The winners of Hearken’s 2017 Champion of Curiosity Awards

The best of the 1,000+ public-powered stories published in the past year

Dec 11, 2017 · 17 min read
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Here are the stories, series and newsrooms that are setting the bar for what good audience engagement journalism can (and should) look like. Considering that more than 1,000 public-powered stories were published in the past year by Hearken’s partner newsrooms, these are truly the cream of the crop.

A huge thank you to our outside judges — engagement all-stars Anika Anand, Logan Jaffe and Simon Nyi — who took on judging several of our categories: Best investigative story, best mythbuster story, best public service story, story with the biggest impact, story with the most transparent process, and best non-general assignment series or project. The other categories were judged either by Hearken’s engagement consulting team or by the community of Hearken partners.

We hope you find the work of these journalists as inspirational we do.

Newsroom award: Champion of Curiosity

Given to the newsroom that best puts into practice a system of hearing and responding to their audience’s curiosities. Public-powered journalism pros. Quantity of questions answered is one factor considered.

WUWM — Milwaukee Public Radio

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Most of the WUWM team. “Note the bubblers in the pic,” says Michelle Maternowski, referring to the water fountains by their Wisconsin name. Photo by WUWM.

WUWM is a small Milwaukee-based radio station in its second year with Hearken. In 2017, the staff made a conscious and successful effort to spread the Hearken model beyond their series “Bubbler Talk” and into the rest of the newsroom. Here are some of the team’s achievements from the past year, led by Digital Services Coordinator Michelle Maternowski:

  • Noticed the audience’s persistent curiosity about Milwaukee’s racial divides, and created a whole series of stories and events to address that curiosity and find answers on the many ways that segregation affects the community.
  • Set up three beat reporters with Hearken so they can more directly hear from and respond to audience questions related to their beats — Education, Environment and Race & Ethnicity.
  • Had every reporter in the newsroom contribute to the series “Bubbler Talk,” which answers general questions about the Milwaukee area. “Bubbler Talk” stories do particularly well online, where they hold the #1 and #2 spots for most traffic ever in the history of the station’s website.

Question-asker awards

Recognizing the question-askers who went above and beyond.

This category’s winners were voted on by a collection of journalists in Hearken partner newsrooms.

Mike Brown, who asked VPR’s Brave Little State “How are we going to address the aging water sewer systems in Vermont?

VPR’s Angela Evancie, who nominated Mike for this award: “Mike came to EVERY interview (which required substantial travel across the State of Vermont) and asked questions that made the episode SO much better! And he still keeps in touch with the podcast.”

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Mike Brown, center in the blue coat, accompanying reporter Angela Evancie as she reports out the answer to his question about the sewers of Vermont. Photo by Taylor Dobbs / VPR

Susan and Chris Strizver, a married couple who (unbeknownst to each other) both asked The Columbian’s Clark Asks about a strange-looking building in Clark County. They went up for a flight with a pilot and Columbian photographer Alisha Jucevic. Props to this couple for both engaging with their local paper on what was then a brand-new initiative, and for being daring enough to go up in a tiny airplane in pursuit of the answer!

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Chris and Susan Strizver on an airplane ride to learn about a strange-looking building in Clark County. Photo by Alisha Jucevic / The Columbian

Brianne Gilbert, a listener who helped KPCC’s SoCal. SoCurious. answer a question asked by someone else.

From the story:

This question comes from a listener who identified himself as Mick. He asked, “Which cities in L.A. County have the fewest native-born Californians?”

Before we could answer ourselves, another intrepid KPCC listener, Brianne Gilbert, was on the case. Gilbert is the Associate Director of the Thomas and Dorothy Levy Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.

She told Take Two she had been avidly following the SoCal SoCurious thread and when she came across this particular question, she thought to herself, “Well, that’s an easy one. Anybody should be able to find that information!”

She crunched the numbers and mapped out her findings.

Erin Heist, who asked KTOO’s Curious Juneau whether it was true that a gorilla had ran for mayor in Juneau. The station invited Erin into the studio, and there are both wonderful audio and great photos of the moment she got to meet the “gorilla” who had run for mayor.

