How Hearken works with audiences to set the news agenda

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Back in 2012, Jennifer Brandel had the best new idea in local news that anyone has had in a long time. Rather than report the same old stories, ask the audience: What have you always been curious about? Use democratic online tools to pick the best questions, then go out and answer them as best you can.

That was Curious City, a Localore project based at WBEZ in Chicago. It has since been imitated and replicated dozens of times over.

In January, Brandel started Curious Nation, a spin-off company designed to help franchise the Curious City model to other cities. Curious Nation became Hearken, and with the new name comes a new and broader mission: to help journalists do work that better reflects the information needs and desires of their audience.

Brandel appeared on our weekly podcast, The Pub, to talk about Hearken with host Adam Ragusea. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Brandel: I came into reporting kind of accidentally. I didn’t go to journalism school, I didn’t have a traditional upbringing in reporting, and when I was out in the world doing general assignment reporting for WBEZ, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there were people with better questions to ask those in power who I was in front of all the time. I wanted to figure out a way to be more of a conduit for the people who were on the other end of the audience, to ask questions of people in power because, ultimately, doing five different stories a day, I would not be able to have the context necessary to ask the best questions. So Curious City was one way of trying to achieve that.

Current: Describe the model that you eventually arrived at.

Brandel: The whole idea starts with bringing the audience into the editorial process from the very moment of story creation. So rather than reporters and editors deciding what stories to cover, the audience is actually the one determining that by way of their questions about the city, the region or its people. What we did was cultivate questions from our audience of what they hadn’t seen covered in the news. Then we curated those for the best questions that we thought would be of interest to the larger audience, put those up for a public vote on our website with embeddable tools, and then the audience ultimately took on the role of editor in which they determined which story they would do by way of voting. The person whose question ultimately won got to accompany a reporter on some aspect of the reporting process — which was really fun, getting to have a “user” in the field with you as you were creating and shaping a story. And [it] often led to really great insights in the reporting process as well as a really fun experience for the person who got to participate that directly in the news.

Current:: Could we listen to a particular story that is representative of the best work that you think Curious City has done?

Brandel: There are so many stories. I really feel like Curious City was one of these ways of driving a wedge into the thinking of what constitutes a news story. We have so many reasons why we unconsciously filter out stories, by saying, “Oh, what’s the time peg?”, “Oh, we don’t have someone to cover this” or “It’s not in our beat structure.” Curious City really thrives when it’s doing stories that wouldn’t actually get into the news cycle in any other way but through this process.

One of them was a story I actually did — I’m not trying to float my own work here — but someone asked whether or not Jane Addams, who was a progressive leader back in the day in Chicago, could be considered a lesbian, given the common use of that terminology. There was absolutely no reason we needed to do that story at that time, but it totally let off a firestorm of gender and definitions, who was Jane Addams and who was she to the city. And that was one of those stories that I don’t think would have easily made it in had it not been for this process.

Current: When did the idea occur to you that you could franchise the Curious City model to other communities, other stations?

Brandel: I came into Curious City through the Localore grant from AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio. One of the things that they were hoping to achieve with Localore was to create scalable models for things that would work elsewhere. That was one of the reasons why I decided to try and do a project that wasn’t necessarily tied to a particular theme, so it was kind of infinite in its variety, and I always thought this could be something that traveled elsewhere. But it was really not until other stations started contacting me and saying, “This is great! We love the sound and the feel and the audience engagement for this. Can you help us do this in my town?” As I tried doing that more and more during lunch breaks and after work — in addition to doing my regular job — it just became clear that there was a demand for this, but I didn’t have the time to meet it.

So one idea was actually trying to build a company that had some of these tools scalable, so some of the technology and some of the best practices [would be] available to anyone who wanted to use it so that people could get up and running with their own version of this project or something quasi-inspired by it pretty quickly.

Current: And this is where Curious Nation came to be. Just the very idea that a private company could be spun off from a public media organization is itself pretty interesting. Can you explain exactly how that worked?

Brandel: Well, long story short, while I could have tried to do it within the confines of WBEZ, it wasn’t clear that they would have the resources necessary to actually grow a team big enough to try and do this for public media. The other thing is that ownership is a big deal. I know we’ve all seen great projects that maybe weren’t given enough time — or just didn’t frankly have the resources because of a million other reasons — to succeed. One of the things I wanted to make sure is that at the end of the day I was the one who decided if this idea lived or died by my own hands. Part of that really necessitates having ownership over what you’re doing.

Current:: That said, WBEZ, and by extension its supporters, had made an investment in the flowering of this idea at their organization. Were they comfortable with just letting you go, letting you take it elsewhere?

Brandel: Yeah, they have always been supportive from day one of this idea being able to live elsewhere. That was actually baked in to the Localore contract, this concept that the independent producer — which I was at the time — was able to export that idea to other places if they wanted, potentially with rebranding. And we also went through three leadership transitions at WBEZ while I was there so people were on various pages as to what extent they felt this was a project to keep in-house or allow it to be outside and inside at the same time.

Current: Okay, so now you have this company. It’s incorporated as a nonprofit, right?

