“To do deep community engagement, you can’t just buy a tool.”

The latest Agora Journalism Center Report illuminates what it takes for newsrooms to be “engagement ready.”

In workshops and gatherings over the past two years, we at the Agora Journalism Center have been listening to journalists, community advocates, and other public engagement practitioners talk about the inspiration but also the challenges they encounter doing engagement work. As the collection of practices known as “engaged journalism” continues to evolve, a variety of research centers and funders have been trying to learn more about what is needed to do engagement well.

One thing this ongoing conversation has gotten us thinking about is engagement readiness. In order to do relational engagement that really builds connection and trust with communities, journalists and the outlets they work for need to have tools, skills, resources, support from fellow practitioners, and organizational commitment, along with ways to assess the impact of their work. But at many news outlets, as best as we can tell, one or more of these critical things is missing. As Lindsay Green-Barber reported two weeks ago, for example, a survey by The European Journalism Center recently found that “engagement work is often divorced from the everyday workflows and systems of editorial teams” even at newsrooms that employ “engagement specialists.”

We’ve had the opportunity over the past few months to study how some newsrooms are trying to deepen their engagement practice, by looking at how they are putting the tools, consulting, and philosophy offered by the company Hearken to work. In this brief essay — the first of three essays we’ll release this week based on our new report, which you can read in full here — I’ll tell you a bit about that research, followed by some observations on what it means for journalism to become engagement-ready.

Hearken and “Public-Powered Journalism”

As the interest in engagement grows in nearly all corners of the news business, and the need to find ways to reconnect journalism with the public grows more urgent, one approach has attracted attention: the “people-powered journalism” model advocated by Hearken.

Hearken’s stated goal is to help newsrooms “cultivate deep audience engagement; create original, high-performing content; [and] generate new revenue streams.” More than just software tools, Hearken promotes a philosophy of journalism with the public as active participants — a vision in which journalists are not “the only people who have smart questions that make for great stories.”

The public-powered journalism concept flips the traditional story cycle on its head, “enabling journalists to know before publishing that their work is relevant.” In the pitch stage, news organizations ask their audiences for questions reporters can answer. In the second stage, story assignment, newsrooms might ask their audience members to vote for the most popular reader-generated questions. In the reporting stage, reporters may team up with question-askers to investigate a particular story idea. In the final stage, feedback, the newsroom seeks audience feedback about how successfully the news story answered the question.

Overall, the company aims to “help newsroom staff transition from viewing the public as consumers to [viewing them as] partners.” With approximately 130 newsrooms now using its tools, Hearken is an important test case to explore what deep audience engagement looks like in the bustle and clatter of daily journalism.

As fellow travelers in the field of engaged journalism, we at the Agora Journalism Center have admired Hearken’s work, and we also have questions about how resource-strapped newsrooms are implementing its approach, and with what impact on organizational culture, workflow and attitudes. How is Hearken’s challenge to journalism-as-usual being taken up, and possibly modified (or even resisted) by reporters and editors as they go about their daily work? And importantly, what can we learn about what it takes for newsrooms to be “engagement ready”?

The Research

Map of participating newsrooms

To find out, we interviewed 28 editors and reporters at 15 news organizations across the U.S. that have been using Hearken’s tools and services for a year or more. (These are obviously early-adopters, and the interviews were conducted several months ago, so we need to be careful drawing broad conclusions).

Our interviews indicate that Hearken is used most widely to involve audience members in the “pitch” phase of the news, gathering audience questions for reporters to answer. Most of these newsrooms also use Hearken to allow the public to vote on their favorite audience-submitted question. Other Hearken tools were used somewhat less frequently.

Hearken-Driven story cycle across 15 newsrooms

Many of the reporters and editors we spoke with talked about the challenges of doing full people-powered journalism (though they didn’t necessarily use that language to describe it). For example, although two-thirds of the outlets we interviewed have experimented with including audience members in the reporting phase of their work, many of them reported mixed results. While some outlets have had real success (WBEZ, among others we interviewed, stands out), others have found it challenging. An editor at The Columbian in Vancouver, WA told us, “We liked the idea of engaging the readers” in reporting, particularly because it might offer a way to combat public perceptions of media bias and suspicions about “fake news.” However, when he and his colleagues started reaching out to readers, they were surprised to find that most question-askers didn’t want to be involved in the reporting process. “We thought they would be jumping at the chance.”

Engagement in the Workflow

Public-powered journalism isn’t easy. Most of the journalists we interviewed praised Hearken for providing feedback and guidance on implementing and adapting the software as well as improving workflow issues. But most also described workflow complications and/or constraints in their organizational resources and culture.

As one journalist put it, the biggest challenge is building a new workflow and philosophy into the DNA of the newsroom. “We’re a small newsroom, and it’s still a challenge,” said Parker. “It’s just because everybody’s busy, right? So you just have to constantly keep it in front of everyone and remind us at every editorial meeting, ‘OK, where is there a Hearken engagement opportunity in whatever you’re doing?’ ”

Echoing the findings of a recent survey of engagement journalists, some journalists in our sample observed that multiple newsroom resources are required to really leverage Hearken’s engagement tools. “I don’t think there’s anything that doesn’t work,” said one journalist, “but you definitely have to put effort in to make it work, not just set it up and expect things to just happen.” For some, challenges arose when they began implementing Hearken without a clear concept of the workflow that would be required. One public radio journalist said their launch was “really messy”: “When we signed on to Hearken, we didn’t have a news director at the time, so it was kind of like, ‘What do we do with this thing?’”

So, without a specific plan for implementation or buy-in from leadership, newsrooms might struggle to effectively put Hearken — or other models of deep public engagement — to use. At the same time, wading into serious public engagement may work in ways that then demand more from the newsroom. “Every time a [Hearken-driven] story airs or something’s published, we get more questions in,” one of our interviewees told us. Another said, “I think the biggest challenges are just bandwidth and staffing.” And another observed, “There’s really no shortage of enthusiasm, it’s just a matter of what we can manage on our end in terms of all that connection.”

Questions for Engagement Readiness

Our interviews indicate that news outlets need more than financial and human resources to get the full benefit of public-powered journalism. They need clear organizational priorities. And meaningful public engagement — the kind that really does begin to rebuild connections with communities — requires more than acquiring software tools. Implementing public-powered journalism or any other model of deep public engagement requires an organizational commitment that guides how limited newsroom resources are allocated. And newsrooms may find their organizational priorities are challenged or must shift as they pursue relational, people-powered journalism. In other words, to do meaningful engagement, you can’t just buy a tool.

Overall, our report suggests that being engagement-ready means asking some serious questions about newsroom resources and priorities. What resources can be devoted to the effort over the long haul, keeping in mind that when successful, public-powered journalism begets more interaction with the audience that will need to be managed? What models from other newsrooms can be emulated to maximize the outlet’s resources, fit its context and meet its strategic goals? What are the organizational priorities that will guide the effort — or perhaps that will need to be reexamined if deeper engagement with the public is to succeed?

We’d like to hear from you about our report, which you can read in full here, and about how your organization is becoming engagement-ready. You can share your thoughts by writing a response below or emailing me.

— Regina Lawrence

Regina G. Lawrence is professor and associate dean for Portland at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, and director of the Agora Journalism Center, the gathering place for innovation in communication and civic engagement. She can be reached at rgl@uoregon.edu.