Exactly one year ago, I was laying in the grass of the iconic oval at Stanford University.
The sky was perfectly blue. (It was most days.)
The temperature: A delicious 75. (Again, not uncommon.)
And the grass was so thick and decadent. And oddly without bugs.
My friends and I had just gathered to celebrate new beginnings. We had just concluded a residential academic year of study and development focused on solving some of journalism’s biggest problems, invited by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship program at Stanford. Sean Michael Dargan, the spouse of one of the fellows, played bagpipes while we danced.
The gathering eventually died down, and everyone dispersed. But I stayed there, feeling frozen. I was worried nothing could ever live up to this magical year. What was next?
Stanford shook me up like a snow globe. I arrived from a career in local news with a big plan to transform newsrooms to be audience-first powerhouses. It got bumpy really fast. I quickly learned the process for innovation I used in the past was fundamentally flawed. Innovative ideas don’t come from the loudest person in the room, or the person with the biggest title, or the most logged hours at the office. They come from deeply understanding the people you are serving, a cornerstone of the teachings at the Stanford d.school, a hub of innovation and creative-problem-solving.
Beyond that, the business model was crumbling fast. I will never forget the day in class at the Stanford Graduate School of Business where I learned the degree to which Facebook and Google were gobbling up local ad revenue. I had heard it before, but had never given myself the space to internalize it. It caused me so much grief that I asked my friend Don Day to repeat it all back to me after the class had concluded.
Even after witnessing years of heartbreak and layoffs, I realized the situation for traditional local news was much more dire than I had understood when I first set foot on campus.
I had been in denial.
A new insight
I was drawn to the d.school at Stanford, inspired by the patient, methodical instruction of one of its instructors Tran Ha, who also provided specialized coaching to journalists in my program pursuing media innovation projects. The d.school and Ha taught me a new approach to innovation: To start the process by listening to the people I was to be serving.
I humbled myself to talk face-to-face to consumers of local news, people I had previously only known through metrics measuring their clicks on stories, or the polarizing comments I saw on social media. I learned through my own interviews with them that after years with their heads buried in their phones, they were starting to look up again. They had a hunger to have more meaningful interactions with each other.
The “aha” moment for me was: They weren’t asking for more news. They were already deluged by information on television, their Facebook feeds, even texts and email blasts from the various important institutions in their lives.
They wanted better information and meaningful connections with each other where they could process and act on that information.
I didn’t leave Palo Alto last year with answers, but with one big question, one that Ha deftly pushed me towards considering with a wide constellation of possible solutions:
How could I have a part in improving the quality of information about local communities that people shared with each other? And implicit within that statement was a goal to increase the quality of connections between those sharing information.
And, more crushingly, I had the realization that this wasn’t a question I was ready to tackle in a newsroom, the place that took me in as a young adult and taught me so much about life well into my 30s. I saw so many traditions to be undone, like a giant ship that needed to be torn apart piece by piece and be rebuilt.
I wanted to push change, but I knew I’d have to do it from the outside to speak as candidly as I needed to. And I also wanted to expand my reach into other industries, using the process I learned at Stanford for careful empathetic innovation.
I had to start something new.
Building a new career
So I started poking around places outside of traditional journalism to learn more about empathy and its place within collaboration and innovation. With my time away from daily deadlines, I inhaled lessons from the Stanford d.school and from my colleagues in the fellowship. They shared knowledge from classes I couldn’t attend and recommended books that would help me on my journey (such as the gems “Emergent Strategy,” by adrienne maree brown and “Sprint,” by Jake Knapp.) They challenged me to see what I had refused to face before — such as how my unearned privilege as a white person influenced my worldview as a journalist and a communicator. I plunged myself into different disciplines in efforts to learn more about empathy and experimentation, including improvisational theater.
And through all of this, I kept up a weekly phone call with my longtime mentor and colleague, Nathan Groepper, a brilliant person who has scaled change in the media and marketing industries. From the east coast, he pushed me to contextualize what I was learning into real-world challenges.
After the fellowship, I moved back to my permanent residence in Des Moines and set up an office in the basement. I then asked Nathan to be my business partner from his home in Hershey, PA. For the last year, we have been building a company that uses design thinking, among other techniques, to strengthen local ecosystems of information sharing, conversation and collaboration.
We call our company Bonfire Strategy, a nod to the magic moment you feel when you are truly connecting with someone. We believe empathy and connection are the first true building blocks to successful innovation and information sharing.
It’s been exciting and humbling. Each day, we have to confront what we don’t know and work like hell to learn it. We never walk into a project with a ready-made solution. It’s a stark difference from our time as leaders in the media industry, when we would collaborate to train journalists how to navigate the digital landscape. We positioned ourselves each day as people with The Answers.
We are now teaching our clients how to listen, ask questions, and live with ambiguity before settling on an answer to test. At the same time, we are teaching this to ourselves. The trainings we build for clients seeking to solve problems are in some ways a reaction to what we always struggled against in our newsroom days, a time that was both magical in the breadth of what our teams accomplished and grim in terms of its business outlook. We saw a world with vast needs for good information constrained by a local news model hampered by tradition and declining resources.
At cofounders of a company teaching an empathetic innovation process, we want our clients and partners to build futures that haven’t even been imagined yet. We want them to be nimble and resilient to failure. And we want them to build what people truly need, as opposed to what’s always been done.
To start, we tested our trainings for free with groups willing to host us, bringing our carefully choreographed process for collaboration and conversation to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate in Boston, the Iowa Newspaper Association, business students at Drake University and high school journalists in Iowa. I also collaborated with Mannie Ajayi, CEO and co-founder of the conversation platform Pnyka, to build high quality conversations between Iowa students interested in politics.
Our first paying clients were innovative journalists and educators, looking to reach new audiences. In each case, we asked them to interview the people who would be reading their stories and taking their classes. We taught them how to nurture their own creative lives, so they had the space to make big leaps. In addition to relying on design thinking techniques, we’ve used exercises and mindsets from improv theater, which also relies on listening as the key building block of creativity.
These clients ended up working collaboratively within their respective teams to imagine completely new ways to communicate and teach younger audiences. One of them, Nico Gendron, was recently awarded a local news fellowship with Instagram, and was charged with connecting with Generation Z audiences.
We are in the middle of a busy season signing on new clients, all with an eye of working with people who build tighter community connections. We are in talks with a community leadership group and a non-profit dedicated to building opportunities for Latino youth. And we are building strategies to help media and governments have more productive conversations with their readers and constituents.
I never thought it was possible, but I’m more at ease this year than I was at Stanford. I had to confront some hard truths in Palo Alto. By the time I had reached Des Moines, I was ready for action.
If I could go back in time, to that day in the grass, I would have told that person lying in the oval after the party ended that Stanford wasn’t the peak that would send me tumbling downhill into some unknown abyss (yes I can be that dramatic sometimes).
It was the slingshot into a brand new life.
Nathan Groepper and Lisa Rossi are the co-founders of Bonfire Strategy, a company that offers trainings and research for innovation projects and conversations. To reach Lisa, email firstname.lastname@example.org