Jennifer Brandel
May 28 · 12 min read

We’ve been at this whole audience engagement thing since 2012 in some form or another. In 2012 we first started experimenting within a newsroom to see what would happen if the public were invited into the editorial process via WBEZ’s Curious City. We called our methodology public-powered journalism and turns out it worked quite well, and still does! Other newsrooms started asking: what’s your secret? Can you help us? In 2015 we answered by forming the company Hearken to do just that. For the past four years we’ve been experimenting to figure out how to best help newsrooms adopt the public-powered process and we’ve learned … quite a lot.

Our goal at Hearken remains the same as it’s been since day one: to help organizations better listen to and respond to those they serve. This not only makes for better journalism, but also supports the financial outlook for news.

Hearken is evolving — and this piece will explain what that means. We’re not changing the “why” of what we do what we do, just adjusting some of the “how” and the “what” after having absorbed a few major lessons I’ll outline below.

Before we get to all that learning, I’ll attempt to set the record for the language we use since the word “Hearken” has become synonymous with a process and a technology, but really, we’re a company!


HEARKEN: is a company that helps organizations listen better to those they serve and create reciprocal relationships. We train people on our Public-Powered Methodology and Engagement Management System along with custom consulting and capacity-building for organizations looking to operationalize engagement.

Copyright: Hearken

PUBLIC-POWERED JOURNALISM: is a unique methodology that Hearken pioneered. This process involves the public from pitch to publication and enables newsrooms to create more representative, relevant and original content. We’ve helped more than 150 newsrooms around the world adopt this model.

Copyright: Hearken

ENGAGEMENT MANAGEMENT SYSTEM (EMS): Hearken’s proprietary technology platform is called the Engagement Management System. It helps newsrooms generate actionable insights from the public-powered method to create more relevant, representative and original content. The tech helps editorial staff keep engagement organized, and helps revenue-focused staff generate qualified email leads and connect to newsletters and CRMs.

To sum up: one way to think about Hearken is through another company IDEO. They help organizations adopt design-thinking methodologies and they have tech tools (E.g., Shape) to help support those methods.

Ok — let’s get to the lessons learned!

Lesson: Engagement is a process, not a product or a project

Suffice it to say, the idea of engaging the public has come a long way in the past few years. When we first started talking to newsrooms, we were constantly battling the arm-crossed skeptical journalists or managers who were not shy to state that they believed “the public is a bunch of idiots and assholes” and not worth engaging or listening to. We wrote posts like this to try to disabuse them of this dangerous and limiting attitude. As hopeful as we were that calling out this toxic disdain would help it shift, the 2016 US presidential election did that job better than anything we ever could have said or done.

After that, suddenly listening to the public seemed not just like a good idea, but imperative in order to ensure the accuracy of journalism. This scramble to listen resulted in countless projects in newsrooms across the country. These projects were often taken on by a few folks in editorial who tried all manner of ways to engage and listen. But they were battling a culture and workflow that was not set up for listening beyond special initiatives and projects.

We did our best to help newsrooms plant the seeds of this new way of working with our public-powered process and Engagement Management System. Many of those newsrooms are still with us and have started to spread the ethos beyond special projects to a practice. But many could not sustain a new way of working beyond a few efforts, even if they yielded great outcomes. The reporters, editors, producers, managers on this front line of change faced extreme headwinds in shifting their internal culture and mindset toward one that could sustain this work long enough to see the value (E.g., growing their audience, generating more qualified leads for newsletters and subscriptions, increasing trust, etc.).

Hearken changed our support structures to try to set up our newsroom partners for success, no matter the culture they were situated in and leadership they reported to. We hired and grew a team of remarkable Engagement Consultants who were there to hand-hold our partners through strategic planning, marketing, monetizing and ultimately generating consistent public-powered work. We provided hours of targeted strategy, story auditing and brainstormed alongside our partners on anything and everything. When newsrooms could meet us halfway, the results were incredible. Their stories broke records, they sold-out events, they generated new sources of revenue and grants, reporters loved their jobs more, they won prestigious awards.

