How listening can repair us
We, like you, are in pain. We’re asking the same questions you are: What is to be done? What am I, personally, to do?
No more ink needs to be spilled on what we already know and experience. We will not recount the grave, incalculable damage wrought by the attention economy on our spirits, mental health, relationships, families, faith, communities, environment, civil fabric, and democracy. No time remains to wonder might have been were it not for the Russians, the targeted ads, and the teenager in his Harvard dorm room who, today, is also a man in pain.
For the last five years we, as former radio reporters and unlikely startup CEOs, have investigated flipping this narrative: what if we designed products and practices where attention was given to us, rather than harvested from us? Where our lives were enriched and nourished, not consumed? What would society gain from ennobling each of us to be heard, helped, and healed and to offer those gifts in return? Could we, through will, vision, design, and collaboration, transform this machine from a weapon to a balm, from a vortex of depletion, addiction, and despair into conduits amplifying curiosity, care, and compassion? What if instead of feeding the feed, the feed fed us?
Are you tempted to stop reading? Perhaps that’s because this question feels too big and too impossible to entertain. Pay attention to that impulse. It’s the one that got us here. We’ve turned our backs, made excuses, ignored the truth, moved on to the next shiny thing, buckled under the anxiety of our to-do lists, and postponed necessary action. We can’t move forward without acknowledging the consequences of our actions. Without atoning for and standing in awe of what happens when we lose our way and when we recognize we are lost. The going is hard and it’s about to get harder.
After coming to terms with the grief of what could have been, the first question you might have, as we did, is, “Ok. Fine. So where would you even begin this process? The systems in play are so big. We are so disempowered. The challenge seems insurmountable.”
Finding the Light
There are two imperfect, flickering beacons of democracy that can light our way: journalism and higher education. These institutions exist to serve the public, to foster better people and stronger communities. They create and share knowledge that shapes our narratives, realities, and lives. Campuses and newsrooms are distributed, decentralized, independent hubs with vast capacity for resilience. Their cultures are woven into the fabric of society. Combined, they offer a powerful opportunity to reach both young people (our best hope for the future) and every corner of local communities. This undeniable strength — to disseminate and distribute power — is exactly why they’re both under attack. Bastions of truth, knowledge, information, and wisdom are targeted in these times because they represent a public-powered firewall, and our only hope.
Higher education and journalism are flawed gems in the crown of our democracy, and the top two industries with the sharpest recent decrease in public trust. And understandably so.
To review the state of each industry:
An increasing number of first-generation and low-income students look to higher education to provide economic mobility. Millions of students arrive on campus eager for skills, knowledge, transformative relationships, wisdom, and the confidence and power to change their country and our lives. Today, the majority of students, 74 percent, identify as non-traditional, meaning they face challenges like working, caring for a child or elderly parent, or are the first in their family to go to college. Only 14 percent of students from low-income families who start college graduate with a bachelor’s degree. A recent study shows 36 percent of students surveyed suffer from food and housing security. Our economy must confront the $1.5T student loan crisis, rising default rates, and chronic underemployment for graduates. Student services professionals tell us they feel less like faculty or counselors and more like social workers. The crisis for our future and economy has arrived.
Journalism’s highest good gives every one of us the information we need to make the best possible decisions about our lives, communities, societies, and governments. Yet this industry, this fourth estate, that was devised to safeguard democracy, is under attack from every angle, including from our highest elected office. Layoffs, buy-outs, and consolidation of news outlets is happening at an unprecedented pace. From 2008 to 2017, newsroom employment in the U.S. dropped by 23 percent, a loss of about 27,000 jobs. The percentage of U.S. adults who have a lot of trust in the news from national news organizations is at a dire 21 percent. Journalism now must figure out how to stay alive in order to hold the powerful accountable and show how power flows, what levers citizens have to interrupt it and empower themselves. The job is no longer just to report on what happened, but to create new possibilities in the democratic imagination about what could be.
These industries spend trillions of dollars to fulfill the mandate to help us make better decisions, realize our potential and improve society. Most of us would agree we have a ways to go.
These institutions, now called on to meet 21st century needs, are not equipped to do so. The tragedy we see is if they again assumed relevance, this power could be the antidote the dominant and destructive pattern of our times: to take from the public rather than give to it.
So what does it look like for these institutions to realize this potential? What if newsrooms listened to the public and gave them the information they directly asked for, instead of amplifying what’s trending, press conferences, or the ideas of the powerful few who decide what’s important enough to report on? What if colleges and universities listened to students and alumni and offered them the services they needed to survive, thrive and succeed, instead of increasing tuition to build that new innovation center or catering to the needs of wealthy alumni donors? We have discovered how to make this change, and the sizable, but surmountable, barriers to preventing it.