Brandel: No, it’s not. We actually have two complicated tax structures. I won’t get into the details, but we are an LLC and a Delaware C corp.

Current: And you’re getting funding from various foundation sources. One of them, I should just say by way of disclosure, is the Wyncote Foundation, which also supports Current. But where else does your money come from?

Brandel: The main kind of money that allowed me to launch Hearken was from the Association of Independents in Radio. They had another grant after Localore called The New Enterprise Fund for StoryMakers — which I was very lucky to get funding from — which was partially funded by Wyncote and the Ford Foundation. I also have investment from Matter, a for-profit media incubator that was started by PRX and the Knight Foundation and KQED, among others, and they also invested in the company.

Current:: Okay, so you just said Hearken. This is the new name of Curious Nation?

Brandel: Yes, Hearken is the new name for Curious Nation. We wanted to find a bigger container for these ideas of bringing the audience into the storytelling process before publication, and Curious Nation was frankly becoming confusing because people were like, “Oh, are you setting up satellite Curious Cities in other cities?” And it’s like, well, not exactly. It’s up to news organizations as to what they want to use with our tools. So ultimately we decided the best thing to do was to find a new name and a new banner to fly for the sorts of work that we’re doing. We came across the word “hearken” through a deep dig in a thesaurus to find words that really kind of summed up what we’re trying to do, and “hearken” means “to listen attentively.” Ultimately our tools are supposed to help media organizations listen attentively to their audiences.

Current: I thought it sounded like the name of  a Norse Viking warrior, like Harken Harkensen or something.

Brandel: It does kind of beg an exclamation point, which I don’t mind.

Current: What ultimately does the company do? It seems to me it wouldn’t necessarily need help in order to replicate the Curious City model.

Brandel: We’re kind of a multi-tiered company. We’re a framework overall, and that framework is supported by a community of best practices and ways of involving your audience as well as this platform. We came across the platform as a solution because as we were working at WBEZ and with other stations, we found once we got around a hundred or so questions from the audience using generic, free third-party tools like Google Forms or Polldaddy, we ran into scaling problems pretty quickly. It became onerous to try and wrangle all the data from different formats into one space for everyone in the newsroom to be able to see and collaborate with and make notes on and put into voting rounds.

Ultimately, if you’re going to do a series like this over the long term, the generic tools we found very lacking. Which is why we created a set of tools specifically for this sort of engagement that are embeddable and responsive and that would work on any sort of site. That’s one of the things in our toolkit that we offer people who have a subscription to the Hearken platform.

Current: And what are the other things?

Brandel: The other things are, once you’re a member of this community you are in the community of best practices where you can share ideas with other people who are using this platform, even surfacing great story ideas that have come from the public in another city and then localizing it. One of the very interesting things that I didn’t anticipate when starting Curious City, and then seeing these other spinoffs from it, was that these stories outperformed average stories many times over. Here at KQED in San Francisco, for instance, they just started Bay Curious, and they’re finding these stories that they’re doing with Bay Curious outperform the average KQED story by somewhere [near] a factor of 10 to 20 every time. And I’ve seen that in other newsrooms as well.

The metrics that matter to newsrooms these days are all kicking ass with this model — uniques, time on page, pageviews, shares, all that kind of stuff. These stories are inherently shareable because they capture something about a place that isn’t captured through the normal kind of filters that happen in the newsroom. We’re finding that there is a case to be made for our model and platform beyond just creating interesting stories, but actually creating higher-performing stories as well as generating new leads, especially for public media.

And I will tell you, WBEZ recently analyzed the thousands of emails that came in through the Curious City technology and platform and found that 56 percent of them were new leads — people that weren’t in their membership funnel or weren’t in their databases but for Curious City.

Current: I like that. So do stations or news organizations pay you for your services?

Brandel: That’s the idea, right? We’re a very new company, but we’re working with a variety of organizations. We have signed contracts, so hopefully when those come due we will be paid. But the idea is that we’re selling an annual subscription to the platform, and we’re hoping to work with organizations outside of public media and be able to subsidize some of working with public media. Because we know the business structure and we know the challenges that are faced by small nonprofits, we want to make it reasonable for anyone to do this model.

Current: In my day job, I work at the Center for Collaborative Journalism in Georgia that’s funded by the Knight Foundation to basically do the kind of community engagement journalism that you do so well, and we’ve had our own successes and miserable failures with it. Several big hitches come up when you go ask your audience for guidance about what you should cover. I just want to run these by you, and you can tell me and everybody else how we can avoid these pitfalls.

One is that when you ask the audience “What should we cover?”, the only people who respond are people who have an axe to grind. People who have this one agenda item that is generally tied to their own personal interests that they’ve been going to the city council meeting and harping about for years, and they want to get you to be the instrument of their rage. How do you avoid that?

