Using Hearken to figure out what people want from you

An exercise in community engagement from the front lines of social journalism

This year I started my first semester at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. I’m pursuing an MA in Social Journalism — or #socialj, if you will — and a big part of the #socialj program revolves around the idea of community engagement.

The whole point is to reevaluate the way journalists and media outlets approach and interact with the communities they claim to serve. Traditionally, journalists go out into the world to find, investigate, and write a story that will benefit their community in some way. Once they’ve done their duty, they publish the story and move on — leaving the public to squabble over details in the comments section at the bottom of the page.

Hearken is a tool that allows journalists to flip the script. Instead of a top-down approach to the stories they cover, Hearken gives journalists an opportunity to listen to their community before they go out on the hunt, in order to better understand which issues are important to their readers.

Personally, I found it to be very useful, especially when it came to serving my community of digital publishers in New Jersey. The first article I wrote in response to a question I received via Hearken actually helped me to learn more about a subject I am interested in but knew very little about: data journalism.

Edward Correa of was also curious about how smaller publications can incorporate data into their reporting, so he asked, “What is the best app, site or software to map data?”

I answered by writing this post: “Basic Data Tools for Local Journalists.” It became one of my most viewed Medium posts at the time, and I received messages from several people in the NJ News Entrepreneurs Facebook group I run, telling me how useful my post was for them. It also gave me a chance to highlight Mr. Correa and Hechos Latinos for asking such an important question.

The featured image from the first Hearken response post I wrote. Click the image or the link to read the article, “Basic Data Tools for Local Journalists.”

This all sounds great in theory — and often in practice as well, as illustrated by the example above. Seriously, what more could a journalist as for? Especially independent and entrepreneurial journalists who often wear multiple hats in their own organizations. The idea of letting your community help you choose your next story can sound like a dream to someone who has to serve as their own managing editor all the time.

Sometimes, however, it’s a little more complicated than that.

First, go to YouTube and listen to the Q&A section at the end of a town hall discussion or or public lecture and you’ll quickly realize that most people have trouble with brevity. Some people have trouble fitting their questions into a small form. This can be even more challenging when they have to write our their questions in a form, as opposed to asking their question in person.

Second, it can take a long time to get around all the questions people want answered. This is a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is that an abundance of reader questions means you have a) an engaged audience, and b) plenty of material to work on. The bad thing is that people are often impatient and can easily feel neglected if they don’t see their questions being address in a timely manner.

The easy fix here is to just stay in touch with your readers. Keep them updated on your progress, even if that means telling them that you still haven’t had a chance to get around to it. You may even find ways to bring them further into the process by getting them to collect information from the field while they wait.

The third and final issue I encountered when using Hearken might not resonate as much with the experience of others. Because our entire class was using the same backend, we had some minor issues with crossed wires and collaborative organization.

Sharing the Hearken backend with 13 other people, with everyone working on different projects, was a bit confusing and frustrating. Again, this isn’t something that most newsrooms will encounter and, even in my situation, it wasn’t really that bad.

In the end, I found Hearken to be an incredibly useful tool for engaging with my community. It was also very useful as a source of concrete proof when trying to convince my bosses that people care about a certain issue. Pitching a story is much easier when you can bring your editor questions that came directly from your readers.

8.5/10 — would totally use again.