The Formula for Change
What we are about to say sounds almost laughably simple: institutions don’t know how to listen. These institutions lack the processes, practices, and products to help them ask the people they serve what they need, listen to those needs, and then deliver what they asked for. We know what you’re thinking. “Wait, what? Isn’t that why they exist? To serve the public good”
Let’s break down these verbs into their component parts:
-Know: In our work with more than 200 newsrooms, colleges, universities, from presidents to entry level professionals, we’ve been told that their teams do not know how to ask. There is no Office for Community Success or Chief Listening Officer. There is no “customer service” process. Instead, journalists are assigned to report on the latest press release. Colleges host pizza parties and career fairs that working students, the ones who most need support, don’t have time to attend. Each industry may adopt tech product that doesn’t identify or meet growing community needs. This focus on events, tools and superficial engagement distracts from the fundamental flawed assumption: there is no evidence these people want these solutions in the first place.
-Ask: The first step of fixing this process is to create a space and an invitation for the community to ask for what they need first. It would be led by a team leveraging the power of technology and trained community engagement. We are heartened by the increase of jobs like these, but we often find this lone actor is not enough to make meaningful change.
-Listen: The risk of asking is we will inevitably learn that what people want and need is different from what the institution thinks the community wants and needs. Listening is scary and disruptive. For example, news sites tend to be organized by the same topics and disciplines, like politics, education, science, etc. But when you reverse engineer the taxonomy and respond to what the public has actually asked for, we’ve seen the topics that emerge are so much richer, like urban planning, governance, gun violence, how we live and yes, history. Similarly, while colleges focus on reunions and networking events, we see that first-generation students need support navigating professional life and meeting basic needs, young alumni may need connections while traveling abroad, and older alumni need help with career transitions or caring for elderly parents. Listening strengthens both the institution and its community because it now has direct and specific information to respond to.
-Deliver: After listening, it’s time to deliver what is asked for. For newsrooms, that means answering questions like, “Why are water fountains always running in the public parks?” which lead to breaking news reporting they are so contaminated with lead they can’t be turned off. Or another citizen question:, “What happened to the Abenaki American Indian communities in Vermont?” This reporting won a national award for excellence and brought a divided community deeper understanding, and closer together. For colleges and universities, it means recognizing they are now in the business of providing resources to address basic, real needs for a changing population like food insecurity, childcare, micro-grants so veterans can afford housing, and access to social capital for those inexperienced with navigating mentorship and the professional world.
Phew. Listening to and serving the needs of the community is exhilarating and exhausting work. In fact, it sounds a lot like rebuilding the rapidly disintegrating social safety net.
Here’s what we’ve learned: what we propose can be done. It’s a win-win. When you serve people’s needs, when you pay attention to them, they will pay attention to you. Every day, from tiny community newsrooms and struggling public campuses to elite, marquee brands, we work with hundreds of institutions courageous enough to pay attention to their communities. As a result, they report increased membership, student retention, paid subscriptions, sponsorships, volunteerism, engagement, and donations. And they win prestigious awards for doing this work, to boot. They recognize their survival and sustainability depends on building resilience, on their ability and eagerness to evolve and adapt, to discard what’s not working and align their business model with value creation. But the most important thing is: people actually get their needs met by the institutions that are supposed to meet them.
What we are describing is nothing short of a massive culture shift and one that has the potential to transform ourselves and our country.
The Resistance to Change
So what obstructs our journey to this promised land? Fear and a lack of education. When we commit to listening, we have to be ready to hear difficult and honest truths. The truth might redirect from the path currently taken. When commit to serving, we have to be ready to learn and grow so we can deliver on that promise. This is scary, overwhelming, painful, emergent, messy, interdepartmental, disruptive work, and requires visionary leaders and motivated, passionate teams.
Today, and every day for most of our our lives, we and our dedicated colleagues wake up committed to do this work against impossible, indescribable odds. We invest in training the talent and building the technology to transform these institutions. We’ve been called to concurrently change the system and build the tools to then scale and institutionalize that change.
We’ve been told, from our own industries, that it can’t be done. They say there’s nothing left to save and that the bureaucracy and dysfunction are insurmountable. They tell us to give up, disrupt the industry, and start our own newsroom or MOOC. The tech industry tells us to focus on quick, high-growth product solutions that ignore customer success, training, and authentic partnerships with these institutions to help them evolve their business model and adopt culture change.
We disagree. We cannot afford to give up on these systems. Now is the time to attune and to pay attention.
