About a week ago, I was in a meeting with some colleagues, preparing our coverage of an upcoming news event. We were jotting down ideas in long lists; it was quite literally linear thinking. But linear thinking isn’t always the most helpful way of looking at a problem, because it restricts the way that you associate ideas together and limits you to one point of view.

The next day, I read a story on Mashable about an online mind-mapping service called MindMeister. I considered that mind mapping might just be the tool we needed to encourage non-linear thinking in the newsroom.

As Wikipedia explains, a mind map is a diagram used to represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items linked to and arranged around a central key word or idea. Mind maps are used to generate, visualize, structure, and classify ideas, and as an aid in study, organization, problem-solving, decision-making, and writing.

Here are five possible applications for mind mapping tools in the newsroom. After a brief introduction to each, I’ll talk about some useful online resources for learning more about mind mapping.

1) Mind mapping story ideas.

Mind mapping could prove more useful in coming up with new ideas than simply writing down lists. Mapping out story ideas helps me to think in a non-linear way, more like in a brainstorming session where one would work with post-its on a whiteboard and connect ideas in a more creative way.

This is especially interesting when collaborating with colleagues. Just put up a beamer and work together on the map. Most tools allow for easy online sharing and collaboration.

At the end of your brainstorming session, you have an online document which everyone can easily share and save for later reference. You can either share it in a read-only form or encourage people to adapt the map, like a visual wiki.

2) Taking notes.

Mind mapping could still prove useful even when you’re not brainstorming with colleagues but rather working on your own. If you’re in a meeting where there is no collective mind map, you could map down notes instead of keeping a linear write-up.

You could just write down key words and trace connections between ideas. One very important detail to note is that mind-map software allows for icons and images, either from a library or from the web.

Visualizing the content of a meeting can be very effective for coming up with new and innovative ideas. Because it stimulates a more associative way of thinking, a mind map could very well inspire you more than a traditional write-up.

3) Make change visual.

Many of us are involved in change processes. How can our newsrooms better cope with multimedia coverage? How can they integrate the online and the print operations? These are complex processes. Mind mapping allows you to go into greater detail describing what exactly is at stake and what could be changed.

Mind-mapping tools allow for adding links to relevant resources on the web, for adding notes and call-outs. Even graphically challenged journalists can make nice-looking presentations.

Below you can see one of my early experiments, a mind map about newsroom production flows which you can actually adapt. The map is inspired by Paul Bradshaw’s series about the newsroom of the 21st century.

You can move the map around to see more, and you can expand it by adding additional nodes.

4) Publishing your creations.

Once you realize how easy it is to map out complex situations, why not use this new skill to illustrate stories on your sites and newspapers?

Today’s mind-mapping tools let you export documents as images or Flash documents, for instance. Use them to be creative in showing the relationships between ideas, situations and/or persons. You really don’t need to be a graphical artist!

5) Community collaboration

What interests me in particular is how this could be used as a wiki for your newspaper or site community. It is possible to share mind-map documents.

I still have to find out about the scalability of the different tools out there. I experimented with one tool and found out that the thing crashed as soon as about five people collaborated in real time on the map.

Anyway, if we want to find radical new solutions for our media businesses and practices, we’d better find very new ways of thinking. Mind mapping could very well help us in this.

Resources

There is a bewildering variety of tools at your disposal. If you’re unfamiliar with mind mapping, it might be a good idea to try out MindMeister, which is a freemium tool (meaning it has free as well as premium versions that cost money).

You definitely should also take a look at FreeMind, an open source solution.

At the other end of the scale, you’ll want to check out Mindjet’s MindManager, which definitely is not free but which boasts 15 years of development, a professional community and lots of templates (Watch Robert Scoble’s video on MindManager).

For a comparison of various web-based mind-mapping tools I really do recommend reading the overview on Robin Good’s site.

Twitter has a lively group of mind mappers where you can learn and ask. Just look for #mindmapping.

The Online Journalism Blog reported on the Independent’s experiments with Debategraph, “a mind-mapping tool that allows you to visualize various perspectives on big issues, and add new ones.”

Finally, Howard Rheingold’s excellent social media CoLab gives a nice introduction to mind mapping.

If you have resources or experiences to share about mind mapping, please let us know in the comments below.

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L’Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.