’ve learned from Kander. Then, I will talk with at least five people they describe as their target market to see if they’d actually buy the product. I’m really interested to see the result of this challenge.

This week I will also be talking to young people about their phone use habits in an effort to see what news companies could be doing differently to solve their problems.

Updates to come!

Sarah Poloroid Two

Proof that I was once a Girl Scout. Here’s me with my lovely mom.



Entrepreneurship Challenge is a new miniseries that will differ from my typical blog posts. In these posts I will experiment with my interest in entrepreneurship in a hands-on way. Over the next few weeks I will blog about every “challenge” given to me by local entrepreneur Diana Kander. Kander and I connected on Twitter, and after further discussions, she offered to give me entrepreneurship challenges and then meet with me to talk about them. I will comment on my experiences and discuss the lessons I learn about entrepreneurship and media entrepreneurship in this series

About Diana Kander:  Kander is a Columbia-based entrepreneur and a Senior Fellow at the Kauffman Foundation. She is also the author of  book called “All In Startup” which emphasizes the importance of teaching students about entrepreneurship through hands-on practice. 

What I’m reading (and experimenting with) this week

This week I have been reading as much as I can about the business of journalism. After my first entrepreneurship challenge last week, I was very inspired to consider media entrepreneurship even more. I’m still pretty new at all this so I am trying to absorb as much material from experts as I can.

Here are my top two reads (plus a tech tool) I’ve been interested in this week:

1) BuzzMachine: “Are media in the content business?”


Screenshot from BuzzMachine

In this article journalist Jeff Jarvis asserts that media’s most important role may not be content creation at all, but rather relationship building (Read the article for more on this). Jarvis is known for his commentary on new media ideas, and his posts are, at times, controversial because they often challenge traditional ways of thinking about news. However, Jarvis’ ideas spark important conversations about the future of journalism. This article made me consider what the role of journalism should be.

Key quote: “We rarely know who our readers are (and we still call them just readers or at best commenters, not creators or collaborators). We do not have the means to gather, analyse and act on data about their activities and interests at an individual level. Thus we cannot serve them as individuals.”

2) Nieman Reports: “Mastering the art of disruptive innovation in journalism”


Screenshot from Nieman Reports

This report focuses on the unpleasant truth of the media business – “newspapers have been, on average, losing print advertising dollars at seven times the rate they have been growing digital ad revenue.” The report is a result of the collaborative efforts of a really smart Harvard Business professor and a really smart Nieman Fellow. The business professor had previously developed a theory of disruptive innovation and in this report he applies his business innovation findings to journalism. I would read this report 100 times over if I could because of how informative and thought provoking it was. The report is split into three parts which each consider ways media are being disrupted and what they should be doing differently: Always Consider the Audience First, When Times Change, Change Your Business and Build Capabilities for a New World. You’d be hard pressed to find a better read this month.

Key quote: “Creating an innovative newsroom environment means looking within the existing value network and beyond traditional business models to discover new experiences for audiences, then realigning your resources, processes and priorities to embrace these disruptions.”

3) Dash


Screenshot from Dash. I learned to code a website!

So Dash is not exactly an article, but it is a really awesome tool I have been using this week. Dash is a free coding tool that teaches coding step by step through projects. So far this week I have spent a lot of my free time on Dash because it’s really fun. Granted, I think coding is really fun to start with, but Dash makes coding feel like a fun game. As you code you see the results of your work on screen, and every time you complete a step the site explodes with green check marks. I’ve tried sites like Codecademy in the past, but Dash is much more engaging. I would highly recommend Dash if you’re interested in code but need a little on screen motivation to get started.

Build it and they WON’T come


Entrepreneurship Challenge is a new miniseries that will differ from my typical blog posts. In these posts I will experiment with my interest in entrepreneurship in a hands-on way. Over the next few weeks I will blog about every “challenge” given to me by local entrepreneur Diana Kander. Kander and I connected on Twitter, and after further discussions, she offered to give me entrepreneurship challenges and then meet with me to talk about them. I will comment on my experiences and discuss the lessons I learn about entrepreneurship and media entrepreneurship in this series

About Diana Kander:  Kander is a Columbia-based entrepreneur and a Senior Fellow at the Kauffman Foundation. She is also the author of  book called “All In Startup” which emphasizes the importance of teaching students about entrepreneurship through hands-on practice. 

