Hearken Case Study: Don’t write off the skeptics! How one newsroom changed the dynamic with a long-time critic

You can probably think of an audience member who always has something to say about how you covered something wrong or didn’t do justice to a particular topic. Learn how the Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, New York was able to shift the dynamic with a long-time critic of the newspaper through Hearken’s public-powered process.

Summer Fields
Dec 6, 2018 · 14 min read

The Democrat & Chronicle (D&C) is a newspaper within the Gannett network in Rochester, New York. This year, they launched Time to Educate, an initiative looking to point the way toward solutions to end educational inequity in their community.

For this project, the newsroom has prioritized outreach and engagement in many ways, including:

  • convening a parental advisory board
  • going on local Spanish-language radio to talk through their latest reporting
  • using Hearken’s public-powered process to gather questions, let the audience vote on what they most want answered, and bring questioners along for the reporting process.

One of the first questions they received through Hearken came from longtime educator and local anti-racism advocate, Howard Eagle: “What is being done to address individual, institutional, and structural racism in the Rochester City School District?” D&C put this question up for a vote against a couple other audience-submitted questions, and Howard’s question won first place.

Howard Eagle at the Democrat & Chronicle, talking about his question. Courtesy of reporter Justin Murphy.

Howard wasn’t a stranger to the Democrat & Chronicle: Howard has been a loyal reader of the D&C as long as he’s lived in Rochester (more than 40 years). He writes often on the issues he is passionate about, and the D&C has even published him a few times. Here’s the intriguing twist: Howard has been one of the paper’s biggest critics, especially when it comes to their education reporting and solutions-oriented projects. Structural racism and its effects on the education system has touched him personally and professionally, and he hasn’t been afraid to speak his mind. He has voiced his critiques about the D&C through many channels: In other local legacy publications, through frequent emails to the staff, on social media, at community meetings, and through his own regular columns in the Minority Reporter, a weekly newspaper in Rochester “that provides news and information relevant to the African American community” in the region. His relationship with staff of the paper, as well as other advocates in the education space, has been contentious at times.

As Howard asked his question and participated in the public-powered journalism process, this long-standing dynamic shifted a bit, thanks to the efforts and willingness of both Howard and the D&C. The newsroom staff was able to work with Howard, left him feeling at least a bit heard, and improved their project by incorporating his knowledge. When other education advocates saw how heavily Howard was featured, it prompted some of them to get more involved in the project.

This isn’t a case of distrust or frustration that has formed over many decades being healed overnight. Instead, it shows promise as a new way newsrooms can collaborate with and listen to community members who may be critical of their work, and illustrates how a news organization can begin to heal the distrust it may have caused with members of marginalized communities. Even if current staffers at an organization aren’t responsible individually for the history of pain, they can collaborate in the healing: not through one story or a one-off town hall meeting, but by seeing the value in sustained engagement over time with the actual members of those communities.

We thought that any newsroom working to engage their public, especially through difference, a history of distrust, or conflict, could learn from this example. For this case study, Hearken talked with Justin Murphy, the education reporter assigned to tackle Howard’s question; his content coach Matthew Leonard, senior engagement editor Julie Philipp (who has known Howard for decades), D&C top editor Karen Magnuson, and, true to Hearken ethos, Howard Eagle himself. Read on to learn the steps the newspaper took, the key lessons they and we took away from this, and how your newsroom can benefit from the lessons learned.

Setting the stage

The project: The Democrat & Chronicle launched Time to Educate for a couple reasons. “Two things sparked it,” said Karen Magnuson, who has been at the D&C since 1999 as managing editor and then top editor. “I’ve been reporting on the education system and how bad the schools are ever since I arrived, with editorial after editorial around leadership, mismanagement, countless stories on mismanagement of funds, and on how poorly the students do across the state and even in the nation.” Despite this effort, she could see they were making “very little progress with the community” on this. Frustration from the community built over the years as there seemed to be nothing happening to improve on education outcomes. She believed if they focused on this one area with resources and solutions developed through Hearken’s public-powered process, they’d have “a greater chance for effecting change and making impact.”

