A comic treatment of a tragically broken process in journalism

I spend the bulk of my waking life thinking about the news industry and audience engagement. And there’s a particularly knotty issue I’ve been trying to unravel, put into words and expose.

The core of this issue is how newsrooms make decisions about what stories to supply their communities. In short, they’re still using processes and mental models designed for the pre-internet era and its former dynamics.

To put it frankly: those old processes aren’t working well in an age where individuals are empowered with access to seemingly-infinite content. And poorly-designed processes create inaccurate information and lead to misguided decisions which ultimately breaks the system.

And now I’m back to the problem of trying to explain this complex issue that’s hard to put into words. Which is why we made a comic instead, comparing food to journalism to render these big ideas bite-sized and easier to swallow. Meet you on the other side to debrief.


Raymond Williams said, “A difficulty arises with the whole concept of masses … There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses.” (H/T Jay Rosen)

Part I of this comic reveals what happens when the news industry treats people as masses (aka “the audience”). It’s a categorical error. When newsrooms group individuals as one big audience clump comprised of data — like clicks and time on site and shares — and then make decisions about what stories to create based on this categorical error, a narrowing effect occurs, leaving us with the cats in clothes, Kardashian click-hole downward spiral.

Part II of this comic shows one alternate path (surely, there are many). By reframing audiences as individuals, new methods of engagement and interaction are possible, which make plain specific and actionable insights about people’s information needs. More varied, original and personally relevant content follows.

Karri DeSelm, Steve Richards and Robin Amer enter the sub-basement that once had access to Chicago’s underground freight tunnel system. (WBEZ/Shawn Allee)

The story referenced in part II, Six Tunnels Hidden Under Chicago’s Loop, is in fact a real story created with this new model (aka Hearken) where people are treated as the intelligent, curious individuals they are. WBEZ’s Curious City collaborated with reporter Robin Amer and question-asker Karri DeSelm to report it (original art by Illustrated Press).

So, Facebook sent shivers down news publisher’s spines this week with their announcement that they’re tweaking their algorithm to show fewer stories from news publishers and brands and instead “show people the stories that are most relevant to them.” But I don’t see this as bad news at all. That is, if news organizations just make stories that are more relevant to people.

People will and do share stories when they feel truly connected to that content. This could be because they voted for a story, it answered a question they had, they were personally featured in it or knew someone involved. The last two frames in this comic depict what we at Hearken witness every time news organizations meaningfully involve individuals in their communities.

People share those stories far and wide because, in the words of Adam Mosseri (VP, Product Management at Facebook), they are “most relevant to them.”

Updating old newsroom processes for this internet-based, individual-empowered era is not impossible. It just takes a shift in how newsrooms see the role of individual members of their audience in the journalistic process, and at what point they’re brought into the fold (hint: do it early).

Now, the food version of this public-powered model with on-demand chefs? That’s a huge opportunity for another company. #IWantACut


Click the heart at the bottom if you want more people to consider the ideas in here. And thank you!

Illustrations are by the incredible Jean Cochrane, who first came to our attention with their incisive comic, What is community journalism?

Hire Jean! They will make all of your ideas better!

Additional Reading

This post is a companion piece to a previous post exploring how newsrooms determine what information to serve their audiences. If you are vibing on what was conveyed above, check out: Give the audience what they want or what they need? There’s an even better question.

If you read this and thought, “but audiences aren’t smart and they’ll ask for crappy things” then read this post.

If you’re read this and thought, “this model is going to devolve into the same problems we see in comments section” then read this post.

If you’re read this and thought, “this is nice model for local journalism, or human interest stories, but not hard or investigative or national news” then check out this and this and this and this and this and I could go on and on.

If you’re read this and thought, this sounds like design thinking, then read this post.

Hearken’s Medium Channel has lots more reading about ideas big and small to shift journalism toward audience-first thinking and practices.

Interested in using Hearken? Let’s do this.