Independent Study: Hearken’s Form of Engagement Journalism Grows Newsroom Revenue and Strengthens Relationships

(One More Time For The People In The Back)

Jennifer Brandel
We Are Hearken
4 min readSep 7, 2023


It’s been five years since this experiment was run. But the best things come to those who wait, right? We now have “…the first causal evidence that engaged journalism can impact newsrooms’ bottom line and improve relationships with the communities they serve.”

Cue the fireworks and marching band!

If you’ve been working with Hearken and following our best practices, you’ve no doubt seen evidence of the researchers’ conclusions. But having a powerhouse like Dr. Talia Stroud and the Center for Media Engagement conduct and publish this iron-clad research is a terrific vote of confidence for the work in engaged journalism that so many are endeavoring to operationalize and spread.

Quick background

In 2018, Hearken worked with Talia Stroud and a large newspaper chain across 20 different papers to launch Hearken’s tech and execute on our classic Q&A format. The study looks at what was learned over a six month period from studying subscriptions, traffic, and audience members’ perception of the newsroom and their own news efficacy. In other words — this is about a specific engagement intervention around inviting and answering audience questions with Hearken tech and approach. This is just a caution that not every engagement strategy may yield these specific positive results. And I also believe that other engagement approaches will yield positive benefits, too.

Quick synopsis

“Following six months of an engaged journalism initiative at their local newspaper, audience members had more favorable perceptions of the newspaper and a stronger sense of the news sites’ role in the infrastructure of their community. In turn, intervention sites saw more new subscribers than control sites, a finding that held across a variety of robustness checks. These results suggest that engaged journalism can connect newsrooms to local communities and begin to address business needs for local newsrooms.”

Choice Quotes From The Study

We hear all the time from engagement practitioners that their work is not prioritized for many reasons, but oftentimes it comes down to a “budget decision.” Aka the newsroom leadership either doesn’t believe or doesn’t know that engagement can make them money. It’s worth noting that in order to see proof that engagement yields revenue, a variety of staff need to be in touch with one another and track the impact. For Hearken partners, this can look like comparing email addresses coming into the platform against the email addresses in their CRM, and allowing people to subscribe to a newsletter at the same moment they’re submitting a question, among other approaches.

If you are advocating for Hearken, or in general for more audience engagement resources and support, here are choice quotes from the study that we hope are useful in making your case:

  • “…the initiative resulted in more subscriptions and more positive audience evaluations. The results highlight the applicability of social exchange theory to questions of local news viability and illustrate that engaged journalism can improve relationships between newsrooms and the communities they serve.”
  • “We argue that the connection between the audience and newsroom is equally social and economic. We look to the idea of engaged journalism, with its connection to social exchange theory, as a potential solution to the democratic and economic links between newsrooms and their audiences.
  • “As a result, engaged journalism may enhance the sense of community among audiences.”
  • “… new subscriptions were higher for the intervention sites after the engagement initiative began relative to the control sites. The effect of the intervention was statistically significant … The intervention resulted in an increase of 1.75 new subscriptions each day for intervention news sites compared with the control sites, all else equal. Given that sites had a daily average of 2.27 new subscriptions, this is a notable uptick…”
  • “…audience attitudes were more positive after the engagement initiative at the intervention sites relative to audience attitudes at the control sites.”
  • “These results offer the first causal evidence that engaged journalism can affect the economic viability of local news sites and local news sites’ relationships with the communities they serve.
  • “By providing a service that answers questions posed by audience members, audiences are more likely to reciprocate through subscriptions.
  • “The potential for engaged journalism to enhance the viability of local news is not an effect to be taken lightly.”
  • “Engaged journalism presents a worthwhile strategy for building sustainable and symbiotic relationships between local news and the communities they serve.

This study also points to the promising results of combining engagement with trust and transparency techniques, like those espoused by the dynamic duo Joy Mayer and Lynn Walsh at Trusting News. While not part of this particular study, we also know that Hearken’s model often leads to more Solutions Journalism, which research has also shown to be correlated with many positive effects. Excitingly, Hearken partners with Trusting News and SJN on the Advancing Democracy fellowship, which teaches these three skills in one program.

We hope you find this study and this confirmation helpful as you continue to explore and advocate for engaged journalism to be core to journalism’s strategy. I’m grateful for it, and for so many other fantastic studies on engagement (like this one, this one, this one and this book. If you like your proof in tweet (X?) form, check out this great thread from Joe Amditis from the Center for Cooperative Media.

May the investments in engagement staff, processes, platforms, infrastructure and collaboration outpace the decline of this industry! Godspeed y’all.

Study Recap

👉 Here’s the Center for Media Engagement’s recap of the study: Curbing the Decline of Local News Through Engaged Journalism

Full Study

Want to read the whole dang study (it’s good!), then go here. 👉 Curbing the decline of local news by building relationships with the audience

Journal of Communication | Oxford Academic, Authors: Natalie Jomini Stroud, Emily Van Duyn



Jennifer Brandel
We Are Hearken

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