Time to Educate’s aim is to shed light on issues affecting the communities who suffer the worst from inequities in the education system in Rochester, such as the Black and Latino population. There are Black and Latino journalists working alongside White journalists on the initiative. The journalists most involved in this particular project with Howard are not Black.

The reader: Not only is Howard a longtime reader of the D&C in general: He has history with individual staffers. Senior engagement editor Julie Philipp’s history with him goes back three decades, since she started at the paper as a young reporter. She said race was becoming a big issue in the public discourse back then, and Howard was a vocal participant in those conversations. “There were outspoken ministers and leaders in the Black community leading the charge to talk about race and injustice. Traditional, fiery ministers. Howard was teaching at the school.” Julie talked about how tensions would sometimes rise at those meetings.

Before Time to Educate launched: Howard became aware of the project, and expressed great skepticism from the get-go. He stressed the importance of having the chance for his (and other) community groups to give input. Julie and education reporter Justin met with Howard’s organization at their headquarters in the Central Church of Christ, a location Howard said is well-known for having been “a hotbed of political activity in Rochester, especially during the Civil Rights years.”

They talked through the aims of the project, its potential impact, and to try to clarify to the group how it would be different than past large D&C community-focused initiatives. “We raised the issue of the people most directly impacted and how to get them involved,” Howard said.

A Facebook post skeptical about Time to Educate, from the page of the community group of which Howard is a member.

Julie said this initial exchange about Time to Educate lasted several hours. While she felt the energy was tense, she also believed the conversation was a necessary first step to establish buy-in.

The launch

Soon after the D&C opened their call for questions for Time to Educate, Howard asked his first question: “What is being done to address individual, institutional, and structural racism in the Rochester City School District?”

Knowing it was from Howard, Julie decided to include the question in their first Hearken voting round alongside four other questions. Julie wanted to give him a fair shot of being involved, and to see whether his question was compelling to others. Many folks asked questions along similar lines as Howard’s, but she said Howard’s question was worded the most intentionally. Reporter Justin similarly notes “I know from experience that [Howard] packs a lot into those words that he chose. A lot of the pre-interview was saying ‘when you say individual, institutional, and systemic racism, what do you mean by individual? By institutional? By systemic?’ He has a theory of practice around all that.”

“I’m an educator and I teach about racism: individual, institutional, and structural. I have expertise … while many other people just run their mouths, I’ve been studying for decades, the ‘tripartite beast.’” Howard said, referring to three levels of racism.

Howard’s question won over the other four in the voting round. His question received 38 percent of the votes; the second place question received 30 percent.

Reporting the story

D&C reporter Justin Murphy followed Hearken guidance by involving Howard at several steps throughout the reporting process. First, he invited Howard into the newsroom, and Howard brought along two other members of his community group.

D&C reporter Justin Murphy and Howard’s colleague Minister Clifford Florence Sr., Associate Pastor of Central Church of Christ. Photo courtesy of Justin.

Justin knows Howard from his time on the education beat. “We knew it would be an interesting experiment for us to dive into the Hearken process, because Howard is not a typical interview subject for us, I would say. I have a relationship with him. He’s run for school board … and I’ve talked to him many times.” (Howard confirmed he’s run “six times, and interestingly enough, people are still after me to do it again next year.”)

During this first newsroom visit, they talked for nearly two hours. “We had a good conversation. He is very critical of the media in Rochester in general, and I’m probably included in that, but I think we have more or less a respectful relationship. I don’t think I bother him as much as others do.” Justin published a question-asker profile of him, which detailed Howard’s family history and how he had come to the area. He was “a child of farm workers and had experiences of racism in one of our lily white suburbs,” Justin said.

To report the larger story, Justin took a few steps to incorporate Howard’s perspective. He attended a meeting of the Racial Equity Action and Leadership team, a committee composed of district and community leaders. The meeting itself “had been controversial” because the team had initially cancelled it without notice. “The district was fast and loose and not committed,” Justin said. He reported in the story that the cancellation “led to another round of recriminations and accusations, with Eagle leading the charge.”

