Show your work: Helping reporters be more transparent, earn trust and build audience with Open Notebook

Hearken is developing a new tool for pre-publication audience engagement. A few partner newsrooms are already testing it out. Hearken’s Julia Haslanger recently spoke at MisInfoCon about Open Notebook, and this post builds on the lightning talk she gave there.

Open Notebook allows reporters to easily document and share what’s happening throughout the reporting process so their audience can follow along and contribute.

Think of it is as a mix of mini-newsletter and live blog about a single story, step by step, built with capability for two-way conversation with your audience members.


As an engagement consultant at Hearken, I spend my days working with newsrooms to involve their audiences in stories pre-publication. So far, Hearken has focused on helping newsrooms incorporate their audience’s ideas into these three phases:

  • the pitch phase, by inviting the audience to submit questions that become story ideas
  • the assignment phase, by inviting them to vote on their favorite questions
  • and the reporting phase, where usually one lucky audience member gets to come along during the reporting process.

With Open Notebook, we’re aiming to expand how many people can observe and participate in that last step — the reporting process. Reporters will be able to send updates about the twists and turns that their reporting takes directly to the people who are most interested in that story. (Like, for example, the people who voted for it in the voting phase).

Why? Why now?

“If there is any kryptonite to false information, it’s transparency.”
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales

Open Notebook wants to be that kryptonite, to create that transparency. The goal is to bake transparency into a reporter’s normal workflow.

Open Notebook enables reporters to show how they report, how they fact-check, how they verify. Show, don’t tell.

It’s designed to develop a stronger relationship between an individual reporter and individual audience members. That’s good for your bottom line: As the advertising model continues to decline, more newsrooms realize they need to blend direct support from audiences into their business model. Making the case for direct support requires newsrooms to build stronger, direct relationships with the public. As a bonus, these deeper relationships make for more fulfilled reporters, too.

And, it can help the audience members see how true journalism is created, witnessing all the checks and balances that happen between a story pitch and the published piece.

Does this only work for Hearken’s public-powered stories?

No, Open Notebook works for lots of kinds of stories! Certainly there’s special value in using it alongside the Hearken process of question-collecting and voting, but it also works for traditionally pitched/assigned stories, investigations, or even big breaking news.

Open Notebook is ideal for any stories that are reported out over a number of days or weeks or months, and that require a bit of digging. (Read: Not designed for quick-turn daily stories.)

We gathered inspiration for Open Notebook:

…from the way that ProPublica engages their audiences in the reporting process…

….from the way Washington Post investigative reporter David Fahrenthold shared what he was working on and invited help…

…and the way that many news organizations use live blogs to give updates in real time as they verify facts around breaking news.


Two examples of Open Notebook in the wild

Vermont Public Radio’s Brave Little State

A screengrab of Brave Little State’s Open Notebook

Brave Little State is a podcast out of Vermont Public Radio that answers listener questions about the state. The producers started an Open Notebook for a story they’re currently reporting to answer this question: “Why are so many barns left to fall down on their own rather than torn down?” The question won the most votes during the latest voting round, so it came with a built-in audience. At the end of each update, there’s a call-to-action for readers: Let ’em know if you know of a barn that’s falling down.


Inside Energy’s Beyond Standing Rock

A screengrab of Inside Energy’s “Beyond Standing Rock” Open Notebook

Inside Energy’s Jordan Wirfs-Brock wrote a post in her notebook about the process of creating a map graphic connected to a documentary that’s coming out about Dakota Access Pipeline.

Jordan shows how she started from a reporter’s hand-drawn map, and then includes the satellite images and Army Corps of Engineers maps she worked from. It’s a fun behind-the-scenes look at how graphics get made.


How your life would better with Open Notebook, reporter edition:

  • What if you, the reporter, could keep all the scraps of your reporting in one place, all the photos and interview notes and favorite quotes and links from your research — and have them at your fingertips when it’s a good time to share an update with your audience?
  • What if when you scored that key interview, there was a group of people who would be just as psyched as you and your editor are?
  • What if those people could also help you out by suggesting other sources to talk to? Or share their experiences with the subject matter? Or help you determine which lede is more compelling?
  • What if those pieces of feedback didn’t land as Twitter notifications and Facebook comments and dozens of emails, but all were contained within the same system you’ll use to send out the next update, so you can collect together the best responses seamlessly?
  • And what if you knew that when your story publishes, there will be this crowd of eager, invested audience members, who will not only read or watch or listen to your piece, but are likely to share it and talk about it with others?

How your life would better with Open Notebook, reader edition:

  • What if when you, the audience member, found out a reporter was working on a story you cared about, you could get updates sent to you from that reporter as they were reporting?
  • What if that reporter invited you to help, or invited you to share your feedback on the work they’ve done so far?
  • What if you could connect with other people who are also interested in that story, and invite that friend who also cares about this issue to join the conversation, too?
  • And what if you knew that someone would get your attention when that final story is ready, so you wouldn’t have to worry about hunting it down or forgetting about it?

How your life would better with Open Notebook, business-development edition:

  • What if you could increase the number of loyal readers — the ones who keep coming back, who your advertisers really care about?
  • What if you could add more people to your e-list and CRM — people who have shown that they’re invested in your newsroom’s work?
  • What if it was easier to show potential subscribers or members the amount of work a reporter puts in to their journalism, to convince them it’s worth paying for?

That’s the world Open Notebook aims to create.

Back to that Jimmy Wales quote:

“If there is any kryptonite to false information, it’s transparency.”

I do believe that transparency is a strong weapon in the face of misinformation and distrust, however…

Transparency alone is not enough.

Ya gotta build relationships.

(And that’s what Hearken’s here to help you with!)


Curious to learn more about Open Notebook? Follow Hearken here on Medium, subscribe to our newsletter, follow us on Twitter — we’ll be sharing more examples as other newsrooms test it out. And if you are a journalist interested in when Open Notebook might be available for general release, say hello.