In the coming weeks we’ll be releasing a series of blog posts. First, we’ll each share our personal story, the honest and challenging journey of our companies, and the lessons we’ve learned. You’ll also hear from members of our teams who have worked inside these industries and are now making change from the outside. Next, we’ll share data from an eye-opening research study we conducted within both of these industries that illuminates what’s broken, how to fix it, and how you, as consumers, can play an instrumental role in driving change. Finally, we’ll share the our vision for the future and the next step in our journey.
Are you ready to join us? Here’s how:
- Join us. Fill out our survey, share your experience, the change you wish to see, and resources that will help.
- Fund this work. If you are an individual, foundation, or institution interested in repairing and re-imagining the spaces of media, journalism, education, civic engagement, democracy, institutional accountability, trust, faith and ethics: reach out to Sarah Yusavitz, Director of Advancement, at email@example.com.
- Meet us in person. Learn about our respective companies and this shared theory of change during our national tour in October. We’ll host evening (5:30–7 PM) public events and conversations in the following cities this fall. Save the date:
Monday, October 1: New York City
Thursday, October 4: Philadelphia
Monday, October 15: Chicago
Monday, October 22: Palo Alto
Tuesday, October 23: San Francisco
Monday, October 29: Portland, Oregon
Tuesday, October 30: Seattle
Tuesday, November 20: Albuquerque
(We are looking for hosts and sponsors in some of these cities. Want to help? Reach out to Sarah! firstname.lastname@example.org)
We are grateful to the following people who contributed to our formulation and ideas: Jennifer Armbrust, Ella Baker, Wendell Berry, Grace Lee Boggs, adrienne maree brown, Bridget Burns, Octavia Butler, Ella Baker, Joseph Campbell, Robert Greenleaf, Lewis Hyde, C.G. Jung, Donnella Meadows, Sara Goldrick-Rab, Howard Rheingold, Kate Raworth, Carol Sanford, Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufe, Margaret Wheatley, Ari Weinzweig, Marie-Louise Von Franz. You can find a syllabus on Community & Care.
This maybe the first time you’ve heard of us. Hello there! Here’s some more information about us.
Jennifer Brandel is the CEO and Co-founder of Hearken. She began her career in journalism reporting for outlets including NPR, CBC, WBEZ, The New York Times and Vice, picking up awards along the way. In 2012, Brandel founded the groundbreaking audience-first series, WBEZ’s Curious City, and is spreading this public-powered journalism model around the world via Hearken. Her company participated in the Matter VC accelerator in San Francisco, took home the prize for “Best Bootstrap Company” at SXSW and won the News Media Alliance Accelerator. Brandel is a recipient of the Media Changemaker Prize by the Center for Collaborative Journalism and a Sulzberger Fellow at Columbia University. Her theory of change has been supported by the Knight, McCormick, Wyncote, Geraldine R. Dodge, Rita Allen and Lenfest Foundations, the News Integrity Initiative, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Democracy Fund. She was a finalist for the first class of Obama Foundation Fellows and she graduated with honors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in Art History and a certificate in Integrated Liberal Studies.
Mara Zepeda is the CEO and Co-Founder of Switchboard. She began her career at Harvard University and with Philadelphia’s five area medical schools. She discovered higher education’s struggle to provide economic mobility, especially to underserved students through her award-winning economic reporting for outlets like Marketplace and Planet Money. In response, she started Switchboard, which provides software and services to help institutions better listen and respond to student needs. Described as a systems-change entrepreneur, Mara is the founding board chair of XXcelerate (a fund and educational program for Oregon women entrepreneurs) and Business for a Better Portland (the city’s fastest growing chamber of commerce with 250+ members). She has been recognized in Portland Business Journal’s “40 Under 40” and “Women of Influence” lists and Business Insider named Switchboard one of the 20 hottest startups founded by women. She graduated with honors from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and Reed College with a degree in Russian.
Together, along with Astrid Scholz of Sphaera and Aniyia Williams of Black & Brown Founders, Brandel and Zepeda co-founded the Zebras Unite movement which is building an ethical and inclusive startup culture to support overlooked and underestimated founders. Zebras Unite, now a program of the Institute of the Future, and has over 20 global chapters, a thriving online community, and a working group of investors dedicated to creating alternative capital. Leading funders like the Knight, Rockefeller, MacArthur, and Libra foundations; forward-thinking companies like Buffer; and visionary investors like Bryce Roberts of Indie.VC support the effort).
This groundbreaking systems-change work has been featured been featured in Forbes, The Drum, Business, Marketplace, the BBC and in New York Times’ bestselling author Dan Lyons’ book, Lab Rats. Conscious Company Magazine recognized them as 30 World Changing Women in Conscious Business.