Social J and Hearken

Looking for questions, not answers, about communities

This semester the social journalism MA students at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism have a unique opportunity to experiment with Hearken, a new audience-driven platform that gives journalists new ways to partner with the public on story ideas.

By prompting journalists to begin by soliciting questions rather than answers, Hearken flips traditional reporting on its head, making the audience an active participant in the news process.

Best of all — Hearken has shown that stories that begin this way have significantly above average traffic and engagement.

We are incredibly grateful to Jennifer Brandel and her team, especially Remy Schwartz, for allowing us to test the platform, and for speaking with us about it in February. Here’s some initial student thoughts from when they were first introduced to Hearken (post and comments from the class).

Social journalism students Sasha Fountain and Noa Radosh

Here’s the assignment we gave our students. Stay tuned for the results!

Hearken Assignment 2016

You’ve been given access to an exciting new tool, Hearken, that journalists can use to partner with the public to tell compelling stories. Lucky you, and big thanks to founder and CEO Jennifer Brandel!

Our goal is to experiment with Hearken and see what it can do to help you get started in the process of engaging your community.

Your goal should be to collect 5–10 questions from your individual communities. You can then pick one of the questions to report on (possibly for your reporting class?) or put it up for a voting round and have the audience help decide.

Hearken will help you solicit and collect the questions, but you can also use real-life methods to gather and just employ Hearken as a management system for all the questions being asked / considered.


  1. Come up with a plan for how you will use Hearken and write up a couple of paragraphs about it, and post it in a Slack channel I will create for this purpose. Be specific about how you plan to solicit questions from your community. Be creative. Think about any possible challenges you might encounter and what you might do to mitigate them. DUE MONDAY FEBRUARY 29
  2. Use Hearken! Post the questions you have collected in the slack channel. DEADLINE MARCH 21
  3. Select one to report on, either yourself or through a voting round. Post a brief description of the story, your plan for reporting on it, and how you plan to include the audience/person who asked the question in the reporting in a meaningful way in the Slack channel. DEADLINE MARCH 28
  4. Report and write a story! Should include both a textual and visual component. Send draft to Brown for editing/review via Google Docs. When you have made the required changes, this story can be published by a media outlet if you can swing it, or on Medium, on a blog, whatever you would like, but it should be online. Using what you’ve learned in social media tools class, you should do your best to distribute the story in ways that your community can find it.
  5. Reflect. In a post on Medium, write about your experiences using Hearken and what you learned. Include a link to the story you did. What went particularly well? What would you do differently next time? How did having a tool help you in the process? How could you imagine using Hearken going forward in your work? How do you think stories driven by your communities questions are different from those you might have come up with if you were working in a newsroom and using a more traditional process of coming up with story ideas? How did the community respond at all stages of the process, including to the finished story. Did anything about the process surprise you? We hope to offer some valuable insight for other journalists that may want to try Hearken in the future, so think carefully about how you can be helpful.




MA students building new ways to engage communities at the Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY

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Carrie Brown

Carrie Brown

Engagement journalism director at Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY in NYC.

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