The team rescheduled and convened in in a room for “two hours talking about how the district would work on equity.” Howard attended the meeting to take part. Justin said Howard would have attended regardless of whether Justin was working on this story. But Justin said that if he had not been reporting on Howard’s question, he himself may not have attended; it was important to go to observe Howard thinking through these issues in person.

A week later, Justin had a sit down meeting with “eight or ten of the top-ranking people in the district” and infused Howard’s perspective by “asking the follow-ups I knew he would be asking. One of [Howard’s] big things was having the district have mandatory anti-racist training, and they said ‘We won’t call it that. People will feel bad. We’ll call it implicit bias training.’ So, I tried to needle them the way Howard would.”

Then, Justin published a final story. Howard’s history working on these entrenched issues, his long-standing frustration of how things have gone, and his “cautious” optimism about the top-level philosophical shifts from district leadership were all reflected. The story was on the front page of the D&C.

In an interesting paradox, Howard has been banned from commenting on the paper’s website or Facebook page prior to this. This stemmed from a conflict during a past D&C initiative in which Howard vehemently disagreed with the framing of historical details about slavery in an op-ed a contributor wrote. He thought his critique was valid, and said the writer even acknowledged her mistake and learned from it. Despite this understanding they reached, the D&C banned Howard from commenting on their website or Facebook page. He describes himself as someone who was an active commenter before, especially intervening when others made racist comments.

Julie gives more of her point of view on why Howard might have been banned from certain D&C communication platforms. “There’s never a doubt that he’s a phenomenally well-informed member of the community, but sometimes his personal style can be a little abrasive. So how do we deal with that? We want people to pay attention to what he’s saying. He has a tendency to dominate the Facebook group if he’s in that space.” While his points are perfectly valid, Julie said, his long commentaries may leave “others less inclined to participate. How do you be democratic? At some point, I reached out and said ‘It’s really great you’re participating. Could you do me a favor and keep contributions shorter and keep it more of a conversation?’”

Then, Howard’s Hearken question won, at which point he got to come to the newsroom and be on the front page of the paper. “Justin made a comment that this is the first time in the history of the newspaper that someone who has been banned has been allowed in the building! That contradiction can’t exist,” Howard said.

Despite the feeling of D&C tapping him for the project being a rapid 360 change, Howard thinks being on the front page was “good. I hope it is, right? Our perspective doesn’t get out there in that widespread fashion very often. But what else? What’s next?”

He admits he appreciated the stories Justin did, but said his group “remain(s) very, very skeptical about the potential impact of ‘Time to Educate.’”

But Justin said that the fact that Howard showed an inkling of appreciation, and that there was an absence of pointed criticism around this particular process, is a big step forward. “Any time something relevant to education pops up in the local news,” or in the D&C, Justin said, Howard often responds with criticism. Justin figured the pieces produced response to Howard’s question would be no exception, but “he didn’t express hardly any problems at all,” and was respectful.

Lessons learned

  1. Engage with the content of criticism from your audience, and not just its delivery, especially when there’s a history of distrust between your organization and a community or group. You have to reckon with your history and your potential involvement in systemic and structural community issues, especially if you’re reporting on them.

“You need to engage with the content of their criticism,” Justin said. “Journalists get yelled at often enough that we have defense mechanisms around it but it’s important to not let that be the overriding reaction, because sometimes those criticisms are entirely warranted. I can see how it would be deeply frustrating to raise legitimate concerns and have people dismiss them. Once you get into doing that, it was not a combative relationship because he had the impression that I was willing to hear out what he had to say.”

Reporter Justin Murphy actively listening. Courtesy of Justin.

2. Define who your public is, which communities make it up, and reckon with your history in each respective community that you’re trying to reach or report on. Be prepared to mount ongoing engagement efforts to undo past damage.

Matthew Leonard, a content coach at the paper, believes that “the Hearken framework is a really good way to broaden your audience and support, and bring in more diverse sources, including ones that are critical and need to be heard and applied to your reporting anyway. My overall feeling is to completely encourage that part of the process and do it early on. It’s a good gut check early on with what you can realistically achieve with a project like this.”

