The journalism industry knows engagement is necessary to survive. But this study shows formidable barriers stand in the way. Namely, themselves.

Jennifer Brandel
We Are Hearken
Published in
22 min readNov 14, 2018


Back when I started Hearken in 2015, I was under the naive impression that better engagement between newsrooms and the public could be solved through technology. Naturally then, my first two hires were developers, and we focused on building a toolset for engagement. Over hundreds of meetings, we explained to newsrooms that better engaging with the public would result in all types of wins: higher-performing stories, growing their audience, deepening those relationships and trust, and yes — earning more revenue through direct public financial support.

While all of these promised results have been proven true, we’ve changed the method for getting there quite a bit. Turns out, engagement is a process, not a product. The solution must start with mindset and culture change, not software. Our company is now 12 people strong, half of which focus entirely on consulting and training newsrooms to develop their engagement strategies, goals and workflows before they ever touch technology.

If you’re reading this, chances are you pay attention to the journalism industry and to the shift in the last few years toward audience engagement. It’s no longer a fringe topic left to one or two conference sessions. Now conferences have entire engagement tracks, and the engagement-focused People-Powered Publishing Conference is growing ever larger and important in its third year.

While Hearken has found that our software and other software services out there (like GroundSource and Coral Project) can greatly help reporters engage the public more efficiently and effectively, first newsrooms have to overcome a number of formidable barriers.

One major journalism funder recently remarked with profound exasperation that newsrooms “need to stop talking about engagement and just do it already!” Were it only that simple.

What are the barriers? Why is it so dang hard to just “do engagement already?” We had our hunches, but we commissioned a study to really find out. We spoke with 100 people who are already bought in — who desperately want to spend their time doing better engagement — to learn what (and who) stands in their way.

Whether you’re a funder, manage or work in a news organization, or you simply care about how engagement and participation can change institutions for the better, we hope you find actionable insight in this research.

We also recommend bookmarking this report — Putting Engagement To Work: How News Organizations are Pursuing Public-Powered Journalism. The research is by Regina G. Lawrence and Thomas R. Schmidt for the Agora Journalism Center and offers additional insights around the major themes we also uncovered: technical, workflow and resources and organizational culture and priorities.

This ‘Barriers to Engagement’ study is a commissioned collaboration between Hearken and Switchboard, a company serving higher education that faces shared challenges. Thank you our Director of Research Aria Joughin and the many survey and interview participants.

The Value of Participation (aka Engagement)

The word “engagement” is used to mean many things in news organizations. What we mean when we talk about engagement in the context of this report, is a feedback loop that happens when members of the public are responsive to newsrooms, and newsrooms are in turn responsive to members of the public. It’s a relationship. Regardless of your experience with or belief in the power of engagement, here are some findings from the study that cement the variety of value it can create.

  • Engagement expands available knowledge: Staff and Leadership simply don’t (and can’t) know what the experience of other people and communities is really like. Public participation fills gaps in the knowledge.
  • Engagement establishes trust: Asking for input and being transparent about processes builds trust with community members, which contributes to ongoing support and receptivity to future work.
  • Engagement saves resources: Building programs, content or services with the participation of community members help make sure it’s built correctly the first time, saving money and resources that would have otherwise been spent on building something with a lower likelihood of success.
  • Engagement improves conversion and retention: Building something that people actually need means they keep showing up, helping you remain competitive in a landscape defined by increasing alternatives and options.
  • Engagement empowers communities: Including community members in your creation process demonstrates that their voice is valuable and helps to empower those communities in ways that benefit them and society as a whole.

Supporting statements from the some of the journalists we interviewed:

“[Engagement is] very important just because we don’t know what we don’t know. Our reporters are great at sourcing their beats and talking to people that are in their networks, but you can never know 100% of the things that are out there. There are a lot of people who just are not part of the standard networks that we talk to day in and day out. So having a way for people to participate who don’t have access to those networks already is very very important.” — Chris Hagan, Digital Journalist, Capital Public Radio

“The value [of public participation] is huge because our whole mission is to inform people and illuminate the world. If we’re not paying attention to what our audience wants to know and is curious about, we’re only answering questions our little newsroom has.” — Laura Starecheski, Senior Reporter/Producer, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting

