Announcing Hearken’s Champions of Curiosity Awards

Julia Haslanger
Dec 21, 2016 · 9 min read

Hearken’s partner newsrooms have produced some spectacular public-powered journalism over the past year. We want to give them all the high-fives and thumbs-up emojis✋ 👏 👍 🙌 , and we also wanted to share their successes with you so that you, too, can be as inspired by their work as we are.

Our newsrooms had the opportunity to nominate their own work for these awards, and our engagement consultants (previously titled community managers) also nominated some of the best work they’ve seen from our partners. The judging committee gathered in early December, and here are this year’s winners:

Newsroom award: Champion of Curiosity

Given to the newsroom that best puts into practice a system of hearing and responding to their audience’s curiosities. Public-powered journalism pros. Quantity of questions answered is one factor considered.

Australian Broadcasting Company

“We received a staggering 930 questions this year — directly from you — and answered one every week. Most months you helped us decide which stories to cover by voting for your favourite questions.”
Curious Canberra newsletter, December update

The ABC newsroom tackled a huge variety of questions, from what’s the best place in town to be during a zombie apocalypse to how much the government subsidizes the public buses, and produced so many of the answers with the inclusion of the question-asker. They used social media extensively and smartly, and even have a Facebook album of photos of question-askers!

In total, the newsroom answered more than 60 audience questions in 2016.

Question-asker awards

Recognizing the question-askers who went above and beyond.

Best participation in the reporting process

  • Nashville Public Radio listener Mitch Dane and
  • Australian Broadcasting Company viewer Ali Mountifield
Mitch Dane on the hunt for tunnels. | Photo: WPLN: Tony Gonzalez

Mitch Dane asked Nashville Public Radio’s Curious Nashville: “I’ve heard rumors of a mysterious tunnel system winding beneath downtown Nashville. Is this true?

Reporter Tony Gonzalez spent many weeks digging (sometimes literally) for an answer. On one reporting outing, Mitch even tagged along to explore basements for signs of a tunnel system.

Booth operator Tony with Ali Mountifield and her triplets | Photo: ABC News: Sonya Gee

Ali Mountifield asked ABC’s Curious Canberra about parking booth operators, and one operator in particular who had served her for close to a decade. From the reporter, Sonya Gee: “To answer the question, she brought her triplets to visit him at work. It was the most heartwarming participation from the year.”

Ali’s triplets helped perform the interview, taking turns asking Tony (the parking booth operator) questions about his life and job.

The heartening story: Meet Tony Jones of Tuggeranong

Best ongoing relationship formed with a question-asker

  • WFDD listener Wendell Burton

“Why, oh why, did T.W. Garner quit making Texas Pete Chili Sauce? And why didn’t they give us any notice!?” Wendell Burton asked WFDD’s Carolina Curious. Reporter Eddie Garcia hunted down the answer, and Wendell was very appreciative.

According to WFDD News Director Emily McCord: “After the story aired, Wendell has been giving the station his own collection of homemade hot sauces and, just for fun, farm fresh eggs. He also gave Eddie two cans of his personal stash of Texas Pete Chili Sauce, as well as upped his membership. All-around fabulous listener!”

Story awards

Favorite story that wouldn’t have been assigned in a more traditional editorial process

Best investigative story prompted by a question

Best public service story prompted by a question

  • Michigan Radio’s MI Curious answered a question about voting: “You’ll be asked for a photo ID, but you do NOT need one to vote in Michigan
    Reporters: Kate Wells and Mark Brush | Question-asker: Steve Merring
  • WFDD’s Carolina Curious looked into “Why are there so few bus shelters in Winston-Salem?” and in the process of reporting found that the city planned to spend “approximately $1.2 million to improve hundreds of stop locations throughout Winston-Salem, including new bus stop shelters, benches, and signage.” From WFDD’s nomination of this story: “We would not have learned about the new public transportation initiatives had it not been prompted by a listener to ask.”
    Reporter: David Ford | Question-asker: Dean Franco

Hearken-powered story that had the biggest impact

ABC Action News had a parent reach out to them through their “Good Question” prompt with a question about a dance studio that abruptly closed. The “I-Team” began investigating, and found the dance studio owner had skipped town and reopened in a nearby state, and parents couldn’t get ahold of her to get refunds for camps, classes and materials that the studio didn’t provide.

