Ellen Mayer
Apr 14, 2016 · 8 min read

This past year I found myself sitting at a dinner party with a family friend who is a retired columnist for a Big Respected Newspaper. When asked what I’ve been up to since college, I launched into my typical elevator pitch: “I’m the Community Manager for a journalism tech startup called Hearken that provides software tools and consulting to help newsrooms better engage and collaborate with their audiences.”

This being a journalism crowd, people were curious to hear more, so I ended up explaining the whole Hearken process:

  1. Audience members submit questions they’d like the newsroom to investigate
  2. Journalists select a handful of those questions and put them up for a vote
  3. Audience members vote for the question they’re most curious about
  4. Newsroom answers the winning question (sometimes with the help and participation of the audience)

NOTE: We refer to the Hearken process as Public-Powered Journalism. That term can also be applied to any kind of journalism that’s made with, not just for, your community. More on that here.

Graphic courtesy of Bay Curious, a Hearken-powered series from KQED.

Back at the dinner party, the columnist from the Big Respected Newspaper smiled and said, “that’s lazy journalism.” To his mind, public-powered journalism is just getting the audience to do journalists’ work, like Tom Sawyer convincing his friends to whitewash the fence.

I’ve heard this kind of argument before, both in my work at Hearken and as a journalist. I’ve heard it from fellow journalists, and also from audience members. When one of our member newsrooms started collecting audience questions, one disgruntled listener wrote in: “Don’t you all have news editors? Assignment editors? Editors in general? This is a terrible idea.” Another time, a newsroom asked for audience questions on Facebook and one reader replied that the post was “self-serving.”

First of all, I should say that in my time at Hearken (and WBEZ’s Curious City before that), I’ve only encountered a tiny handful of audience members who make the “lazy journalism” argument. The vast majority of news audiences I’ve encountered are excited to have their curiosity and ideas validated by their favorite news outlets.

Still, ever since that dinner party, I’ve been thinking a lot about the impression — held by some journalists and readers — that public-powered journalism is somehow lazy. At the time, I responded defensively: “Well, I would say it’s lazy not to engage with your audience.” But that’s not the most persuasive argument if I really want to change minds.

Blame the internet

So first, let me address why I think the “lazy journalism” argument exists. As most things do, it comes down to the internet, and how journalism has changed in the era of social media and “peak content.”

Social media provides journalists with a new public commons in which to uncover stories, find material, and connect with sources. It also gives us the opportunity to convene communities in a virtual space to give feedback or participate in some aspect of reporting (which is what we do at Hearken). All of this might seem lazy to those who are used to shoe leather reporting — the kind that requires leaving your desk and cultivating sources in “the field.”

The internet also allows for (and necessitates?) a lot of content aggregation. It’s true that aggregating content into listicles or Storifies can take less time, effort, and actual reporting than a traditional news article, and many critics will call that “lazy journalism.” I’m not here to talk smack about listicles, but I do think they’re unfairly lumped together with other journalism that is somehow fueled by the internet (which is why people continually overlook Buzzfeed’s *great* investigative work).

A story about a hashtag can be rigorously reported and fact-checked, and—crucially—aggregating tweets is not the same thing as truly collaborating with your audience online. Still, overall, I think journalism that takes place on the internet gets a bad name.

Answering the tough questions

The Hearken process takes place — in part — on the internet. Our partner newsrooms embed our tools on their websites to solicit questions and votes from their audience. And yes, when we pitch our product to potential customers, we do say that we can make their jobs easier in the long run (more on that later). But the journalists we work with are anything but lazy. At the end of the day, they still have to do all the hard work of researching, reporting, fact-checking, and ensuring fairness. Plus, they deal with the unique challenges that come with audience collaboration.

Image courtesy of What’s With Washington?, a Hearken-powered series from WAMU.

Sometimes, audience members ask straightforward questions that can be answered by calling up a few expert sources, maybe heading out in the field to record, then publishing a traditional news article or radio story.

But part of the fun (and challenge) of the Hearken process is that audience members don’t generally think like journalists. They often ask questions that aren’t straightforward in a journalistic sense. These questions force reporters to get creative and to rethink what a news story can actually be.

