The NewsFuel project is sprinting ahead in February, with significant product design and user research activities completed or well under way.

NewsFuel is an Accelerate Local project to enable easier matching of news organizations seeking funding for journalism projects with entities that provide that funding. It was one of 34 projects in North America funded by the Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge in late October.

Accelerate Local has identified philanthropy journalism as a major opportunity area for 2020 and is dedicating significant resources to help local media companies secure funding.

In the first two weeks of February, members of the Accelerate Local team traveled to Boston for vision and design sprints with project leads at Cantina, the design/development firm selected to build the first iteration of NewsFuel. These sprints consisted of:

General design thinking activities: Cantina specialists guided Accelerate Local team members (Jed Williams, chief strategy officer, Local Media Association; Peter Newton, managing director, Accelerate Local; and Jay Small, chief operating officer, LMA) through a progressive series of collaborative exercises to define and refine the NewsFuel value propositions for users.

Several rounds of visualization: For the initial sprint, the teams focused on “fund-seekers” — news organizations and journalists searching for funding for their projects and programs — and how they might engage with a platform such as NewsFuel once built. Participants sketched ideas for individual screens and workflows, building on favorite concepts with each new attempt.

Sticky notes from multiple rounds of design exercises became building blocks of a journey map for fund-seekers.

Journey map for fund seekers: From the interface sketches, the team formed a journey map for fund seekers to use NewsFuel, from initial awareness through satisfactory completion of tasks that might have brought them to the service. Then the team zeroed in on one component of the journey to test with prospective users: the search/research phase.

Wireframes: Cantina designers took the sketches and journey maps from that search/research phase and developed more refined, but still rough, wireframe designs and a narrative for possible paths through them.

Wireframe screen variations Cantina developed for guided tours with prospective NewsFuel users.

Guided trials with prospective users: The LMA/Accelerate Local team identified six advisors — four more closely aligned with the “fund-seeker” definition, the other two closer to the “funder” side of the platform. Cantina then conducted half-hour guided tours and tests of the wireframes to gauge the effectiveness of the user interface designs as well as the general value propositions of NewsFuel.

“We have lots of what we think are fresh and compelling ideas for what NewsFuel could be,” said Jed Williams, chief strategy officer, Local Media Association, and the executive overseeing Accelerate Local. “Design and vision sprints enable us to translate thoughts into concepts, and concepts into experiences that can be tested with agility to further inform our thinking … all while keeping the voice of the customer paramount, always.”

Apart from the guided interface tours, project teams also developed a series of potential-user interviews, intended to learn as much as possible about the needs and challenges of funders and fund-seekers. The teams plan to conduct interviews with 8-10 potential users of NewsFuel before the end of February to inform product design and development.

“The Cantina team helped us clarify what we need to learn from these potential users,” said Jay Small, chief operating officer, LMA. “Between these interviews and the guided tours of wireframes, we’re already seeing some significant points of agreement around NewsFuel features, and some aspects we will need to reconsider. Now’s the right time to know those, especially.”

The first release of the platform, expected in Spring 2020, will offer essential matching capabilities for both funders and fund-seekers, and ways for participants to be notified when new opportunities are added to the database. NewsFuel plans also include advisory services, more advanced application entry and administration capabilities, and expansion of the database to include journalism fellowships, training scholarships and more types of funding opportunities in support of local news.

NewsFuel was conceived and is operated as part of Accelerate Local, the business model accelerator of Local Media Association, with a mission to reinvent business models for news. LMA also plans to launch its own funding entity to support journalism, which will be included in NewsFuel, according to Nancy Lane, chief executive officer of LMA.