“I think [public participation in journalism is] super important. I think it makes the entire journalism process happen. If we don’t listen to our audience what are we fulfilling and who are we doing it for? Too many times we position ourselves in a corner, and we shove information and opinion and views down the throats of our audience whether they like it or not.” — Dustin Leed, Assistant Managing Editor, Digital Content, Reading Eagle

“If you want to be relevant to the audience and you want to provide value, so they actually pay for your journalism, you have to listen to what their needs are so that you can meet them.” — Anonymous, Senior Digital Media Strategist

“My sense of urgency around establishing trust has only grown in these past two years as we’ve seen intensifying attacks on press freedom in our country and the vilification of journalists whom I consider to be public servants. I bought into the [Hearken] model several years ago, but only recently have I begun to feel like it is a central part of the solution to the fraying relationships between so many news outlets and their audiences.” — Angela Evancie, Managing Editor for Podcasts, Vermont Public Radio

Barriers to Making Participation a Practice

You may think if engagement is so useful and necessary, more newsrooms would be teaching, practicing and spreading these approaches. What we found was they would, if they could, but … they can’t. Or if they can, it’s an extremely uphill battle.

The #1 barrier cited was that it took too much time and effort to create or facilitation participatory processes, followed closely by limited financial resources.

Barriers cited in order of frequency:

  • Takes too much time and effort
  • Limited financial resources
  • Worry about not being able to deliver what is requested
  • Leadership at organization does not see the value or business case
  • Unsure how to create this model / Challenges with how to create effective feedback loops
  • Worry about giving away too much authority to community members
  • Don’t know what to do with the information once we have it
  • Too risky / unproven
  • Political in-fighting

We’ve grouped the barriers into the following major themes:

> Limited resources make it difficult or impossible to strategize or implement processes for listening and engagement.

> Leadership / management does not fully understand the value of listening and engagement or refuses to support these efforts.

> Logistical challenges to implementing listening and engagement workflows are hard to overcome.

> Aspects of workplace culture create obstacles to fully adopting practices of listening and engagement.

Below you’ll find expansion and nuance on each of these themes.

Barrier: Limited resources make it difficult or impossible to strategize or implement processes for listening and engagement

Lack of funding and resources is cited as the most common barrier to systematizing listening

For staff and leadership who believe in the importance of listening and community participation, lack of funding or resources is the number one barrier to making these a regular practice at their institutions. If resources are allocated at all to engagement practices, they are frequently insufficient, leaving engagement-champions isolated, overworked and struggling to advocate for the value of engagement organization-wide.

“The barriers are resistance from within the newsroom — lack of interest or perceived lack of funding for it because I think that they don’t understand necessarily that this approach can help you fundraise and get support. Instead, it’s seen as something you have to pay for.” — Anonymous Senior Reporter, Investigative News Outlet

“There’s a feeling of: I don’t have time to look up from my computer. I don’t have time to go to the bathroom. I don’t have time to check my mail. I don’t even have time to pay my bills because there are just so many tasks.” — Elise Pepple, General Manager, Marfa Public Radio

“There isn’t a single person who does what I do in the newsroom, so I’m incredibly lonely … I can’t scale up or make deep impact when I don’t have a team.” — jesikah maria ross, Senior Community Engagement Strategist, Capital Public Radio

“We’re so focused on getting our episodes out, and just staying consistent for audience growth, and delivering what our underwriters are expecting. That’s where I feel like we could definitely benefit from additional staffing, to do more outreach, and to create more of a community around the experience of participating in our newsroom’s journalism.” — Angela Evancie, Managing Editor for Podcasts, Vermont Public Radio

Funding sources determine where organizations focus attention and resources

Competitive or conditional funding or funding coming from sources other than the communities the organization exists to serve skew organizational priorities and refocus departmental resources of serving the interests of stakeholders.

“There is a complete disconnect. Organizations say things because they know that their funding is contingent upon saying what it is that they do, and they’ll never be truthful or honest about engagement or impact in terms of reaching out to new audiences…” — Andrew Ramsammy, Founder & CEO, United Public Strategies

External funding for engagement is limited and prizes products over process

It is extremely difficult to secure funding for initiatives that seek to address systemic problems in collaboration with community members. Funders want to pay for predetermined solutions but are reluctant to provide funds to support the process of engaging communities to discover solutions together.