Because of the investigation, “some families told us that they eventually received refunds,” investigative reporter Adam Walser says. “After the story ran, we were contacted by even more parents who had similar issues. We were able to forward the dance instructor’s contact information to them, so they could also pursue refunds.” Others in the community also stepped up after hearing the story: “The new tenant of the dance studio ended up offering free dance classes to the girls affected by the abrupt closure and the county recreation center in that community offered rent-free space for dance classes,” Walser says.

This story clearly had a positive impact on the lives of many families, who came to the station after they were unable to resolve the issue through law enforcement.

Best myth-buster story

  • WBEZ’s Curious City looked into “Chicago’s Tornado-Proof Delusion” and debunked a dangerous regional myth using both scientific and historical sources.
    Reporter: Chloe Prasinos | Question-asker: Erin English Bailey

Most fun story to report

Most creative approach to answering a question

  • St. Louis Public Radio listener Steve Flick noticed that “we just can’t seem to be able to get beyond the Reconstruction Era in [Missouri].” So he asked Curious Louis, “Why does the Civil War still hold sway over St. Louis and Missouri?” This is a huge question, and the answer could fill multiple history books. But the team at Curious Louis found an inventive way to answer: by delving into the Civil War memorials all over town. Specifically, they formatted their story like a walking tour, providing background information about each monument and how it connects to the politics and culture of St. Louis today.
    Reporter: Mary Delach Leonard | Question-asker: Steve Flick

Story with the most transparent process

  • Nashville Public Radio’s Curious Nashville really dug in for their lengthy investigation into the city’s tunnels. After the question “I’ve heard rumors of a mysterious tunnel system winding beneath downtown Nashville. Is this true?” won the voting round in a landslide, reporter Tony Gonzalez set off on a long adventure, with the audience along for the ride the whole time. Tony shared updates and exciting finds from his tunnel explorations on social media. He also published an update on the WPLN website, introducing the question asker and letting folks know what he’d learned so far. In the main story, Tony was very transparent with his audience about why the question was difficult to answer and how he integrated audience feedback throughout the process. As a bonus, he even published a follow-up story with some of the bonus material he’d uncovered during the investigation — information about Nashville’s old sewer system that didn’t quite fit into the main story but is fascinating nonetheless.
    Reporter: Tony Gonzalez | Question Asker: Mitch Dane

Most public-powered reporting process

  • Current’s Currently Curious brought the audience in early and asked for their help in answering this thorny question: “Do I really have to start in the middle of nowhere to eventually get into the big-league public radio game?” The question itself is controversial, and Current brought together multiple voices and perspectives to add texture and depth to the conversation. The responses it received filled two follow-up posts, in addition to the main answer piece. The process was public-powered at every step of the way.
    Reporter: April Simpson | Question-asker: Eliza Lambert

Best collaboration on a story (or stories) between organizations

  • KUT: TXDecides. Five newsrooms in Texas teamed up to collect and answer Texans’ questions about the election. More than 100 questions came in, and the newsrooms answered 10 of the questions, including those that won two voting rounds.

“Best use of…” awards

Best use of audio

Best use of photo

Best use of video

Lucas Waldron/KQED

Best use of social media

Clever and effective social media strategy around a question prompt, voting round, or story

Blockbuster awards

Stories or prompts that quantitatively exceeded all expectations

Blockbuster story

Blockbuster prompt

  • BBC’s user-generated-content team captured the moment after the High Court’s Article 50 ruling (about Brexit) to create a new prompt for their audience. They asked what questions they had about the ruling, and then embedded that curiosity module at the bottom of the news stories about the ruling. The team received more than 1,100 responses within five hours, and more than 2,600 total. Reporters quickly turned around a piece answering some of the most common questions. The resulting piece had an “excellent engaged time of over 2 minutes” says Mark Frankel, Social Media Editor at BBC News.
  • KQED’s Bay Curious asked its audience what questions they had about homelessness, and more than 1,300 questions flooded in over just a couple of weeks. After devising a strategy for how to handle such an large, unexpected volume of questions, Bay Curious tackled nine questions in its first answer piece, with an eye toward myth-busting.

A deep thank you to all of the Hearken newsrooms (more than 60 around the globe!). We are so inspired by the top-notch journalism created by all of you in service to and in deep collaboration with your audiences. 🙌

— Ellen, Summer, Julia and Jenn

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We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help:

Thanks to Jennifer Brandel, Ellen Mayer, and Hearken

Julia Haslanger

Written by

Journalism nerd exploring audience engagement, analytics and newsrooms. My path so far: WI ▹ Mizzou ▹ CO ▹ DC ▹ NYC ▹ Chicago. Engagement consultant at Hearken.

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help:

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