This month at Hearken HQ, we’ve been thinking a lot about the role of delight in journalism. My colleague Ellen Mayer recently argued that it’s important for news stories to “resonate across multiple emotional frequencies,” and that journalists should embrace feelings like delight and discovery in their work. As the Assistant Community Manager at Hearken, I’m lucky to see how our partner newsrooms put these ideas into practice. As a follow up to Ellen’s piece I wanted to share with you some of my favorite delightful stories from Hearken newsrooms.
Delight in public-powered storytelling and reporting can emerge in so many ways. In my experience at Hearken, I’ve noticed three major “flavors” of delight.🍦
- First, there’s the dozens of stories that are delightful in their content: pleasantly surprising or fun questions that differ from news as usual.
- Second, there’s the stories that are truly delightful and creative in their execution or final form.
- And finally, delight can emerge through the process of reporting a story — the fun reporters and their audience collaborators have along the way to answering a question.
Below, I’ll share some Hearken stories that come in all of these flavors — Prepare to be delighted. 👻
1. Delight in content
Loads of Hearken stories come from questions that are fun or surprising. They’re outside the norm of typical news stories and they delight both reporters and audiences. Here’s a few:
KQED’s Bay Curious (Northern California): Who Is the Dancer on the Highway 101 Overpass? by Lucas Waldron and Olivia Allen-Price
For years, KQED listener Amy Kistler has seen a man holding a large red heart in his hand dancing on the 18th Street pedestrian overpass above Highway 101 in San Francisco. She finally asked Bay Curious to find out who he was. The origin story of the dancing man — San Francisco native Javonne Hatfield, 23 — is as delightful as you’d expect. He started out dancing in church, and got inspired to spread the love to people stuck in traffic, coming in and out of the city.
“I always felt that there was this was unspoken power that comes over me when I participate in any kind of dance,” he says. “I would always get this very special feeling and think ‘This is for me.’” ❤️
The thousands of people that travel via Highway 101 every day had to be wondering about Hatfield as well, because he’s a part of their shared everyday experience. Amy’s question is a stand in for all those drivers’ curiosity.
To me, Hatfield’s story is a perfect illustration of why delightful stories are just as important to communities as the hard news stuff. The story gives both locals and onlookers a chance to learn about and connect with someone who might have otherwise remained a stranger. Bay Area residents get to better understand this neighbor of theirs and find out why he’s devoted his time to make their commute brighter. It’s not just a fun story — it’s a valuable one.
KUOW’s Local Wonder (Seattle): Is there really a giant octopus under Tacoma Narrows Bridge? by Cathy Duchamp
One night, while out on a walk with a girl he liked, 15-year-old Douglass Brown saw something big and scary snake its way out of the water in Puget Sound: “I see this arm come out of the water. It was 10, 15 feet in the air. It looked like an octopus or something like that, and I just took off running.” That’s just not something you see every day, so Douglass’s mom asked KUOW to investigate.
I laughed out loud a few times hearing the octopus facts in this Local Wonder story. The craziest part is that Seattle’s Puget Sound is teeming with them! They have an arm span of up to 20 feet! They can squeeze themselves into holes, they’re crafty fishing rod thieves, and they get a kick out of trying to scare Seattleites like Douglass. It’s definitely not a story you’d expect to see on the news, and that’s part of why it’s so delightful. Stories that open up the audience to wonder, to discovery, to surprise, to that gleeful moment of realization that something like this happens in their own backyard — they’re rare, but they don’t have to be!
2. Delight in form
Some stories go above and beyond basic presentation to wow the audience with creative design and execution — anything from compelling interactive infographics to playful events to fun mementos and products — that tell the story in an unusual way.
WBEZ’s Curious City (Chicago): Where does your poop go?: A functional journey through the Chicago-area sewer system by Shannon Heffernan
What happens to our poop after we flush the toilet? “If that sounds like a question a five-year old would ask,” Shannon Heffernan notes, “that’s because it is.” Curious kid/citizen Satchel, with the help of her mom, asked this question to Curious City back in 2015, and it led to one of the most delightfully-packaged Curious City stories to date.