Adopting unproven methods pose greater risk to institutions with less money and prestige

Limited access to funding and a lack of prestige means that smaller institutions experience greater risk in adopting experimentation or process-driven decision making. Many people working at smaller institutions said they simply could not afford to try something that hadn’t already been tested or proven because a mistake or failure could mean the end of their institution.

Barrier: Leadership does not fully understand the value of listening and engagement, or refuses to support these efforts.

Leadership do not see the problem or believe in the solution

Leadership and management do not recognize when services fail to meet the needs of some community members, or they believe that it is impossible to address these failures or not their job. There is a prevailing mentality that “if it’s still working for someone, there is no need to change anything” or “this group of people is never going to support us, so we’ll just have to pursue a different group instead.”

“It’s not an absence of diversity or an absence of listening, it’s an absence of leadership. Like having the right leadership skills or having the right culture in which those can actually occur.” — Andrew Ramsammy, Founder & CEO, United Public Strategies

Leadership do not reflect the communities they serve

Both leadership demographics and tenure of leadership positions contribute to a lack of understanding or support for initiatives that facilitate greater community participation and distribution of power in decision-making. Leadership frequently do not reflect the demographics of their staff, nor large portions of the communities their institutions are supposed to serve. Long tenure in leadership roles means that these positions are also often out of touch with the needs and interests of younger generations.

“In every newsroom I’ve worked in, I’ve seen [that the] stories that get greenlit have a lot to do with what a particular editor — usually a white editor — who may be really seasoned and has been doing this for decades, is interested in, or what their friend told them about, or what they think is new, and [it] kind of ignores the questions that actual people who haven’t been steeped in the news for decades have. There is a lack of awareness about where listeners are coming from and what they are curious about in their day-to-day lives.” — Laura Starecheski, Senior Reporter/Producer, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting

“The organization’s mission and purpose stated outwardly was not matched with what they were doing internally and inwardly. PRI’s tagline was “hear a different voice,” and yet we had three white hosts. They were all executive produced by white men. All of the senior leadership at the organization were white. “ — Andrew Ramsammy, Founder & CEO, United Public Strategies

“When I go to conferences and look at who’s in charge of the journalism that happens, I would say that it replicates the power in a lot of industries and that pattern is not representative of this country. So yes, it’s super urgent to me that that be addressed.” — Elise Pepple, General Manager, Marfa Public Radio

Opportunities to enter leaderships positions are limited

There are extremely limited opportunities for younger, more diverse candidates to take leadership positions because of long tenures and other barriers along the talent pipeline (limited access to progressive leadership opportunities earlier on, training and education, discrimination, etc.).

“Something that needs to be addressed is: where are the leadership opportunities in this area and what are the steps to get into those positions? At least for public radio, there is no program to become a person who runs a station, there isn’t actually even a training for running radio stations. I would want to see those opportunities increase and also have the kind of culture shift where it sounds exciting for people to choose to step into those roles.” — Elise Pepple, General Manager, Marfa Public Radio

Leadership-driven gestures toward listening are often performative

When leadership does attempt to practice listening, the effort is frequently more performative than genuine. Leaders use panels or “community dialogs” to inform or consult with staff and community members but lack of follow through and accountability can leave participants feeling powerless and disrespected.

“Part of what has been so troubling about the polarization over the last several years and the lack of trust in the media and the government simultaneously is that people believe they are separated from these big powerful entities that are governing their lives… And they don’t feel a sense of efficacy. They don’t feel like if they vote, it’s going to matter and they also don’t feel like if they reach out to a local journalist that that’s going to impact anything either.” — Alex Laughlin, Producer, Transmitter Media

Authentic listening initiatives are treated as extra or expendable

Leaders must see the value of engagement or listening practices to organization-wide goals, rather than relegate these initiatives to “special project” status or treat them as separate from the organization’s core work.

“Continuously creating these projects as bonus material that’s expendable and tangential to the central mission of a newsroom — like this is a fun thing that we do on the side — that will prevent the permanent adoption of the audience-driven model. But the full realization of the model’s benefits requires that it move to the core of the newsroom. Not to say that every story needs to be reported in this way, but audience-first thinking should permeate everything we do.” — Angela Evancie, Managing Editor for Podcasts, Vermont Public Radio

(Oh god, look at the scroll bar. So many more barriers! We know. Hang tight. These are so important to understand.)