Still — we learned that us trying to usher in such substantial change from the outside via one or two projects, was not enough to move the needle in a lot of cases before a lot of our partners had a change in staff, or leadership, or they were sold, or shut down completely.

We still firmly believe that engagement will become the competitive advantage and turn into a profit center for newsrooms. But before it’s able to get there, engagement must first go from being seen as a special project, to being widely adopted as a newsroom practice.

Copyright: Hearken

This brings us to another major lesson.

Lesson: The shift to reader-revenue requires retooling a newsroom’s entire operating system

As the economic models newsrooms relied on for decades continue to crumble and newsrooms are left scrambling, many have turned from ad-based models to paid membership or subscriptions to sustain them. Figuring out how to make this transition successfully is an exceedingly difficult puzzle for most newsrooms. Heck, this problem is so hard that some of the smartest thinkers and researchers came together to form The Membership Puzzle Project to create guides and best practices.

Why is it so hard? It’s a change that requires a near total rewrite of a newsroom’s operating system. Generating reader revenue is not about slapping up a paywall, or offering tote bags, or artfully begging with focused campaigns. It requires re-orienting toward the public and proving, over and over again, that you are indeed there to serve them. And proving that — requires optimizing practices for listening to, responding to and better representing the public. Almost zero newsrooms are optimized for that.

In fact, most newsrooms are still optimized for speed, distribution, beating the competition and “feeding the beasts.” Every gear in their organization’s machine has been dialed in for being fast and distributing their work as far and wide as they possibly can. In the machine age, when information was not the overabundant resource it is now, it worked for them. But it doesn’t work anymore. I wrote about this at length recently.

Copyright: Hearken

I truly feel for the folks in charge of news organizations. Re-tooling the machine of your entire operation to be optimized for a different revenue model requires immense change: rewriting job descriptions, building and hiring for new capacities, adopting new technologies and workflows, and building this new plane while you’re trying to keep the old one from a nosedive.

We know from experience that this is hard no matter how young or old your organization is and no matter the scale — be it a 3-person operation or 300. Committing to change and the getting comfortable with not having all the answers is a massive and unsettling effort. And it would be overwhelming even if you had a full emotional battery plus full support from your stakeholders and boards to do the change. Most leaders are still pretty darn battle-weary from the daily trials of the past few years and the lack of quick fixes and obvious answers to the many problems they face. In short — it gets harder before it gets easier.

As I often do when confronted by complexity, here’s an attempt to sum up the substantial shifts needed in a “from-to” chart.

Copyright: Hearken

So how to go about building the capacities necessary to make this shift? That brings us to another lesson, and how Hearken is changing to help.

Lesson: The shift necessary for meaningful, relational engagement requires time, support from humans and consistent experiences

So what is meaningful, relational engagement? We wrote at length about what we mean when we talk about engagement — but the short version — it’s a mutual, human, feedback loop. An “engagement ring” if you will. And in order to not be extractive engagement, the newsroom has to actually listen to and respond to the public. It’s not about counting clicks. As the image above shows, it’s not about telling the public what they need to know. It’s about listening to the public and serving their information needs.

And as the image below shows, how newsrooms define engagement shows up differently depending on how they look at the public and what they think the role of the public is in journalism. (We help newsrooms operate in the lower left of the quadrant, which becomes the engine for everything else to improve.)

Copyright: Hearken

In giving my spiel about what this kind of engagement means to thousands of people over the years, light bulbs inevitably go off in the room. Many people quickly “get it” and they see how adopting this mentality allows them to serve the public better, and therefore do the job of journalism better. But the gap between understanding why a behavior change should be made and being able to change behavior is often a very, very wide chasm. For example, I understand that if I exercise regularly and avoid sugar I’m going to be do a better job of being a healthy human. But as I write *this very sentence,* my husband just walked over and offered me a cookie and I am now chewing it. Behavior is a very hard thing to change.

When Hearken first started off, I naively thought we could be a scalable tech company. We’d just have to provide the platform, some documentation, and explain it a few times and voila: engagement! Nope. We’ve learned alongside many of our pals in the engagement tech space that lasting behavior change must be supported in myriad ways and over long periods of time and that having tech (whether you build, buy or install) is the tip of the iceberg.

