Learning to ask, again

If I´m serious about doing public-powered news, I´ll need to learn how to make questions for other kind of sources: the ones among the people formerly known as the audience

After two years, it´s clear that Hearken is riding one of the biggest waves in the evolution of journalism. Introduced by Jennifer Brandel and Corey Haines as a tool for better engagement between a news organization and its consumers, Hearken -which means “listen”- allows the public to have a say in the reporting process.

Based on an embeddable “curiosity module” that can be placed in almost any website (and hopefully Facebook and Twitter at some point), the first product of Hearken allows journalists and editors to ask the audience for questions. Those questions may direct the journalist towards specific subjects or angles pointed by the people that consume his job, and it also works as a big hose of ideas that come from a frequently untapped resource. But it´s not just that: among other things, Hearken helps the newsroom to respond to that enquiry while developing a relationship with the readers that took part in the process.

At some point in the history of press, “the newsroom phone” was where people regularly called either to comment about an issue, to complain or to suggest angles or new stories. This was actually a way of measuring how well a story did, before the age of metrics.

But I still have the image of that desk phone in the first newsroom that I worked for, ringing lots of times during the day with no one answering it. To me, this is a perfect example of what Andrew Losowsky describes as a big flaw of our industry: “We´ve mostly failed to give our audiences any real avenues to engage with us on an ongoing basis, beyond letters to the editor and an occasional Google form. Even when people do reach out, we keep no record of it, and a few days later we´ve mostly forgotten who they are”.

Hearken came to take advantage again of this opportunity, harnessing the power of today´s technology. And by doing this, it projects us to a fundamental concept that Amy O'Leary from Upworthy, notes: “While (journalists´s) mission remains essential and unchanged, 2017 will be the year when the best practitioners of the craft will wake to see that this mission has a new mandate: Journalists will finally dig in to understand how their stories travel in our information ecosystem, and will respond with new strategies to not only cover diverse groups and ideologies, but to reach them as well”. In this scenario, Hearken is just a tool, one of many that we will be able to use to apply a new mindset when doing journalism.

As I tried Hearken a couple of years ago in my newsroom, I grew frustrated with the reaction of lots of my colleagues, inside and outside the company, who seemed to point these kind of initiatives as opposed to “true journalism”. It is somewhat draining to confirm that some of your folks remain in that bubble made of a concept based in, as social journalist Simon Galperin brilliantly describes it, “a false sense of objectivity and a blissful ignorance in the belief that they have righteously inherited the duties and burden of the fourth estate of old”.

Encouraging fact: the Hearken experience in my newsroom was great: we received more than 600 questions in two months about different subjects, and many questions that we answered became important politics stories and also went among the most popular stories of their day of publication, in terms of pageviews and average time spent by the reader in those stories.

As we start using this tool in our CUNY #SocialJ program, my big goal is to build up from that experience by keep trying to learn again a basic ability: to ask. Because I was also one of those guys that didn´t picked up that newsroom phone. It seems like a good time to admit that asking questions to the people formerly known as the audience is not the same thing as engaging to a traditional source, and that this is something that we still don´t know how to do in a right way. In order to receive good questions and ideas to develop in the newsroom, journalists and engagement editors need to do things such as asking them to focus con concrete issues or subjects or narrowing the possibilities of formulating questions about some topics, just to mention three aspects of these kinds of interactions. We will have to work with the reader in order to get him to ask us some questions. At the end of the day, it´s all about learning how to get people involved in our process by having a voice and, at the same time, by letting them see how we work.

As I start learning how to get in touch with the community that I´ll be working with this year -people affected by the lack of access to energy at their homes- I don´t see why we as an industry shouldn´t go further with this approach. I can imagine a big newsroom trying to get into this approach if they really want to pop that aforementioned bubble, but I´m also thinking about a small newsroom with journalists from different backgrounds, 100% at the service of the audience, reporting only on what people tells them to report through tools like Hearken and many others (like those old phones, by the way).

If we know how to listen and what it is to listen nowadays, we may have a way of reestablish the power of journalism to provide truth and sense-making. That may also be one of the few remaining ways to make the readers stand up for what we do again. Because even if we do things the right way, what power can the press have if it´s not supported by the power of the people?