Brandel: Well, that’s where I think the magic of curiosity comes in. I see curiosity a being a neutral lens by which to view the world. Being curious and actually asking a question about something I believe is kind of a different neurological situation happening, where people are actually open to hearing the answer to a question and maybe being surprised, maybe having their mind changed. Rather than the declarative “What should we do?”, someone would come back and say, “Well, you should do a story about this.” But if you say, “What have you always wondered about X, Y or Z?”, then they come back from a different frame of mind and a different position. It’s not to say that we’ve never had someone ask a question that it seems like there’s a vested interest in there, but we always work to ask them, “What prompted you to ask this question? Do you have something at stake here?” And oftentimes that becomes a very interesting part of the story.

For instance, we had a woman ask whether Illinois’ new governor could undo the same-sex marriage law that was passed, because we had a governor’s race right after this legislation and she was trying to get married to her partner; that was something that became part of the story, and she wanted to know that for personal reasons. But we didn’t see that as being a conflict of interest enough to not do the story, and I think [it] actually enhanced it as well.

Current: I suppose the process of asking other members of the audience to vote on which question gets answered would also help to weed out the really self-interested questions.

Brandel: Yeah, and part of this process is really kind of a back-and-forth between the audience and the newsroom. It’s not just like Reddit and upvoting, where you put all the questions in a bucket, and you let people vote, and whatever comes up first you have to do. There is this curatorial element of it where the people who have news judgment and have the ability to see whether something looks fishy or not are able to curate the best of questions and put them in a voting round. It’s not a free-for-all; there are checks and balances within the process we’ve developed.

Current: Another big pitfall that I’ve personally experienced in the realm of what we’ll call community- or audience-driven reporting is that when you ask the community, “What should I do? What should I cover?”, a lot of them will say things like, “Find out which members of the school board benefited financially from that crooked contract.” Or they want you to do some other kind of really awesome investigative project that you do not have the capacity to do. They don’t understand that, “Hey, I’m running a public radio station here. I have 12 newscasts to fill every day. I would love to take six months off and investigate that crooked contract, but I just can’t. That’s just not within my ability, and I’m too embarrassed to tell you that.” [Laughter]

Brandel: That’s a great point, and we actually work with audiences. And when I say “we,” I should say the folks at Curious City. I’m no longer on the editorial side of things. I’m a c.e.o. of a tech company, of all things.

But I would say when I was at Curious City, we would work with individuals. If they had a great question that we thought was giant in scope, we would talk to them on the phone and just be like, “Look, what you’re asking is a college thesis, but we think there’s something interesting here. We have this idea for going about it. What do you think about that? Would that be satisfying to you, to find the answer, or to just talk rhetorically about what an answer could be to something in this way?” And oftentimes people were thrilled. They were like, “Yeah, I understand you don’t have those resources, but let’s just bring this up regardless and have a conversation about it.” We were actually very transparent. And it can be embarrassing to say we don’t have the resources, but it can also be empowering to say we don’t have the resources.

Current: Right, yeah. Well, you can only go so wrong by being honest.

Brandel: Exactly.

Current: Another pitfall that I’ve run into is that when you ask the audience what should I cover, sometimes they’ll say — and this is an argument that I am personally very sympathetic to — “Why are you asking us? You’re the reporter. It’s your job to know what needs to be known. Go out there and find out who’s running the world and who is enriching themselves off the backs of the poor and the exploited and enriching themselves off of the destruction of the earth. You find that out, that’s your job. I have my own job. I pay you to do this.”

Brandel: That’s a great question. I think there’s so many flavors of journalism. Of course there’s the accountability flavor of what you’re talking about right there, that reporters are the Fourth Estate, we’re here to make sure that everyone’s behaving well. That’s just one of the many things you hear on public media or anywhere. If every day all you had were investigative breaking news stories like this, our newsrooms would have to be 18,000 times their sizes.

Because we all know it takes a lot of work to get those sorts of stories, we approach this idea of bringing the public into the process as being additional brains at the editorial table. With newsrooms shrinking, more or less — except for the few that are expanding — you don’t have as many brains around the editorial table to think differently, to ask different sorts of questions, to look at the world in a new way. So this is one way of keeping a fresh stream of story ideas coming into the newsroom. We don’t purport this should be 100 percent the way you do all of your news, but we think this is a great tool to bring into your storytelling process and just into your assignment process as well.

Current: Lastly, I think that public media is at an interesting point in its development right now, where it’s having to have tough conversations with itself about its identity, its mission, its nonprofit or public identity, and what that really means. How do you see audience-driven journalism like you’re doing fitting into that development?

Brandel: Public media talks a lot about serving the public and what it means to serve the public good — and there’s a lot of rich territory to be explored [in terms of], what does that service look like? Is it directly to one individual member of the audience who can serve as a surrogate for everyone else? Is it us coming up with our own ideas and saying, “We think we’re serving the public interest because we think we know what they want,” or “This is trending,” or “This other thing is happening in the world”?

But I do believe there’s a lot of innovation yet to be explored in the very process of reporting, because we have been doing things pretty much the same way for decades, [in which] this set of group of people gets to think about and decide what everyone else gets to know. The more we question that setup and that scenario, and create more inroads into it, the more rich and varied stories we’re going to be doing that are differentiated from what everyone else is talking about. I personally am more interested in a news ecosystem with that variety of stories than I am [in] hearing everyone do the same thing over and over again.

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