Questions are the new comments

(This post is adapted from a keynote I gave at the Hacks/Hackers Media Party 2015 in Buenos Aires. If listening or watching is more convenient, here’s a 19 minute video of the talk. Intro is in Spanish, talk is in English.)

With that out of the way, onto the show.

Putting the audience last

Here’s what I mean by that.

So traditionally, the first opportunity the audience has to offer feedback for journalists and get involved is after a story is completed and published (aka after the money and resources have been spent to report the story).

(Aside: perhaps this is one of the reasons the audience can get so angry in the comments section? They have opinions and those opinions weren’t taken into account, dammit!)

Comments are hard

Worth repeating: comments are hard. Ensuring they're productive requires moderation, moderation takes time, resources, and oftentimes the ability to endure the most toxic elements of human behavior.

Comments sections are so hard that many news sites have removed them altogether, and other sites only offer them selectively.

(this list is by no means exhaustive)

But even when comments sections are civil, it’s not often that they meaningfully impact the news outlet. That is to say, comments don’t usually influence the decisions news outlets make day to day on what to cover and why.

Comments are like the tonsils of journalism: they have a tendency to become inflamed, even dangerously infected. And if they ever served a more definitive function, that benefit has long since been outweighed by the need to have them removed so often.

Allow me to state the obvious

A case against comments is pretty easy to make and you've likely heard / experience most of these points already. Scroll until I've mentioned something you haven't thought about.

Comic from https://xkcd.com/386/

Comments start from a weak framework

All journalists know the quality of the answers and information they gather depends on the strength and specificity of their questions. So if journalists treated their sources as they treat their audience in the comments section, this is what an interview would look like:

“Please comment” is basically another way of asking the very vague question “What do you think?,” which may in fact be the crappiest, laziest of all questions.

Most people don't comment

There are lots of studies with lots of stats, but to sum them up: most people rarely or never comment on news stories online. So not only are journalists and newsrooms gathering mostly unproductive information from the comments section, they're only engaging a sliver of their audience regardless. And of course that portion of the audience can be the most opinionated and hardest to engage in any kind of productive dialogue.

Placement is another indicator of perceived importance

Sure there are experiments out there bucking the trend and allowing for inline comments (like on Medium, for instance). Most sites though have comments conveniently tucked away at the bottom of any content, sometimes buried below related content and ads.

OK OK OK — so here’s where things are about to get interesting.

This is a question I've been mulling about and experimenting with for a few years. I'm calling my answer to it: “public-powered journalism” and it starts stories with the public and keeps them involved throughout the process of creating a story.

Before elaborating, let’s just acknowledge the fundamental differences between comments and questions.

Opinions are hard to change; curiosity is inherently flexible and points to an opening of thought, a willingness to exchange ideas and take in new information.

While comments can be contagious and create more engagement, it’s often in a negative — even toxic — way. Questions are the opposite: positively contagious. When someone poses a great question, like, “Were there ever pirates on the Great Lakes?” or “What’s the origin of the word ‘hella’?” you can't help but adopt that wonder, too.

Regarding questions being the very backbone and foundations of journalism, here’s a fine quote driving home the point from the book, A Curious Mind by Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman.

Every story answers a question, even if it’s not explicitly stated. The question can be as open as “What’s new?” or “What’s happening with the Chinese economy today?” or “Who won the game?” or “What’s the latest wacky thing that politician said?”

Alright. So let’s say journalists started stories with questions the audience is asking. It’s essentially a different way of asking them to pitch a story, but a story that starts with curiosity and not with pre-formed opinions. There have been lots of experiments with newsrooms asking audiences to pitch story ideas, but several big pitfalls challenge that approach. As journalist and podcast host Adam Ragusea points out (and I respond to), audience members who pitch story ideas usually have an axe-to-grind and want journalists to become the “instruments of their rage.”

But still — what will happen if journalists create stories based on audience questions? The following thoughts come to many journalists’ and editors’ minds: OH MY GOD WHAT WILL THEY ASK FOR / ABOUT? They'll want crap! They'll want Kardashians!

This is a very common reaction (and an understandable one).

Let me clear this up: the feedback loop that results in a neverending naked Kardashian clickhole is not created because journalists are starting stories with audience questions. (That happens because journalists are chasing metrics.)

As it turns out, the public asks fantastic questions (journalists aren't unique in having this skill). From my experience testing this model the past few years via an experimental news series I created at WBEZ called Curious City, I've yet to see anyone ask for any of the clickbait stories journalists routinely lament, make fun of, and then in off-hours click, too.

Below is just a tiny sample of the thousands of great questions audiences have been asking.

So when newsrooms give the audience a chance to ask questions, journalists get a fresh stream of story ideas. Not such a bad thing, considering most newsrooms have fewer people (and fewer perspectives) sitting around the editorial table these days.