This story takes the cake for delightful form. Curious City nailed it with out of the box execution (so much so that I recently chatted with the Curious City team to write up a case study about the piece for our Medium — stay tuned!)
Curious City had no choice but to get creative with their answer because the question asker was only five years old, and this happens to be a super technical subject. Along with the delightful audio story (featuring Satchel and her mom) they also created an interactive explainer featuring colorful illustrations and gifs by Simran Khosla. They even printed Simran’s illustrations onto limited edition toilet paper rolls, and gave them out during a kid-friendly live event at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Satchel’s question allowed the Curious City team to reimagine what a story can be and how journalists can present their work to different audiences, and the result is a delightful explainer for all ages.
Inside Energy’s IE Questions: Lost In Transmission: How Much Electricity Disappears Between A Power Plant And Your Plug? by Jordan Wirfs-Brock
Inside Energy’s whole mission is to make energy reporting accessible to the broader public, so naturally, they have to find creative ways to explain super technical and wonky topics. This story from their series IE Questions is a great example! To illustrate how much energy gets “lost in transmission” between the power plant and your plug they created GIFs from hand-drawn doodles and they made a fun explainer video which breaks the whole process down using a whiteboard and school supplies (like pencils as powerlines!).
IE’s videos go to show that it doesn’t take a big budget and/or an animator on staff to create an effective video explainer — they get the job done in a way that’s creative, delightful, and resourceful. ✏️
P.S. If you could ask Donald Trump a question about energy, what would it be? You can ask it to IE Questions.
3. Delight in process
Sometimes for reporters, the best moments happen along the way to digging for an answer. This could be a great interaction between the reporter and the person whose question is being investigated, or a moment of surprise while out in the field reporting. Being open to surprise and delight and following curiosity — this leads to some of the most beautiful moments in public-powered storytelling.
These moments along the way occasionally make it into the final story, but too often they hit the cutting room floor when a reporter is cutting for space or time on the final product. That’s part of why Hearken is developing a tool called the Interactive Reporter’s Notebook — for reporters to capture what happens along the way, for the benefit of process nerds and the extra-curious.
WPLN’s Curious Nashville: Tunnels that Live Up to Legend and Some That Don’t by Tony Gonzalez
This story is the epitome of delight in process — a three-part series on tunnels with WPLN’s Tony Gonzalez, which involved quite a lot of time “shining a flashlight around dark, cobwebby places.” 🔦
Throughout the investigation, Gonzalez shared his curiosity and excitement with his audience by tweeting out fun discoveries and extra tidbits that he found along the way. One of those tidbits had to do with Nashville’s sewage system, which Tony clearly found fascinating, but which didn’t quite fit into the main story. So he took the opportunity to publish a followup piece digging into this delightful material that was related to Mitch Dane’s question and allowed him to share his excitement with other tunnel and infrastructure wonks.
My favorite moment comes from the podcast episode, when Gonzalez calls up his wife to excitedly update her on his adventures. #RelationshipGoals
The whole tunnel series is oozing with delightful process and it does shine through in the final story — but this just goes to show that not all the delightful moments can fit into the finished product or see the light of day — that is, until we release the Interactive Reporter’s Notebook!
WBEZ’s Curious City: Chuh Kaw Go, What Do You Really Sound Like? by Annie Minoff
Sarahlynn Pablo asked Curious City where does our unmistakable and loveable Chicago accent come from? and got a delightful three-part story in return that was heavy on audience participation. Curious City teamed up with a linguist and a Chicago vowel expert to create a passage called “Too Hot for Hockey,” with the goal of drawing out “stereotypically Chicago sounds from people who read it.” Then they asked members of the audience to send in voicemail recordings of themselves reading it. A whopping 361 listeners participated.
The story has delight baked into its process. In order to report the story, Curious City had to create this fun activity for their audience to take part in — it’s delightfully participatory. And it’s delightful to listen to as well. You can check out some of the heavily accented recordings (alongside a cool infographic) here.
If you’ve been a reporter, what’s the most delightful moment you’ve had while reporting a story? If you’re not a reporter, what’s story brought you the most delight lately?
Share it with us as a response, or tweet it at us: @WeAreHearken.
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