Where we started
Where we are
Where we will be

These are 3 of the 4 buildings that the Detroit News has, or will, call home. A news staff always shapes its environment, but it is also shaped by its home. I work in a newsroom that has been a home to reports for 97 years; you can’t help but feel their spirit in the wall of this place. It is like a distant chorus compelling us to uphold our news values, continue our traditions.

The Detroit News’ Mark Hinojosa has a sharp eye for detail. Be sure to check out his growing collection of images on the exquisite detail found in our soon-to-be-former office digs.

This fall will be a significant move for TDN, and also the Detroit Free Press, and the Detroit Media Partnership folks who support both of them. Depending on who you ask (and when) this is either a tragedy or an opportunity to continue a positive transformation and take advantage of the effect that environment can have on attitudes, workflow, external perception.

I’m inclined to focus on the latter. Being a fan of disruption, I relish a chance to start with any sort of clean slate. We’ll see the extent to which we can seize this opportunity.

Our organization isn’t alone, as Tow Center professor Nikki Usher showed in her study released earlier this spring, “Moving the Newsroom: Post-Industrial News Spaces and Places.”

Here’s a video that gets to the heart of the matter.

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The 30-Day Prototype Challenge

So, yes, I’m a jerk like this.

I go on vacation for a huge chunk of June and drop a challenge on the project managers, developers and designers on my team:

Let’s see how many prototypes you can muster in 30 days.

  • Everyone must be involved in at least two product ideas, and no one can work solo.
  • They must consult with newsroom folks, ad sales, marketing, or other relevant departments.
  • They must do field research with potential users. And I want stuff to click on and use when it’s all over.
  • Plus, I will recruit judges and we will give prizes based on all these requirements. 

At least I offered up a massive slate of ideas I’ve been mulling over (and let them come up with their own ideas).

MI Beer App

Projections put the number of Michigan craft breweries over 200 by 2015. Pretty much every little town has their own. Michiganders love their beer. How can we capitalize on that love and help both consumers and brewers connect in new ways?

Look at the economic data and think about the advertising and consumer revenue opportunity. Note that Michigan’s seminal beer periodical is waaay behind the times. Check out what the Minneapolis Star Tribune did.

Cookbook Tablet

Americans are obsessed with food. Need proof? Note that the Travel Channel is now dominated by programs about food. The Free Press is renowned for its test kitchen. But try to cooking a meal with one of their recipes. Seriously: Examine the user experience for how you go from reading a recipe in print or online to actually making the dish.

How can we create a specialized topic that brings all this food content together and makes it easy for people to use? How many people these days are cooking with an iPad on the counter?

Look at what the LA Times has done for inspiration. (Which also has a how-to write-up, including links to the Gihub repo, on Mozilla Open-News Source.) Lots of creative revenue-generation potential here.


Reel Deal

When it comes down to it, fans love our sports coverage, but everything we do pales in engagement-comparison to the actual game. We’re hard-pressed to beat the broadcast.

In our organization, there is this notion that, given the amount of money and attention sports fans spend, there has to be some innovation potential to capture the passion of this audience, doing something different than what we’ve always done. I don’t think it has to be too out of this world. In fact, I think all we have to do is give people access to game highlights (that feed into our analysis, of course).

The biggest challenge is that this costs money. To get all the different sports, you have to deal with several different licensing bodies. It’s complicated and expensive, but not impossible.

But think about what would satisfy a user: Being able to tap a few times on their phone and watch highlight reels from last night’s game, right?

Now, imagine another twist: We monetize not just with ads and sponsorships but daily deals targeted at this particular audience — restaurants, activities, etc. Just an idea.

When I was in Lansing, we were investigating getting Big Ten highlight licensing. You can see the notes here.

The how might we: What would a sports video highlight product look like? What novel ways to monetize it could we come up with?


Browser Extensions

I’ve got browser extensions and add-ons that help me manage all my passwords, measure things on screen, save stuff to read later, highlight and annotate web pages, and there are a gazillion other examples.

The thing is, our average user doesn’t know about these, they don’t know they could benefit from them, and they don’t know where to look for them. I’ll wager we could replicate some existing extensions and get more users than the original, just from our marketing capabilities. Add to that the possibility of devising unique extensions/add-ons that tie directly to our core products and services, meeting user needs in this realm.