Working with Hearken to strategize and execute the public-powered process helps drive these sort of stories and results. Giving an audience the chance to start with a genuine question, then see if it’s the question most readers and followers want answered, and to bring along the person for intimate conversations, a newsroom can productively engage through difference, even with someone they would not imagine being able to productively engage with otherwise.

To continue the momentum of improving on the relationship, Matthew believes the D&C should “plan to come back to [Howard] a year later and revisit the conversation, what’s happened since then and build up a roster of responses that we can keep on weaving into the discussion,” which Julie echoed.

3. Starting from a place of questions was key to this working. Julie observed that while asking for story ideas would’ve been too broad a request to be useful, asking Howard for a question worked well because it was “a concise opportunity.”

In Julie’s opinion, Hearken’s process and consulting guided them to set parameters that make it clear to the entire audience how to engage in the series. This helped set the terms for productively working with Howard, while giving him room to be engaged on this issue for which they shared a passion. “I don’t know any other platform where you could do that.” Starting from a question, which by default presupposes some curiosity, not-knowing, and humility, rather than from a place of assertion and opinion on either side, is more fruitful and actionable.

4. Engaging one question-asker can be just a starting point for hearing from your broader public. Seeing a fellow community member represented can galvanize others to seek out deeper opportunities to engage with your newsroom.

Seeing Howard on the front page inspired others in the education space in Rochester to rise to the occasion and get more involved in Time to Educate. Julie said, “a lot of people I do work with in the Black community were really upset with me,” to see Howard on the front page and in the stories. They wondered why he was chosen and being portrayed as a leader. “But they did some soul searching: there isn’t anyone stepping up but him to be a leader. So it almost galvanized other people to start getting involved! They didn’t want Howard to be the only voice!” Some of those folks were part of the expert advisory committee that the D&C convened for the project that Howard is not on, “though he asked.”

Justin shared a similar experience. “I’ve heard from some people on my beat: you’re giving Howard a lot of oxygen lately. From my point of view, it was useful in developing further the relationship and establishing some bona fides with a portion of the education readership who has been deeply suspicious of us in general.”

Howard has also said that he doesn’t want to be the individual representative on these issues, either. “In my view that’s part of what’s wrong. I don’t suppose this is unique to Rochester. We talk all the time about the need for collaboration around deeply entrenched problems but then we operate as individuals. … Viable solutions will be produced by groups of people.”

These insights serve to illustrate that, as a newsroom approaches marginalized communities to report on issues that affect them, they cannot take for granted that the whole community is aligned or operating together toward solutions. The response to this project illustrated that the Black education community in Rochester, for example, is not a monolithic interest bloc, but instead a loose network of groups and individuals with their own histories and tensions with one another. It’s worth it for newsrooms to dig into that stakeholder landscape further, and making sure not to tokenize individual people in a community as representative of the whole.


Working with Hearken and the process affords hope that relationships and long-standing dynamics, even with critical audience members, can begin to change when there is an intentional framework in place. It also shows that people can surprise you. “I felt I knew him so long that I knew everything to know!” Julie said. “It was surprising, and gave me more insight into his sincerity.”

The public-powered process doesn’t have to end with one question-asker and deeply engaging them, though that’s a powerful start. It’s a message to your broader public that you’re willing to listen to them and engage them, too.

There’s hope for newsrooms who want to turn things around with folks who feel like their biggest critics. Grappling with individuals and communities critical of their work, while holding space for the root causes of that frustration and setting up frameworks for effective listening and empathy in their reporting processes, is a worthwhile effort. It can begin to heal tensions, to regain trust, and to enrich a newsroom’s work by and for communities they wish to work with.

Anna Nirmala from Hearken contributed to this case study.

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

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: http://www.wearehearken.com/

Summer Fields

Written by

Empowering news orgs to listen to their audiences @wearehearken. Grad of @uchicagocollege sociology. Talk to me about “diversity” in media. Audio producer!

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: http://www.wearehearken.com/

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