Forget Product; Start with Process
Re-imagining newsrooms’ relationships with the public is a critical innovation in our digital world
Jennifer Brandel, Hearken
Newsrooms have been optimized for speed, efficiency, and distribution since their very inception. Their mental models, workflows, habits, incentive structures, and machinery all reinforce the primacy of distribution. For decades, no one questioned the closed process by which newsrooms make decisions on behalf of the public. It was simply a given that the job of newsrooms was to decide what the news is. But the digital era and the resulting collapse of economic models have called into question the very nature of how news can be more directly valuable to the public and collect enough value from the public to survive.
Since 2011, I have focused my energies on questioning the decisions and processes that occur prior to publication and distribution. I’ve been interrogating: Who gets to decide what’s worthy of reporting on and why? Who is in the room when those decisions get made and why? What potential is there for intervention and change? Within these explorations I see critical opportunities for innovation and sustainability in journalism — and in redesigning the very process of how news is created.
Determining what news to report has been the same for generations: a small group of people who largely come from similar classes, backgrounds, education, and life experience sit in a closed room and decide amongst themselves what’s important enough for others to know. Like all other institutions, the news industry has largely operated in this top-down manner since inception.
Until the digital era, there just weren’t efficient ways to elicit a wide or deep swath of public opinion on a regular basis, much less make it a part of editorial decision-making and routine. Today, thanks to technological advancement, there are now myriad ways for newsrooms to gather their communities’ information needs. But making this practice of getting feedback early and often has yet to become routine for most news outlets. The inertia of “the way things have always been done” is a terribly difficult thing to crack open and reverse.
Including the public in editorial decisions remains a foreign concept to many newsrooms, and even an absurd proposition to others. Newsroom staff can feel a range of emotions when confronted with the concept: are their roles being made obsolete? By answering to the public, are they pandering? Is this just inviting the kind of toxicity in many online comments sections? How can the public even know what they want?
This fear-based mentality is keeping newsroom from evolving with the times. As layoffs continue to decimate newsrooms, leaving even fewer people to create quality content, the need to replace this autocratic way of governing information is even more urgent. I believe that in order to be relevant, trusted, and to receive direct support from the public (as opposed to ad support), newsrooms must become as good at listening to the publics they serve as they have been at distributing content. To do so, newsrooms need to re-envision their relationships and roles in their communities — be they geographically-based or united by common interests. And then, they must create workflows, habits, incentives, and machinery to support it. This will require an examination of foundational questions:
● What role could and should the public play in making decisions about what information journalists provide for them?
● What is the role of news outlets in serving information needs when now everyone has the tools of content creation in their pockets?
● How can journalists show their practices are trustworthy and worthy of support?
With all the battles reporters and newsroom staff have weathered and still face, not everyone in a newsroom will have the energy or drive to embrace this level of reflection and envision a path forward. And those who do aren’t often in positions of power to make those changes.
Since 2012, my company Hearken has partnered with more than 150 newsrooms around the world to help them build capacity to listen to, include, and respond to the public during the process of reporting. For those who integrate this practice into their workflows, the rewards have been great: top-performing, award-winning stories, increased subscriptions to newsletters and paid products, reporters feeling more connected to the public, and the public finding new trust and appreciation for their newsrooms.
Involving the public in the process of determining which stories get reported means the people the newsroom is intending to serve get their information needs more directly met. A parent wondering how school lottery systems work can now clearly understand her choices. City residents curious about why park water fountains are constantly running can help uncover a pervasive lead crisis. A community needing to understand if their houses are in danger due to wildfires can have a reporter dispatched to find and verify that information. These are the kinds of stories that can result when the public is invited to state their information needs through Hearken’s process of public-powered journalism.
But Hearken doesn’t always work. And when it doesn’t, we find the same pattern inside newsrooms: not enough buy-in to prioritize or support consistent listening. There may be a few evangelists who believe, but they are far outnumbered by others who feel the public should not be included in setting the newsroom agenda, or who are required by economic or other incentives to prioritize the status quo.
We’ve learned that getting habits to shift can be a painful and slow process, but my hope remains that newsrooms will seize a power they’ve had all along: the power to think a little differently. There’s good news for a cash-strapped industry: this particular power is free.
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 and took home the prize for “Best Bootstrap Company” at SXSW in 2016 and won the News Media Alliance 2017 Accelerator. Brandel is a recipient of the Media Changemaker Prize by the Center for Collaborative Journalism, was named one of 30 World-Changing Women 2018 in Conscious Business, and is a 2018 Sulzberger Fellow.