The Lenfest Local Lab joins The Philadelphia Inquirer Product Team

By embedding within the organization, the Lab will explore how experimentation and innovation can be operationalized and will share what it learns.

We are glad to share that after two and a half years as a standalone team collaborating with local newsrooms, the Lenfest Local Lab has joined The Philadelphia Inquirer. For anyone who has followed the Lab’s work, you know that the team experiments in the open. This change is an experiment too.

The benefits are intended to travel in many directions. We’re hoping that this new way of working will accelerate The Inquirer’s ability to transform its products. We also hope it gives the Lab an opportunity to learn first-hand how experimentation can be successfully integrated into core strategic planning. Similarly, we hope that insights our teams are able to share about how to operationalize innovation can spur organizational experiments elsewhere.

Many innovation labs have been set up to work with a focus on longer-term “horizons,” but the gaps between the way core news teams and innovation teams approach their work have gotten wider. As local news organizations, including The Inquirer, embrace the need for systemic rather than incremental change, it becomes clear that core teams and innovation teams should be working more closely together to rebuild products that center on accountability and public service.

The Lab’s ambitions are also expanding. Previously the Lab focused on launching customer-facing products with The Inquirer and others to learn about local news reader behaviors and needs. This year, the work will broaden to include the development of newsroom-facing tools and explore the roles they play in shaping organizational culture and behavior.

The foundational principles of the Lab are staying the same. The group will maintain its open, transparent, and collaborative orientation toward the local news industry. The Lab will also continue to partner with other newsrooms, academics and researchers, make code publicly available, and publish data and insights from our experiments. The name is only slightly changing to The Lenfest Local Lab @ The Inquirer, and the Lab will maintain strong ties with its primary funder, The Lenfest Institute, as well as the Google News Initiative, who has supported the Lab’s equity mapping work and our neighborhood newsletter work.

We’re also deepening our commitment to developing products that center on representation, accessibility, and harm reduction. These concepts have always been incorporated into the Lab’s research and design process, and an increased focus is underway. A recent example is the Lab’s approach to equitable newsroom collaborations based on this model developed by journalist Angilee Shah.

The Lab is also currently working with journalists and community organizations in the Philadelphia neighborhoods of Fishtown, West Kensington, and Fairhill to experiment with ways to scale hyperlocal newsletters. The Lab’s most recent experiment is to make COVID-19 coverage about the places people care about easier to find — including coverage about nearby schools, safety guidelines, testing, and vaccines. Finally, to provide infrastructure that supports more accessible and equitable products, we’re building tools with The Brown Institute for Media Innovation, a research institute based at Columbia and Stanford universities working at the intersection of journalism and technology, to support a news organization’s ability to measure and assess representation in coverage and help deliver relevant news straight to communities.

The Lab’s expanded ambitions are made possible in many ways thanks to the talents of our two newest team members, Ana G. Méndez and Kelly Brennan.

Ana G. Méndez

Ana has earned master’s degrees in nonprofit leadership and journalism from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, respectively. She was also a freelance investigative journalist for The New York Times and a recipient of a Magic Grant from The Brown Institute. She used the grant to build El Tabulario, the first accessible public data repository for journalists in Panama. Since joining the Lab, Ana has led the Lab’s neighborhood newsletter research and forged the strategic partnership with The Brown Institute to test machine learning-based tools that analyze equity and representation in local news coverage at scale.

Kelly Brennan

Kelly oversees the Lab’s neighborhood newsletter project supported by The Google News Initiative, exploring the questions: What does hyperlocal news look like now, and can collaboration, technical automation and curation help it scale to many communities who need reliable sources of information? Kelly graduated from Temple University where she was the editor-in-chief of The Temple News. Her newsroom leadership overlapped with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which time she accelerated the transition from print to digital news formats, increased newsletter engagement and oversaw emerging COVID-19 coverage including how the pandemic impacted campus life and by providing students access to information about emergency resources. A native of Pennsylvania, Kelly also interned for WHYY and on The Inquirer’s Power & Policy desk.

Meanwhile there is ongoing community and location-driven innovation work happening at The Inquirer. An example is last year’s Election Roundtable process, which brought local voters into the coverage, providing a direct link between readers, neighbors, and reporters. The Inquirer has also started putting effort into translating critical community coverage for its readers, from individual election-related coverage to the launch of El Inquirer, a site section containing bilingual stories written mainly by Inquirer Latinx communities reporter Jesenia De Moya Correa. The product and design teams at The Inquirer have also been pushing forward with new, standardized designs for mobile-first coverage, and for story forms that adapt to the information they convey. All of these efforts around storytelling and infrastructure give us foundations on which to build, and teams who are ready to experiment and learn quickly.

Among the many things that will stay the same for the Lab, the team will continue to explore the role that location plays in the quality, usefulness, and representation of local news. Thinking about the places that matter most to people and why, and putting that concept at the center of new product hypotheses, will drive the work. A founding principle of the Lab that was shared at the outset in 2018 summarized this idea well, and explained the key role that technology and design play in the Lab’s work:

We believe that experimenting with more sophisticated uses of location information and technology to engage local residents will help reduce isolation within communities, create connections and highlight spaces or groups that would benefit from better news experiences. By building more seamless interfaces, and by adapting news delivery to modern habits, our team will explore how valuable these homegrown products could be to residents, and give us evidence on which to base the development of new business models that local news organizations can adopt and take ownership of themselves. (Source.)

This line of research and experimentation will also evaluate community news needs that go beyond geography. Physical proximity is one way that people connect with each other and with news, but it is not the only one. Interests, life experiences, and other factors can also bring people together news and information. We would like to explore how location-based product insights can be applied to broader community news concepts that inform, engage, and inspire.

To follow our work you can continue to read here on Medium, reach out to us on Twitter @lenfestlab or send an email to me at [email protected] or Inquirer Chief Product and Technology Officer Matt Boggie at [email protected]. Thank you!

The Lenfest Local Lab is a multidisciplinary product and user experience innovation team within The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Lab was founded within The Lenfest Institute for Journalism in 2018 before joining The Inquirer in 2021. The Lab remains supported by The Lenfest Institute, the Google News Initiative and additional funders.

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