Curiosity all the way: Why I joined the Hearken team

I like questions. Always have. (Just ask my mom. The stories she can tell…) That love of questions led me to journalism, which led me to Hearken, where I’m the newest hire on the engagement consulting team.

For 16 years I was a community journalist in Wisconsin. I worked for weekly newspapers; for Patch, a network of hyperlocal websites; and for the daily papers in the cities south of Milwaukee. I spent the most time at those dailies, first at The Journal Times in Racine and, most recently, at the Kenosha News, where I worked to start a Hearken project, Curious Kenosha.

I enjoyed what I did.

Why did I leave a great newsroom, where I was working to grow a project I pitched and believed in (and that had support from newsroom and business management)? It sounds like I had a unicorn there, doesn’t it?

Well, let me try to explain.

At each of my jobs in journalism, questions ruled the day.

Me, in my days at The Journal Times.

I was curious about things going on around me, and lucky enough to have a job that let me walk up to pretty much anybody and ask questions. (And because for a time I had a column that put my face in the paper regularly, people had no problem walking up to me and asking questions.)

Those questions turned into stories.

I wrote about an unexplained noise; about why the city cut down a huge pine tree outside City Hall; why the zoo’s lions were breeding every year and what happened to the cubs as they grew up; and what the heck was up with the new judge who only allowed approved mugs in his courtroom.

These were things I wanted to know, and I heard from others who’d wondered the same things.

Fast-forward to this summer: There was a question on the application for the engagement consultant job that asked for an example of a newsroom that could benefit from Hearken. Here’s my opening line:

“Is there a newsroom that couldn’t benefit from Hearken?”

That’s why I’m here.

When we implemented Hearken at the Kenosha News, it pushed us to consider different viewpoints, to pursue stories outside our comfort zones and to open our editorial process up to the people we serve.

Those are crucial undertakings right now for every newsroom.

In an era of metrics and validation, Hearken performed. People read the stories, and they kept submitting questions.

Journalism can educate, inform, outrage, entertain, connect and explain. And the best of it puts all that shared information into context so people can use it in their daily lives.

The objectives Hearken helps with are ones all journalists (and all newsrooms) need to get good at: building trust, building community, linking the audience with the news in a real and vibrant way. More on these below.

How I got here

I first heard about Hearken’s public-powered journalism model in December 2013 at a Google for Media conference in Chicago. (This was before it was even called Hearken.) I went to the conference to learn better ways to use Google tools in my reporting, and came away on fire about audience engagement.

I recently found my notebook from that event, and I can tell where I got excited.

The notes of an excited conference attendee.

There’s even a page where I started furiously scribbling a note to Jennifer Brandel — while trying to still take notes and tweet. I ended up scrapping my indecipherable note and said hello in person. Jenn spoke to me on the phone some time after that with the tantalizing promise that, while the system wasn’t ready for newspapers yet, it would be someday.

I watched Hearken grow from afar, waiting for when I could implement it in my newsroom. That happened in September 2016. There were a number of new people on the management team across the Kenosha News (including me, after a promotion to assignment editor) and a renewed focus on local news.

After pitching Hearken to newsroom and business leadership, I got the go-ahead to set up calls with the engagement consulting team. We signed on and launched Curious Kenosha.

One year later, I’m here at Hearken.

Me and the rest of the engagement consulting team. (I’m the short one.)

I believe in the Hearken mission, and have seen the benefits in my corner of the journalism world as an editor and as an audience member. (I’m a frequent listener to WUWM, whose Bubbler Talk is a fantastic Hearken project).

The chance to join the Hearken team was one I couldn’t pass up, despite the risk that comes with joining a startup.

The stories I’ve seen come out of Hearken projects are helping develop a richer understanding of the communities we live in and cover, and the people within it. I find it incredibly gratifying to see journalists and question-askers come together to create something vibrant and useful — inside and outside the newsroom.

Public-powered journalism builds trust in both directions

Cultivating intentional relationships with the public is crucial to the future of journalism.

At Hearken, we’re teaching newsrooms how to break down the wall between the audience and the creators in a way that validates their participation in the journalistic process, by highlighting their own question and often giving them access to something they may never have been able to gain on their own.

In Kenosha, some of the most-read Hearken stories were ones the newsroom never would have written about, because the stories lack the kind of news hook journalists typically look for.

Why is there no northside Starbucks?

What is the Bowfin Ruin?

Why do buildings stay empty so long?

How does that build trust? It builds relationship. Someone asks a question, it gets selected, they’re told it’s in progress, and they — eventually — get an answer (even if the answer is that it’s still a mystery).

It’s a fulfilled contract.

The public needs to trust journalists. That trust means people believe the reporting so painstakingly done at outlets around the world. They will also be willing to share their stories and expertise when reporters come knocking on their doors and trust that information will be presented accurately.

And, journalists need to trust the public. They need to trust their audience is made up of intelligent people who will read and understand the important work they put out. They need to trust that sources will tell them the truth when asked about their experiences. They need to trust that they actually have an audience.

Right now, we’ve got a president who never shies away from sharing his disdain for journalists, journalism and “the media,” and plenty of people fall into that camp. I’ve had difficult conversations with members of my own family who fall into that group.

Hearken projects help address that. It’s harder to have disdain for the reporters who take you to ask your alderman what he does all day, who check into the funny smell, or who don’t stop digging into the sticky issues around public health or race in a city.

Public-powered journalism builds community

The open submission and voting rounds Hearken newsrooms run gives everyone a seat at the table. Anybody can submit a question and anybody can vote for what they want to see tackled next. If they’re really motivated, they can share within their own social networks and encourage others to join them.

When newsrooms give the public a seat at the table (even in a digital way) it fosters relationships, empowers the public, and grants a sense of ownership.

How cool is it when someone sees their question featured in a voting round or — better yet — it wins? And anyone who voted for that question gets their own participation validated, too.

In Kenosha, voting rounds led us to write about ash trees and school finances — both topics that had been covered before. But the questions that came in, and then those questions rising to the top in voting rounds, let us know that we had more to do to help the community on these topics.

As a bonus, those stories performed well online, attracting more readers than we would normally have expected for those topics.

Your audience is an inexhaustible well of story ideas — and when you take on a question that comes from them, you already know there’s at least one person who wants to see the answer. And if you do things right, they’ll be motivated to get their friends, their mom, their grandma, and their out-of-town cousins to check it out.

Public-powered journalism links the public with the newsroom

When the question asker is invited to help report, whether that’s a simple email exchange to help a reporter clarify things or an invitation to join an interview or tour, it’s an opportunity to meet the person behind the byline.

It’s a lot harder to think of the reporter at your newspaper, radio or TV station as “the media” when you just had a lovely conversation where he or she took you seriously and helped you get an answer to your question.

Particularly if it involves a cool tour that you wouldn’t have been able to wrangle on your own, like these lucky Curious Kenosha question-askers:

What’s the history of our library system?

How did Petrifying Springs get its name?

That person who gets an inside look into the nuanced reporting process knows how the story was put together, knows the information is true, and knows that the reporter presented the information accurately.

tl;dr

Throughout my career, I’ve worked to put out journalism that connects people to their community. I consider myself very lucky to have worked for papers that gave reporters and editors like me the freedom to pursue out-of-the-box techniques and to innovate new strategies to build and connect with our audience.

Joining Hearken now gives me the opportunity to help dozens of newsrooms trying to do the same thing.


Want to learn how to better engage the public? Download our free engagement checklist guide.