For example, WAMU’s What’s With Washington recently answered the question “Why are there ‘so many sirens’ in D.C.?” This question is tricky for many reasons. First, the reporter Matthew Schwartz had to address the question asker’s assumption: does D.C. actually have more sirens than other big cities? To figure that out, Schwartz had to wrangle with an unruly data set. Cities don’t keep stats on the number of times an emergency vehicle sounds its sirens. And you can’t measure by number of emergency calls, because not every call warrants a siren.

Ultimately, Schwartz determined that D.C. does have a lot of sirens per square mile, but nowhere near as many as New York City. Next, he had to dig into an even squishier question: why does it seem like D.C. has more sirens? The result is a fascinating look at how urban design affects urban acoustics.

I am confident that Matthew Schwartz worked very hard on that story. Plus, I’ve seen the questions submitted by WAMU’s audience. The reporters there could have selected any number of easier questions to answer. Instead, they consistently pick some of the trickiest questions their audience is asking them to report.

Engaged audiences don’t just happen

I mentioned earlier that when we pitch Hearken to newsrooms, we tell them that our platform and process can make their jobs easier, and that’s true. Among other things, it helps newsrooms understand their audiences better, and it gives them a steady stream of fresh, original story ideas from a more diverse set of brains than is sitting around their editorial table.

That being said, there’s no such thing as a “gimme” when it comes to genuine audience engagement, and we always make it clear to our newsrooms that the Hearken tools can’t do all the heavy lifting for them.

Public-powered journalism isn’t just new to journalists; it’s new to audiences as well. It requires teaching your audiences they can interact with the news in a new way. If you want true collaboration with your audience, you have to prove that you’re listening and genuinely value their participation. You need to be sure you have clear calls to action, so that your audience knows exactly how to contribute, and you need regular promotion and outreach, so that you reach as many of your desired collaborators as possible. None of this is easy to do, although it does get easier the more you do it.

Not lazy, just humble

So far I’ve argued that public-powered journalism isn’t lazy because answering audience questions can be quite challenging, and also because audience engagement is hard work. But I really haven’t addressed the Tom Sawyer analogy I made earlier. Does public-powered journalism actually mean that the audience is doing our jobs for us?

Actually, the answer is yes … sort of. And that’s a good thing. Formerly, it has been the job of reporters and editors to decide what is newsworthy and to pitch and assign stories. Now we’re inviting audiences to contribute to that aspect of the editorial process.

But pitching and assigning stories isn’t just a job; it’s also a privilege. As journalists, we have a power that audiences don’t typically have — to control which stories get told in the news. When we give our audience a seat at the editorial table, we relinquish some of that power and share it with the people we serve.

Public-powered journalism also requires this admission: journalists are not endless fonts of great story ideas. We don’t always know what our audiences will find interesting or valuable. Sometimes we need to be pushed by our audience to see the regions and topics we cover in new and original ways. Sometimes we’re not asking the right questions. Admitting all of this isn’t lazy — it’s humble.

Another kind of lazy

Now, let’s return to the dinner table conversation that launched this post. What did I mean when I said that it’s actually lazier to not engage with your audience?

If you’ve ever read a comments section, you know that a lot of people believe journalists are asking the wrong questions. If you’ve ever watched a Trump rally you’ve heard the audience cheer when he pillories “the media,” and you know that a lot of people don’t trust news outlets to be accurate or fair. If you’ve ever been on social media, you know that every day, people already are doing the work of journalists: live-tweeting protests, Periscoping from campaign stops, and sharing commentary on the day’s news.

If we don’t listen to our audiences and seriously respond to their feedback, that’s lazy journalism. If we don’t do the hard work of earning public trust, that’s lazy journalism. If we don’t adapt to a democratized media landscape, that’s lazy journalism. And it’s a laziness newsrooms can’t afford.

Want to learn how to better engage the public? Download Hearken’s 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/

Thanks to Jennifer Brandel

Ellen Mayer

Written by

Chicago Media Gal. Host and producer of IlliNoise. Freelance reporter and community engager. Formerly @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: http://www.wearehearken.com/

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