Food for thought here, here, here and here.

How might we grow audience and meet new needs through web browser innovations?


Send In The Bots

There’s already a good write-up of some seed ideas in Basecamp.

But there’s more. Look at New York Times haiku (read the about page). Look at Open Fuego and think about different groups on Twitter we could apply this kind of thinking to.

How might we create monetizable products that are powered with automated scripts?


Syndication Widgets

This product concept builds on the need for webmasters everywhere to populate their site with content that gives their users more reasons to come back. At a previous company, for example, we created a self-serve widget builder that allowed webmasters to put an embed on their site that showed the most recent blog content our team was creating; this drove an incredible amount of traffic back to our site. Outdoor Hub (based here in Michigan) has a similar tactic with their Hubpost product.

How might we create a widget that enables syndicated distribution of our content on sites other than our own?


Screen Savers

Screen savers might seem a little 1990. But think about this: What if you looked at the number of idle screens, throughout every office, in every corporate park, from Detroit out to the exurbs, as one big ad network.

How hard would it be to offer every corporate IT department a subsidy (which we recoup through sponsorships or advertising) to install screen savers of our creation. What would they do?

How about show off our trending headlines? How about showcase a constantly updating gallery of our photojournalism? Geo-targeted content, or business-relevant news?

Look at this example based on the NYT and Flickr APIs.


The Bullet

Nutshell: A digest of our top stories, fed through a text summary API and turned into headline+3 bullet points for each article. Wrap this up in its own tidy package, as its own product.

Think NYT Now.

How might we create a product that’s built for mobile-snackable?


The Speed Reader

People complain they just don’t have enough time to catch up on the news every day. Let’s help them save time. Like, what if they could catch up on the day’s top 10 stories in under 5 minutes. Open Spritz might help.

How might we develop a standalone product that helps people speed read the news?


Five-Dollar Frank

Where I lived in West Virginia, there was a guy known as Five Dollar Frank. He was a pilot who, for $5, would take you up in his historic biplane and fly you over whatever part of the area you wanted. He would also sometimes make people puke from pulling loops.

The point here is personalized service. The “how might we?” is, where’s our reportage-on-demand?

Can we make money being a better Ask Jeeves? Reddit has its A.M.A., what’s our competing offering? Could we offer a “membership” that gave people access to answers-within-the-hour on any topic we should own information-wise?

FWIW, the Fort Collins Coloradoan entered The Answerizer as a Gannett Innovation Grant submission and was a finalist. The editor (at the time, now executive editor of the Carolinas) was Gannett’s 2012 Innovator of the Year, driven in part by this.


Travel Platisher

One of my soapbox sermon topics has to do with the fact that our company needs to move beyond thinking of ourselves as a publisher that puts out products and instead evolve into a technology company that creates platforms and ecosystems. “Platisher” is an awful term that combines “platform” and “publisher.”

Despite the poor choice in words, I nonetheless think there’s an opportunity to test this hypothesis in the travel realm. The Free Press has the “Michigan Traveler.” The LSJ has done a great job with its “Michigander” passion topic (which always includes a “Worth The Drive” travel piece, and sometimes a centerpiece that is travel-oriented). And based on the social engagement in the campaigns like “Michigan’s 7 Wonders” and “Lake Madness,” I know the audience could tell some Michigan travel stories of its own.

So, how might we create a standalone travel product that taps Michiganders’ state love and user travel stories, while capturing the business of everyone from AAA to the chambers of commerce around the state?

Big hint: Things to do should factor in to this.

(And, yes, the state’s Pure Michigan site is an existing alternative. We can do better.)


The Weather Was All, Like, …

Why would you look at any other weather site than this?

We know from the statewide research project that weather is hugely important to people, and yet we let the TV stations and the Weather Channel rule in this department. We take a third-party widget, and plug it into our digital products and call it good (unless there’s a disaster to write about).

Looking at the creativity of Star Wars weather, what sorts of products could we create that would surprise and delight and engage a whole new class of users?

Ideas: What if took today’s weather data and found an interesting day in history that had the same conditions? Where else on the globe is the weather the same as it is here right now? What if you tied historic weather data to the history of your favorite sports team’s wins and losses (i.e. it’s over 70 degrees, so the Tigers are most likely to win)?