Barrier: Logistical challenges associated with implementing listening and engagement workflows

There are questions about how to get (the right) people to participate (in the right way)

Many of the people we spoke with discussed struggling to get community members to participate in processes related to program or service design. Some of the challenges they described included:

  1. How to figure out exactly who it is that they should be listening to, especially when departments are responsible for serving community members from several generations or populations
  2. How to reach a general population who might have other priorities that are more important or who are experiencing “input fatigue” from over-surveying, etc.
  3. How to reach beyond the vocal minority to hear from community members and populations who are less inclined to share proactively

Even when community members can be reached to provide input, the rate of turnover in higher education makes it difficult to know how well the perspective of current students will reflect the needs of future students. They also frequently are not able or interested in following through to support initiatives as they develop, especially when not paid.

Bad metrics distort organizational priorities but it’s a challenge to establishment better metrics

Many of the people we talked to mentioned searching for the right metrics to measure outcomes and impact. Others stated explicitly that industry standards for key performance indicators and metrics of success were a significant barrier to institutions addressing the needs of their community members

“I think that for stories in a traditional newsroom, there are set of pre-established measurements for their success, right? It’s about page views and it’s about awards that you win that our industry really values. But I think that there is definitely a qualitative benefit to doing this work, which I’m trying to measure and track — from anecdotes that I hear to notes that I get or even simple tweets from our listeners. I describe it within VPR as an effort to increase goodwill. And that gets back to the trust that we’ve been talking about among our audience. So how can we be measuring that?” — Angela Evancie, Managing Editor for Podcasts, Vermont Public Radio

Many organizations do not have an easy way to systematize practices of listening and engagement

Many people cited not having systems, support or know-how in place to facilitate participation or synthesize input into actionable strategies.

“…one of the reasons we wanted to work with [Hearken], is that we did not have a standard way that we invited people to work with us.” — Chris Hagan, Digital Journalist, Capital Public Radio

Efforts to establish new processes and practices are met with resistance from people accustomed to working another way

For most institutions, processes related to listening and participation are new. It can be challenging or annoying for some staff to change and integrate new workflows.

“And then there is the fact that journalists have been taught to drive the agenda and drive the narrative… [the editorial staff says,] ‘well, we don’t let data drive our agenda. We subscribe to the BBC Blue Book rules and in those rules it kind of says that, it’s our job to ask the questions. It’s not our job to take feedback from the audience.’” — Andrew Ramsammy, Founder & CEO, United Public Strategies

Creating or implementing new processes come with opportunity costs and take additional time and energy to coordinate

It takes time and energy to coordinate collaborative processes. If listening and participation systems aren’t already in place, it usually requires stopping some ongoing work to make space to figure out or use a new system.

“I think lack of reporter time is one of the key barriers. You have to stop and think about it because it is something that hasn’t been done, and that takes time. You get value out of it, but you have to put more into it.” — Chris Hagan, Digital Journalist, Capital Public Radio

“When you’re working with other reporters, involving the “question-asker” is not instinctual. It’s not a learned part of anybody’s workflow. So when you’re emailing with a question-asker and booking them for an interview, or checking their schedule to see if they can join you to meet with a source, it’s this whole added layer. And yeah, it slows things down sometimes. It’s logistically more challenging. [But] it makes our episodes, our content, and our answers so much better 100% of the time.” — Angela Evancie, Managing Editor for Podcasts, Vermont Public Radio

Many worry about how to manage community member expectation and worry about delivering needs identified through participatory processes

Many people mentioned a fear of being able to deliver on community member input or fear that community members will ask for unreasonable or impossible things as significant barriers to leadership buy-in for community participation. Several people mentioned wondering how to best manage community member expectations or facilitate focused participation that generated “usable” insight.

