We Are Hearken
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We Are Hearken

Newsrooms are focused on innovating the distribution of news. The process, not so much.

What Journalism as a Service can teach us about process innovation

This piece is excerpted from a presentation at the 2019 Digital Innovators Summit in Berlin.

How can newsrooms move their relationships with the public from one that’s transactional to one that’s more meaningful? We could start by looking at the auto industry.

There have been a few huge revolutions in the auto industry that have been process-related. Ford pioneered the production line, which helps with efficiency. Toyota developed lean manufacturing, which made everything much more effective and allowed the go-to-market cost to be much less expensive. And now we’re looking at a technology advancement with driverless cars.

Cars and the news industry actually have something in common: both are trying to get people from point A to point B.

Cars, of course, are trying to move people on a geographic level. News organizations are trying to do that on a psychological level, trying to get people from a state of not knowing to a state of understanding.

The news industry, unlike the auto industry, has had many tech and distribution advancements, but hardly anything in the way of process innovation. We’ve moved from the town crier to print to broadcast to being on Snapchat, smartphones and smart speakers.

But we haven’t changed our process: the way that we make decisions is as old as the printing press. We still gather a small group of people (finite inputs) in a closed room to make decisions on what the rest of the public deserves to know. And we make the product in isolation, and present it to the public once we’re finished and move on to the next product. No feedback or improvement along the way.

And today we’re faced with so much more technology than we’ve ever had to consider before. We have the distracting promises of artificial intelligence, big data, bots, NLP, etc. There’s an assumption that the answer to journalism’s woes must lie in technology. But if this technology is focused on efficiency and distribution, then the news strategy just becomes about more, faster, everywhere.

When I asked a room of 100+ European news executives if, as news consumers, they felt like they needed more information, on every device, more often, how many do you think said yes? Zero. Nobody needs or wants more, faster, everywhere.

As human beings outside of newsrooms, we don’t want news in our faces all the time. It’s actually unhealthy. There’s even a term of art for keeping news at bay: “news avoidance.” And it’s been trending long enough for academia to cover it.

So what then? Instead of using tech to fuel a news strategy about more, faster, everywhere, we need news to be about better, more relevant, where and when we want it. And it must be more representative of the narratives of those not in power.

How can we get there? I’d like to reintroduce the ultimate engagement technology for process change. It’s free, it’s 7 million years in the making and we all have access to a lifetime subscription. It’s called: the human brain.

We use this AI — this Actual Intelligence, to think different thoughts, to behave differently, to adapt and evolve our processes. And using our brains to approach problems in new ways can actually pull this industry out of the nosedive.

Breaking news: we are no longer in the machine age

Yet the process that the news ecosystem currently runs on was built for the machine age where we are thinking about being optimized for speed, for efficiency and for distribution.

How many newsrooms are still organized around “feeding the beasts” and filling some set amount of containers by a certain time? The containers may have changed from a nightly television news broadcast or the columns of a newspaper to a phone notification or Alexa skill or an Instagram story, but it’s the same old process.

When we optimize for filling the containers, it’s no wonder newsrooms look at the concept of audience engagement — of involving the public in decision-making — as antithetical to their job, and something extra that has to be justified. Because involving the public could slow them down. And then the beast might not be fed on time. And then the machine would break.

So it makes sense then that newsrooms would keep the public out of decisions and processes. But keeping them out of the making of journalism, means the public is on the receiving end of it. They become mere consumers — receptacles for information and are further rendered unrecognizable from the dignified, helpful individuals that can enrich journalism, and turned into data points for how many things were clicked on, or how long was the scroll, or what page was navigated to next and how much money was given. And then we wonder, aghast, at why the public sentiment is turning toward not seeing journalists as real people? We don’t see them as real people. Our processes don’t treat them as real people.

But there are emerging processes that are much different from this. These are processes built for the information age. They form the early blueprints for a new operating system that’s optimized for listening, for relevance and for trust. Instead of saying to the public, “here’s what we think you need to know,” it starts with the question, “what can we help the public understand or do?”

For this process to run, it requires involvement from the public, which means the public has to be part of the storytelling process, which means the public goes from being a consumer to becoming a partner in the process of creating journalism. The newsroom goes from acting in the position of a parent, to a servant.

There are new open processes for journalism where the public can be involved at every step of the way. They can ask questions, they can vote, they can determine what coverage news organization does, they can be in dialogue with one another, and contributing in ways that allow news organizations to maintain journalistic integrity and its independence. The result is not lowest common denominator journalism. This is collaborative, responsive, engaged journalism that is answering to community stated information needs.

When you think about this open process of journalism as a service, the newsroom goes from saying, “This is what you think we think you need to know,” to saying:

  • What can you contribute to the story that we’re working on?
  • How can we better cover stories for you?
  • What do you know that would be helpful in this reporting?

There are so many exciting news brands coming out of this idea, and alongside that, there are service providers founded by journalists who are helping newsrooms switch their processes.

At Hearken, what we’ve learned is that when you optimize for relationships and trust, the value follows. It’s a positive feedback loop, where you start by serving the public. We found:

… our stories become more relevant and perform better when the public is involved;

…when people ask a question, 56% are likely to subscribe to your newsletter;

…people who engage in this methodology are between two and five times more likely to pay for that news organization;

advertisers and sponsors will pay a premium to be seen alongside of this content where the public is being heard.

The best part is that when you involve the public and they’re a part of your story and you are reporting with them, they will be the best marketers you could ever imagine. They will tell all of their friends, if they’re referenced in the story, if their photo is in the newspaper, if they’re part of what you do, they will bridge you to their networks and bring more people into your news organization.

Not to mention, during these difficult times to be a journalist, research shows journalists feel more fulfilled when they’re working with the public in these engaged processes, pre-publication. When they go from viewing the public as this abstract concept to real people that they’re reporting to and serving, it’s far more fulfilling to do this difficult and oftentimes thankless work.

If this other kind of process is so great, why aren’t newsrooms just doing this all the time? What’s the catch? It’s the fact that old habits die hard. And when we’re constantly caught in the cycle of trying to do things quickly with daily and hourly deadlines, it’s quite hard to get 10,000 feet up to look at what we’re doing and make those changes.

We did a study of 100 practitioners of engaged journalism. And we found that the biggest barrier to making this change was just internal politics and culture in the newsroom. It’s using that technology of our brains that’s been the hardest part.

Those are all formidable problems and barriers. But what’s at stake is pretty huge. And we’re all seeing the consequences playing out right now.

Engagement is a process, and the sophistication of that process can be plotted along a spectrum and a continuum. And as of right now, a lot of newsrooms are still early on the road of process change, and looking at engagement as a special project or initiative. They haven’t yet made it into a practice in which is something the entire newsroom is doing.

One day soon, some newsrooms are going to make engagement their competitive advantage. Journalism as a Service will drive everything in their newsroom, it will be the core operating system of what they do. It’s going to be a while.

But I see signs of hope and change. Just in the last four years, Hearken has grown from three newsrooms to 150 around the globe, serving newsrooms who just heard about new processes, tried them out, and found success when they committed to the change. The shift is starting to happen. The question is, who is ready and willing to evolve their processes faster than the industry’s collapse? It’s not a question of able.

Get more engagement insights, delivered to your inbox, from The Hearkening. Reach out to Hearken for support in evolving your engagement and editorial processes.We have been there. We are here to help.



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Jennifer Brandel

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