Giving out free money to people is hard. I know because on Tuesday night I completed my first entrepreneurship challenge from Kander – to hand out five $1 bills to strangers at the Columbia Mall. I also brought along Kara Tabor, a journalism student interested in entrepreneurship. Between the both of us, we had several people turn down our free  money. (Kander also challenged us  to try to sell a book for $5, but Tabor and I ran out of time and were also slightly afraid of the mall cops).  Although we gave away most of the money with varying approaches, the experience was somewhat discouraging. Some people didn’t want what is seemingly the best product imaginable. In fact, most of them wanted to know if there was a catch. Check out this video (Yeah, I know it’s low quality) of me trying to give out one of the dollars. You can here the woman ask if it’s shady at the end.

We later met up with Kander to debrief on the experience. Here are some of my top lessons from our conversation:

1. Build it and they WON’T come

According to Kander, most want-a-preneurs (people who really want to be entrepreneurs but can’t make money) don’t actually talk to customers until after their idea has already been built and marketed. That’s when they realize they don’t have an idea that people want. She told us that our first challenge was meant to simulate the challenge of talking to customers – and she’s right, it’s really hard. The overall takeaway here though is that a “good” idea may not actually make it in the real world. After all some people won’t even take free money.

Journalism takeaway: 

Journalists are really bad at this entrepreneurship tip because we get caught up in how “good” our content is. But, as much as we all wouldn’t like to admit it, journalism is a business. Especially as online news sites try to find pay models that work online, it is especially important to find out what news consumers want in the first place. However, most news organizations are still of the thought that there is an inherent demand for journalism excellence. Although I, too, believe that there will always be a need for quality journalism, there is a point when great content doesn’t matter if no one sees or wants it. Journalists can learn a lot from this tip. We should be talking to the target audience of a story and then try to shape content around them.

2. Customers buy solutions

This lesson piggybacks off lesson number one. During our meeting, Kander told us that customers buy solutions to their problems, but entrepreneurs don’t always design products around a real problem. In the minds of many entrepreneurs, Kander said, solving a problem means creating a product that doesn’t exist yet. However, this mindset is faulty and explains why there are so many apps in the world that never make any money. Ultimately good ideas don’t make money, ideas that solve a real problem make money. A $1 bill, for instance, doesn’t solve a problem for some customers. Kander said you can only find out consumer problems by talking to people. She recommends pitching an app idea to customers before the app is created and to see what percentage of people will actually try to search in the app store for the product. These are the people who would actually buy the product.

Journalism takeaway: 

As I touched on in the blog post about the 2014 News Media Report I wrote a couple of weeks ago, there has been explosive growth in some digitally native publications. Many of these publications recognize customer needs first. For example, BuzzFeed has seen huge growth from users because they solve a problem. The site condenses information on the web and packages it in efficient and social ways. I don’t always have time to sort through hundreds of news stories online, but if a news story makes it to BuzzFeed, I will probably read it because it has been condensed to fit my time constraints. The site has its critics, but its success has allowed for increased focus on original reporting. The site has been able to hire a number of Pulitzer-winning journalists to fill its reporting departments. Other journalists can learn from their focus on consumers.

3. Successful entrepreneurs are detectives

Extremely successful entrepreneurs seem pretty lucky, Kander said. Most people couldn’t have looked back and predicted Facebook. However, Kander said the most successful entrepreneurs make small bets and validate each stage of their product and startup before taking huge risks. For example, Facebook tested its early site on college campuses where other social media sites existed because the founders wanted to be sure customers liked their product. Successful entrepreneurs investigate what the customer wants and aren’t disillusioned by how much they like their idea. Before marketing our dollar product, for instance, we would have benefitted from many more rounds of talking to customers.

Journalism takeaway: 

Most journalists are already doing detective work. They find out information other people haven’t asked about and are always investigating. Journalists should also use these same skills to better serve their audience. Journalists would benefit from making consumers a more active part of their reporting by seeking feedback before and during a story’s production, not just after it has been published.

Sneak peak: 

Stay tuned for an update on my second entrepreneurship challenge. This weekend Tabor and I have been challenged to turn $1 into as much money as we can in an hour.

Do you have any advice? How much money will we make? Tweet me @_SCDarby.