I’ll throw out there as well that my favorite weather API is, and their Dark Sky app is $10, but it’s gorgeous.


My TV History

In the Idea Jam on Arduino and Raspberry Pi, we showed folks a creative hack that mutes the TV when the program starts mentioning overhyped celebrities.

Using basically the same set up, instead of listening for celebrity names and muting the TV, imagine it listens for keywords and executes searches of our archives (and/or USAToday, or other periodicals). Then, those search results are catalogued on a web page unique to that viewer (or the Pi box). This is sort of like your web browser history, except for TV and pointing you to deeper information based on the channels and programs you viewed.

How might we create a set-top box that connects TV viewers to our content or staff to drive deeper engagement?



It’s been a while since I did show and tell with my Tiger Tiles game. (I can’t seem to get past Verlander or 17,000 points, by the way.) We can’t commercialize this by using the photos. But we could substitute graphics that have the players’ names and their jersey numbers and this could be launched pretty quick. I’ve shared this with some Tigers fans and they got absolutely addicted to it.

But what other (analogue or entirely different) games can we whip up quickly?

As inspiration, I followed this guy while he made one HTML5 game a week for 12 weeks. Careful, some are addictive.



It’s no secret that the social internet is built on people looking at pictures. Me, I want to see more of the pictures that people are taking here in Michigan. I can do this relatively easily on Instagram, but only on the mobile app, not the web version. Plus, I have to individually explore hashtags for #detroit, #lansing, #puremichigan, and so on. And it doesn’t offer a geo-based search, even though that’s available via the API.

Then there are the Twitter photos, the Facebook photos, the Flickr photos, the 500px photos, and whatever else might be out there and accessible.

How might we create unified streams of photo content that show people the place they live in through their neighbors’ eyes? What twist would you layer on to this to create surprise and delight?


Audience Metrics Is The Product

It’s probably short-sighted to think of all these metrics tools and dashboards we have as internal-only. There are plenty of people out there who would not only geek out on the data the same way we do, but they would use it to navigate our products and content.

So, then, how might we shape all this analytics data into a consumer-facing product that builds new audience and provides new ways of engaging with our content and advertisers?

Ack! What if our competitors read this? F-it.

Race you to the finish line.

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Required reading

If you’re in the news business these days, I’m just going to lay this out here: These texts are required reading. No buts, no excuses.

There will be a test.

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Innovation ramblings to start 2014

Thoughts from my notebook that I’ve yet to do anything with:

  • Innovation only happens when people’s discomfort with the status quo exceeds their fear of change. Otherwise, it’s easiest to keep doing things the way we’ve always done. Want innovation? Foster a persistent realization that our products aren’t cutting it and we need to radically rethink them.
  • Newspapers haven’t lost customers because of a proliferation of free information online. They’ve lost their prominence because people have found different, easier and better ways to get certain jobs done. They aren’t loyal to products; they’re loyal to getting a job done, even if that job is just finding what time an interesting movie is playing at which theater.
  • At Amazon, you must write a business case to stop an innovation proposal, rather than to start one.
  • What if, instead of calling it a circulation manager or subscription salesperson, we called it a membership director? The New York Times won’t use that term, despite recently coming out with a “premium” product that includes access to their events and other “non-product” benefits. If we believe that, strategically, we should be building relationships with customers, then perhaps we’d be better served thinking of ourselves as organizers of a club that’s dedicated to an informed membership. (The LA Times calls it membership.)
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Update: Opportunity Knocks

I felt like the team was really starting to build some momentum in Lansing. We were producing some pretty compelling digital work, and there were hints of culture change, despite setbacks of the past year.

But when the offer came to tackle the challenge of a transforming industry at a higher level — with some very sharp people to boot — I leapt at the opportunity.

I start my first day today as vice president of innovation and product development at the Detroit Media Partnership. Our small but nimble team of project managers and digital developers will be supporting the other business units of the partnership, as well as 8 newsrooms and more than 400 journalists.

To say that I’m excited would be putting it mildly.

Here’s to the next rocket ride.

(And, if you missed it, here’s how I got to Lansing in the first place.)