Stories that start with audience curiosity also tend to be original and create differentiated content, because they originate from an individual’s insights, observations and personal curiosity rather than what’s trending on whatever platform.

These stories also end up being relevant because they come from an actual information request / need from a real person outside of the newsroom and outside of traditional editorial news judgment.

And because they're original and relevant, these stories are often quite popular.

If you asked any newsroom or a reporter if they want the stories they produce to be original, relevant and popular, well, they want ALL of their stories to have those attributes (I call these “holy grail” stories). But most stories aren't holy grail stories.

That’s because most stories follow the tattered drumbeat of the usual ways ideas become stories: press conferences, copying or reversioning other news outlets, or doing a random idea from a reporter or editor because journalists just gotta fill the pages / broadcast / site / feeds.

I've been experimenting with this idea of stories that begin with audience questions since 2012 and with a handful of newsrooms around the country. All of them reported back to me that stories done with this framework significantly outperform similar features their newsrooms do, even win prestigious awards.

OK — so now what? Well why stop at giving the audience power to ask questions? What else are they capable of that journalists haven’t tested?

What if the public could assign newsrooms the stories they wanted reported by voting on the questions each other had asked, that they had that haven't seen covered in the news?

Voting on each others’ questions isn't a Reddit-style free-for-all; we have developed checks and balances. Newsrooms curate the questions that they have the skill set or capacity to answer and then put those into voting rounds. This ensures that an inappropriate or just so-so question isn't voted to the top that a newsroom can’t satisfyingly answer, or that they determine wouldn’t be of interest to enough of their audience.

Here’s an example of what that can look like via one of the sites using this model (Curious City at WBEZ). (This voting and interactivity doesn't always need to be digital, by the way … but I digress.)

So what happens when journalists let the public decide which stories to do? Well it opens up new editorial possibilities. Suddenly, stories that wouldn't make it past the usual editorial filters (like “Is it timely?” “Why does it matter and to whom?” “We don't usually do this kind of stuff.”) can get bypassed or satisfied by enough audience interest, and new kinds of stories suddenly make it into the news cycle.

For instance, most newsroom editors wouldn’t have seen sufficient reason to assign a story about a progressive activist from the 1800s and how to label her sexuality, but the public wanted it, and the story ended up performing exceedingly well.

Letting the audience vote has another significant by-product, it gets folks who have asked questions that are up for a vote very motivated to share with their friends. Which, is another way of saying it creates THE BEST KIND OF MARKETING for a newsroom / brand. Plus it’s free.

Alright, now last question because lordy this thing is getting long and I’m in Buenos Aires right now and it’s a beautiful Saturday afternoon and should be gallivanting around buying tchotchkes and taking photos but instead am writing this in a stuffy hotel room because I love you and want us to change journalism / the world.

Last question: What if the public could be involved at another state of the story process? Like, the actual reporting part?

Oh this part is fantastically fun. And it goes by another name in other industries: “user testing” or “focus group” “personas” or “that thing where you actually ensure you're making a product that suits your consumer’s needs and don't just assume you know what they need and want.”

By bringing along the person who asked the winning question, reporters get to build a story for a real person (not an abstract audience) and that real person can help direct reporters toward what’s most interesting and important to them, acting as a surrogate for the rest of the audience. There are plenty of additional benefits, but I'll leave that for another post, another day.

And the member of the public who comes along gets rewarded, too. They inherit the journalist’s superpower: getting access to people and places they wouldn't otherwise have access to as a regular person. I've written about this before.

The audience member who accompanies a reporter gets to directly impact the news in a meaningful, productive way (unlike the comments section). The Pew Research Center put out a great series on local news in March 2015 showing that the public mostly serves as bystanders and witnesses in news stories. In an age where the public is increasingly empowered, the news industry is absurdly behind.

So what happens now?

Well, when journalists give the public the chance to power the news cycle, they get higher performing, original stories that are deeply relevant to their audience.

And the dynamics between everyone involved meaningfully change.

And another thing happens that’s pretty neat: news organizations get an answer to a critically important question: “How do you know the stories you report are stories your audience wants?”

And the answer to it comes well before the performance metrics and analytics roll in after stories are published.

So if you're reading this and you're thinking “this sounds like design thinking applied to journalism at the story level” well — you're a genius. And it is.

And we have tools journalists can use in their newsroom / content making shop for doing this kind of work, too. And yes newsrooms can try to build them, but trust me Hearken is years ahead and 1,000x cheaper than what can be custom cobbled together. Holler at: founders@wearehearken.com to get hooked up with a trial. (Hearken, by the way, means “to listen attentively.” Learn more about our origins.)

OFF TO TANGO!