Barrier: Aspects of workplace culture create obstacles to fully adopting practices of listening and engagement

“It’s not an absence of diversity or an absence of listening, it’s an absence of leadership skills or having the right culture in which those can actually occur.” — Andrew Ramsammy, Founder & CEO, United Public Strategies

The opposition of “experts” and “consumers” is inherent to the structure of the institution

While journalism institutions may have been founded with a public-service mission, they were also all designed to be structurally hierarchical. All hierarchies depend on exclusion to create a structure where some people have more power than other people. In the case of institutions whose purpose is to support the production and proliferation of knowledge, the hierarchical structure has dictated that some people are “ active experts” and others are “passive consumers” who need to be told what they need.

“…too many times media companies, and newspapers specifically, position themselves as ‘we’re exclusive decision makers, we’re not inclusive. You are our consumer and you are our audience.’” — Dustin Leed, Assistant Managing Editor, Digital Content, Reading Eagle

Efforts to include more perspectives and share power are seen as threatening

Efforts that encourage the inclusion of more voices and perspectives in the decision-making process often feel threatening to people who have enjoyed their positions of “expert” within the hierarchy. Calls for new processes that imply that someone’s “expertise” may be incomplete or obsolete provoke fear, threaten egos and create resistance.

“In the last few years, I’ve become really disillusioned with our journalism industry and the government… but there is a part of me that still believes in the power of journalism and also in the power of inviting more people to tell their own stories because I think that’s incredibly empowering and really destabilizing for a system that relies on people in power staying in power.”

“I think that journalists are really hopped up on their own superiority and gatekeeping of knowledge. And it doesn’t feel good to feel like this profession that you’ve spent your entire life cultivating is something that, in theory, could be replaced. I think people feel like if audiences are more engaged in the storytelling process that their expertise will be replaced.”

— Alex Laughlin, Producer, Transmitter Media

“[The barrier I see to incorporating greater public participation in journalism is] pride. Sometimes pride is a great thing and sometimes it prohibits change. If you have a very passionate investigative journalist, sometimes they don’t want help from the public because that’s not what investigative journalism is. That journalist might be able to produce awesome, award-winning journalism and think they don’t need the public’s help, but a lot of time it’s just the perception of not wanting to be influenced without realizing what’s on the other side, and the positive that can come from change.” — Dustin Leed, Assistant Managing Editor, Digital Content, Reading Eagle

Failures in collaboration hinder implementation of listening practices at scale

Large, bureaucratic institutions tend to struggle with meaningful collaboration. Competition for resources within institutions inhibit processes of collaboration needed to implement integrated workflows for listening and engagement. Institutional siloing means that departments aren’t in conversation with one another and are not able to effectively collaborate to share knowledge or implement holistic programs, even if they aren’t antagonistic.

Programs and practices are driven by institutional inertia rather than intentionality

Especially at large or legacy institutions, program and practices are sustained by institutional inertia. People are doing things because “that’s the way they have always been done.” Staff and leadership do not see their work as “designing” or improving programs or processes, so much as executing on a set of programs or practices that they have inherited from the industry or institution.

“This is the way we’ve always done things, that’s a huge barrier, especially for media companies trying to hold on. [You have an] unknown future, so you want to cling to what you’ve always done because you feel like that’s what’s produced award-winning journalism.” Dustin Leed, Assistant Managing Editor, Digital Content, Reading Eagle

“A lot of this has been taught in J-schools and then it’s institutionalized within public media or within any media organization. But I think that it’s even harder within public media because of so much of an over reliance upon the core public media listener and audience, so that, to listen to what the audience has to say would be like, ‘wait a minute, we’ve never done that before.’” — Andrew Ramsammy, Founder & CEO, United Public Strategies

A culture of quick fixes but slow systemic change make it difficult to introduce intentional practices

The tendency to prioritize quick fixes or “putting out fires” paired with the snail’s pace of large-scale institutional change means that it is incredibly difficult to initiate systemic change in a way that is intentional and iterative.

“There can be a culture of quick fixes and this is not a quick fix, it’s a radical fix. And it’s kind of like any actual change, it takes time.” — Elise Pepple, General Manager, Marfa Public Radio

“Obviously change management isn’t something that public media does well with. They don’t adapt to change. The industry as a whole, aside from what Jennifer has been trying to do, is averse to any sort of change. It’s behind on so many different fronts, no just in terms of listening but in terms of technology, audience development, growth, revenue. You can run down the list.” — Andrew Ramsammy, Founder & CEO, United Public Strategies

Staff and administrators are physical and relationally far away from the people they serve

People with decision-making power within institutions don’t have many opportunities to interact in meaningful ways with the people they serve. Physical distance between administrative offices and the places that community members live and work, as well as a lack of shared experiences or authentic interactions between staff and community members, make it easy to be out of touch with community needs or downplay the importance of meeting those needs.

