Scenario Planning in the Journalism Classroom

I don’t teach a traditional skills class — there’s no news writing, there’s no simulated reporting, there’s no AP style. That said, it’s not a straight-up journalism and democracy class or journalism and society class. My students are getting a heavy dose of media sociology, but they are also getting a lot of practical experience working with journalism tools like Slack, Tumblr, Twitter and Etherpad — the first three of which are regular parts of interacting with journalists inside and outside the newsroom.

To drive home some of the pressures in the contemporary newsroom while still giving shape to the theory, I am employing something called scenario planning. This is an organizational communication and leadership planning strategy that is gaining in popularity, and my alma mater, USC Annenberg, has the first Scenario Lab that I know of.

To put this in context, I’ve had them in a unit where they are reading about newsroom economics. We started with a conceptual framework of Adorno and Horkheimer, and then Chomsky, Bagdikian and others, and now we’re getting into the modern day reality of news organizations struggling to adjust to the modern economic environment (reading folks like Anderson& Petre on traffic, Ryfe and, well, me on culture change).

The goal is to provide key stakeholders in organizations a space and a structured experience to think about the issues facing their organizations, and to offer them the chance to plan strategy based upon discussion-based, blue-sky thinking that goes beyond just statistics to begin to develop what are called “new mental models” for dealing with organizational pressures. As Patti Riley, the director of the Scenario Lab, explains, “Scenario planning seeks to support organizational decision-making about the future through the facilitation of networks of dialogue and expertise that produce new mental models and enhance organizational learning.”


The students are broken up into groups (I just use groups based on where they are sitting) and given a notecard. On the notecard is a scenario that I have created, though I would love to crowdsource here for more. They are given suggested roles, but encouraged to think on their own.

These are the instructions I provide: You and your team have to solve this problem. Pretend — really pretend, like write dialogue, pretend you are writing a play — and deal with this problem. Act it out. Actually act it out. And try to solve the issue or brainstorm solutions — and we’ll then guess as a class after your “performance” what the issue was. You have 15 minutes, and four out of the five members of your group must speak.

Here were my scenarios this time around.

You are a struggling emtro daily. You can choose to keep your only pulitzer-winning investigative journalist OR fire him and hire an expensive, talented programmer journalist.

potential roles: manager, journalists, budget person, publisher?

Scenario 2: Social Media

Some of your older staffers are struggling with social media, but you have found that it is a key way to drive a) traffic and b) audience engagement. Convince them.

Potential roles: manager/editor, journalists of varying ages

Scenario 3: Cross promotion

You are a broadcast news organization with a big interview tonight (think Caitlyn Jenner or Turmp), but you know (or do you?) that your audiences consumes media in many different ways across many different platforms. What’s your plan?

Roles: people, platform experts, mangers, interviewee, etc.

Scenario 4: Millennial-ing

You are a newspaper with a big brand name that keeps writing stupid stories about millennials. You finally figure it out, but your brand name with this generation is awful. What do you do?

potential roles: various youth, journalists (editors, reporters), market analysts

Scenario 5: Smart Analytics

You are a enws company that is starting to make analytics a more integral part of the newsroom. How do you get people on board?

potential roles: top editors, specialists, journalists

Scenario 6: The Upstart

You are a brand new venture-backed news start-up. But you are tiny. This is your strategy meeting for how to group. What’s your plan? Hint: think people, products, technology, audience

potential roles: potentially various experts from departments of the start-up, venture capitalist

Scenario 7: Storytelling

Youa re a newspaper. You have just pulled off a major investigative scoop [of your choosing]. How do you present the story to your readers/users? What’s the plan and tell us what it looks like.

Roles: different specialists in the newsroom (key journalists, eg. interactives, video, traditional reporter, social, etc.)

Scenario 8: Paywall or Ads

You are thinking about inputting a paywall on your news site. The alternative is more advertising. Lots more. What are the pros and cons? And if you go with the paywall, what kind?

potential roles: business experts, journalists, users

Do you have any scenarios? Would you try this?

Associate Prof at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Studies news, politics, technology, and power with a humanistic social science take.

Associate Prof at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Studies news, politics, technology, and power with a humanistic social science take.