Copyright: Hearken

It’s been a tough go in trying to convince newsrooms that engagement is not a product or a technology. And that just giving them access to Hearken’s Engagement Management System or any engagement tech won’t magically result in the change they’re looking for. Just as handing me a pair of new sneakers won’t magically result in me working out regularly. I’d have a much better shot of getting into a new routine with a variety of supports like people around me who are regularly exercising and encouraging me to do so, a personal trainer to meet me where I’m at, and articulated goals and a commitment to changing.

Journalists are smart and resourceful people, and they’re up against very strained budgets. So the idea of paying for ongoing consulting and support (E.g., the personal trainer) and strategy alongside our platform (E.g., the new sneakers) is often met with “No thanks — we’ll figure this out on our own.” But we’ve learned they won’t, unless they have aligned leadership, goals, and a culture of support (E.g., exercise buddies).

When there is commitment and support up and down an organization for new ways of thinking, behaving and working, that’s when the real transformations can take root and blossom.

Which is why Hearken is evolving — why we must evolve.

The change we know is possible and that we’re committed to supporting in the news industry, won’t be possible unless there is buy-in at the leadership level for real structural and strategic change, and unless those doing the work have a community of like-minded peers to support that change.

How Hearken is evolving

Just as we help our partners meet the public where they’re at and address their most pressing needs, Hearken is shifting our own structure to open up our talents and offerings to meet your most pressing needs.

Until now, we’ve just offered newsrooms a package that was designed for engagement as a project. We provided newsrooms with strategic support and our Engagement Management System to support their use of our public-powered model for a beat, initiative or special series.

But we have such talent on our team in the USA and Europe that can be deployed to help newsrooms transform, and to shift toward engagement in every department. We have experts who can help design engaged live events, assess audience information needs, launch newsletters and membership programs, build capacity and leadership, support internal business strategy and operations, write successful grants and pitch investors, run equitable hiring processes, and connect engagement to revenue, to name a few.

So we are reimagining the way we put our brilliant people to work for those we serve, to enable newsrooms to reimagine how they can put their brilliant people to work for those they serve. We are knocking down old walls between the “business side” and the “editorial side” of the news industry in order to see them holistically — as part of one healthy continuum that everyone on staff needs to understand and feel ownership over.

Ok but what does this mean?

This means that Hearken can help with far more than just supporting newsrooms to deploy public-powered journalism. We can help your organization make that shift from the old ad-supported world to reader-revenue. We will continue to support our current and new partners using our public-powered methodology, and we will continue to build out our Engagement Management System to organize actionable public input and turn that into incredible journalism. We are just now offering so much more.

Here’s where we’re starting:

  • Individual membership for engagement innovators. We’re here to support those lonely innovators working in their newsroom toward that culture change.
  • Capacity-building workshops. We are helping news organizations to build their understanding, capacity and muscles for engagement in all of its forms. We visit newsrooms and craft custom content to help seed the culture shift up and down the leadership level and across departments.
  • Custom coaching packages. Our incredible team of Engagement Strategists have subject expertise in a wide range of newsroom skills and can be booked to help solve a wide range of engagement-related needs.
  • Engaged elections. We’re partnering up with The Membership Puzzle Project to offer support around how to generate engaged coverage in the 2020 elections.
  • Engagement Innovators Summit. Join audience engagement enthusiasts and innovators across community-focused industries to explore how a culture of listening, service and trust-building can make us better at what we do. This inaugural summit in October in Brooklyn will include a special focus on what it takes to create more engaged elections coverage.

This is by no means our “full menu.” We’re helping to design and launch new public-powered shows, supporting the launching of new beats, of brand new journalism organizations, and we’re partnering as we love to do with industry colleagues and like-minded organizations on new initiatives.

So: how can we help you? Reach out for a strategy call and we’ll figure it out together. No one can make this massive shift alone, and we’re ready and here for you every step of the way.

Check out our updated website to see our new services and to book time.

If you’re an organization providing support to the journalism ecosystem and want to explore partnership — reach out!

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 Federica Cherubini

Jennifer Brandel

Written by

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

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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