What Happens When Institutions Don’t Invite Participation & Listen

After having read in detail the barriers to engagement, solving for these barriers may seem overwhelming, too big to solve for. But not solving for them has dire consequences. Our study found the following consequences to not engaging the public in their work:

  • They lose relevance and support — when institutions create things that people don’t actually want or need those people will go looking for alternatives that better suit them. This can lead to active protest at an institution or passive protest in the form of non-participation, affecting both retention and conversion rates.
  • They waste time and money — institutions waste tons of time and money building things based on assumptions about what community members want or need, only to find out later that their assumptions are incorrect.
  • They disempower and disenfranchise communities — by choosing not to include community members in the creation process, institutions reinforce the narrative that the voices of the public or marginalized groups aren’t important and that their participation isn’t efficacious, which can have effects far beyond any individual institution.

“Part of what has been so troubling about the polarization over the last several years and the lack of trust in the media and the government simultaneously is that people believe they are separated from these big powerful entities that are governing their lives… And they don’t feel a sense of efficacy. They don’t feel like if they vote, it’s going to matter and they also don’t feel like if they reach out to a local journalist that that’s going to impact anything either.” — Alex Laughlin, Producer, Transmitter Media

“People want news, but for them to come to you as the source of news and information they need to know what you’re about. You need to be much more transparent. You gotta be inclusive… When you’re not relational with your audience, what do you expect? Not only why would they read something that they don’t agree with it, but why would they pay for it?” — Dustin Leed, Assistant Managing Editor, Digital Content, Reading Eagle

“Audiences are saying enough is enough. ‘The content that I consume is not representative of me, and I’m not going to support.’ So whether it be #hollywoodsowhite or #tonysnotdiverse, or whatever, there are social movements out there that have placed entertainment and media and journalism and anything that’s consumable that’s not diverse into the limelight.” — Andrew Ramsammy, Founder & CEO, United Public Strategies

“I think it’s easy to say that public media is a public service and “by and of the public” and I would say that we have 90% of the way to go to make that true.” — Elise Pepple, General Manager, Marfa Public Radio

A Ray of Hope

Despite the major challenges the news industry faces in making engagement more central to their work and culture, people in our survey overwhelmingly saw the value in this work.

99% of people we spoke with said that they believed it was important for organizations to take community member input into consideration when making decisions about their content, programs or services

97% of people we spoke with said they would be interested in professional development opportunities related to learning to advocate for or incorporate community participation into their work (if cost were not an object)

Professional development budgets are always quick to be slashed in tough conditions. The good news is, there is demand and desire for building capacity for this work. Funders looking to support this change should not meet undue resistance with newsroom staff in learning and practicing engagement, though they likely need to prime leadership to recognize and understand the vital need for it at the outset.

A Formula for Change

One of the most valuable equations I’ve ever come across was this, taught to me in the Sulzberger Executive Leadership program:

Change = Dissatisfaction x Vision x Plan.

If any one of these aspects is missing, lasting change won’t be possible. If there’s not sufficient dissatisfaction, then making change will never rise to the level of being a priority. If there’s no vision for what the future could look like, then you can have a strong start, but efforts will fizzle. Without a plan, you’re left with a whole lot of frustration.

The silver lining in all of these barriers? Plenty of dissatisfaction. Change wants to happen. It needs to happen.

If you’ve got obstacles like these in your organization, Hearken is here to help you transform that dissatisfaction into a clear vision and practical plan. We are rolling out new services to solve for each of these barriers. Sign up to learn more about our custom newsroom solutions and be the first to have access when they’re launched.

Are you a funder or investor and want to help Hearken address these challenges? We have exciting plans underway. Email:



Jennifer Brandel
We Are Hearken

Accidental journalist turned CEO of a tech-enabled company called Hearken. Founder of @WBEZCuriousCity Find me: @JenniferBrandel @wearehearken