A lesson on usability from the IE Lab

Did you know Mizzou has a laboratory on campus devoted to testing the usability of new technology? I had never heard of the Information Experience Laboratory until this week when my Emerging Media class had an opportunity to hear from two of the lab’s employees. Research assistants Ben Richardson and Kenneth Haggerty conduct research for the lab on a variety of topics, and they gave our group a tour and lessons from the lab. They have done research studies for a number of clients, including journalism organizations associated with Mizzou. Several years ago, the lab did research to study the usability of Newsy.  When they first did the usability study, Newsy looked something like this:

A screenshot of the Newsy homepage from 2007 using Wayback Machine

A screenshot from the Newsy homepage on April 18, 2014

The researchers used what is called a “think aloud” technique to evaluate the website. The user navigates the website while talking aloud about what they are doing. Although Newsy did not necessarily use every part of the IE’s usability study at the time, it is interesting to see how far the website has come. I think we can all agree that Newsy, and most websites, are more user-friendly than they were in 2007.

The IE lab seeks to look beyond just the interface of a website to determine usability and user experience. During our time at IE, the researchers explained a couple key points all websites should have:

Usability depends on:

  • Effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction

User experience depends on:

  • Branding, usability, content, functionality and probably social

Questions to consider for a website:

  • Is it useable? Is it useful? Will it be used?

  • Who is the intended audience?

  • Have “fresh eyes” seen the site?

  • Is learnable, memorable, consistent, free of error and satisfying in subject according to web usability consultant Jakob Nielsen’s principles?

  • Is it intuitive?

  • Can users find the information I expect/want them to find?

When the researchers look at a website, they try to set up tests to see if the average person has a positive usability and user experience. They ask clients the top five things they want people to get from the site and test to see if users can find out those five things easily. At IE they use a variety of research methods including: expert review, focus group, task analysis, think aloud, info architecture, info horizons, card sort, paper prototyping, treejack, eye tracking and Morae. During our tour I got to try out the eye tracking technology used in the lab. It was incredible how accurate the eye tracker was. It calibrated in about 20 seconds too. The lab is doing some pretty amazing studies with the technology. They recently used eye tracking and other methods to evaluate the MU Libraries website. They let me try out the usability test given to subjects when they were evaluating the newly designed library site. Here’s a video of me trying it out:

Overall, I learned a lot about usability. I had never considered a website from the usability perspective the IE researchers shared. Websites, particularly news websites, must first be usable and user friendly before an audience can even engage with content. Web design is often an afterthought, but is a very important foundation that determines the success of digital content. I hope to consider all that I learned as I produce digital content in my classes and future career.


Tool review:


Screenshot from

One of my biggest goals after the Journalism Interactive conference last weekend is to try out as many online journalism and visual tools as possible. I can’t possibly try out every tool I learned about last weekend, but this week I managed to test out for one of my classes., at first look, seems to be a great solution for design-challenged journalists. The tool is designed to help create visually appealing and interactive infographics with ease. Although I have some experience using InDesign, a commonly used design program, I often struggle to execute infographics. I can never quite get infographics to look as pretty as I want.

I was excited to test out to see if it could solve all of my design problems forever. I created the graphic (left) based on real data I found in an article from the Columbia Tribune about public housing flat rate rental prices increasing. I am pitching a more in-depth version of the topic for my Convergence Reporting class this week, so I also was hoping to find a tool to help me finish a graphic a week before my deadline!

While the tool was pretty intuitive and quick to use (I made this in 15 minutes), I did run into a number of frustrations:


  • Embed codes (like for a Google map) can’t be put into the graphic from other sources

  • Text size can’t be easily changed

  • Limited ability to change style and color once initial theme is picked

  • Limited graphic icon options

  • Interactive aspects of the graphic not working (The timer isn’t actually counting down)

  • Restrictions on text length for certain sections

I also found some things I like:


  • Simple interface allows drag and drop and easy editing

  • Easy to use format

  • Saves a lot of time for simple graphics

  • Easily sharable

  • No design experience necessary

Overall, I had a mixed experience with this tool. I ended up with a graphic that looks pretty nice considering it took me less than 15 minutes to make. In comparison, it probably would have taken me an hour or more at my skill level to make something similar on a program like InDesign. I also don’t know how to make charts using Illustrator, so this tool is a great option for a design dummy like me. On the other hand, I could see this tool being really frustrating for a more complicated graphic. Throughout the creation process, I found myself having to work around options the tool didn’t have. For example, I couldn’t figure out how to label parts of a pie chart the way I wanted so I opted for a text section instead. This tool is a really easy option for a simple graphic that needs to be done quickly. However, I would argue this tool is meant to be visually appealing more than it is meant to illustrate complicated numbers and data sets. Use if you’re in a hurry and need something that will do in a short amount of time, but look to your InDesign or Illustrator guru to help you make a more meaningful graphic that explains more complicated data.