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Question-asker Erin Heist is surprised in the KTOO studio by Joe Gorilla, a one-time candidate for Juneau mayor. Photo by Tripp J. Crouse/KTOO

Story awards

“Why are delinquent parents not held responsible for child support?”
Reporter: Jeff Hawkes, Lancaster Online, We the People | Question-asker: A father who chose to be anonymous

From the nomination:

“While this story could have been very broad, reporter Jeff Hawkes was able to disclose the process for collecting child support and did so in a manner that was informative, included credible sources and showed both sides of the system. This is also a topic that affects so many people in our community that it was one of the most-read stories last month.”

Comments from the judges:

This story is “successful at taking an opaque but important system and making it understandable to the people whose lives it affects by telling an engaging human story.”

“I like how committed the writer was to sticking with this one person’s question. It’s a good example of finding an important story through one person’s question/experience.”

Guidance on voter IDs from St. Louis Public Radio

Reporter: Erica Hunzinger, St. Louis Public Radio, Curious Louis | Question-asker: Multiple

From the nomination: “When Missouri passed a new law requiring voters to present an ID at the polls, our listeners and readers had a lot of questions. And, as it turns out, getting answers wasn’t super easy for the public. So, we set about getting answers ourselves and worked hard to find a way to make learning the new voter ID rules super easy for our audience. And, we also made the quiz a separate, stand alone story that can be shared every time there is a new election.”

Comments from the judges:

“I absolutely love the quiz in the voter ID story — it’s simple, easy to understand and the kind of thing that is truly useful for folks trying to figure out how the law affects them.”

This story is an “excellent, substantial use of crowdsourcing for public service journalism.”

Many Chicago Park District Fountains Are So Contaminated With Lead That They Can’t Be Turned Off
Reporter: Monica Eng, WBEZ, Curious City | Question-asker: Multiple

From the nomination: “Reporter Monica Eng believes the story pressured the Park District to finally test lead levels. Before her reporting, no media outlet had looked into the issue as comprehensively as Curious City did. The story told people about a utility they use all the time and it got the Chicago Park District to check and release its figures.”

What’s The History Of The Underground Railroad In Vermont?
Reporter: Angela Evancie, VPR, Brave Little State | Question-asker: Carlie Krolick

From the nomination: “In this recent episode, we teased apart long-held local rumors and compared them to the historical record.”

Comments from the judges:

“Wow, what a thorough investigation. One thing I loved is that this story opens with the question ‘whose voices are missing from the story?’ and they brought in those overlooked and unheard voices.”

“Excellent — shows how a question about local history and culture is also a question about national history and the stories we tell ourselves about that history”

“This is the best thing in this whole contest and should win everything. It is IDEAL.”

The renaming of Nashville’s Frederick Douglass Park
Reporter: Blake Farmer, WPLN, Curious Nashville | Question-asker: Denise Gallagher

From the nomination:

Nashville’s Douglas Park was renamed after Curious Nashville dug into a listener’s question about whether Fred Douglas Park was named for the famous abolitionist.

Comments from the judges:

“This is a really interesting, measurable impact. Place names/monuments measure community values. Curious Nashville was able to reveal and document a changing value within the city in a measurable way that they can now point to. That is tough.”

The Texas Tribune’s use of Hearken after Hurricane Harvey
Reporter: Alex Samuels, The Texas Tribune, Texplainer | Question-askers: Multiple

From the nomination: “Texas Tribune community reporter Alex Samuels responded to pressing audience questions in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, pivoting their audience-powered series Texplainer for the weeks following the disaster. Her reporting and writing achieved a tricky balance of sharing personal experiences of those affected by the disaster with the usable details about available resources and informative updates on policy.”

Invitation to send questions:


Comments from the judges:

“I like this because it’s using a public-powered model to clearly identify and fill important information needs.”

“This whole series is just so straightforward and so useful. The presentation, without whizbang multimedia distractions, is innovative, simple and informative.”

This category’s winners were voted on by a collection of journalists in Hearken partner newsrooms.

First place: Why Is Vermont So Overwhelmingly White?

Reporter: Angela Evancie, VPR, Brave Little State | Question-asker: Eva Gumprecht

From the nomination: “The question everyone’s been afraid to ask.”

Second place: Who is Maufrais, and why is the name written on Austin sidewalks?

Reporter: Amanda O’Donnell, Austin American-Statesman, Austin Answered | Question-asker: Anonymous

From the nomination: “It’s easy to look right past the things we see every day, but this one offered a great opportunity for us to peel back a piece of Austin’s past.”

What’s up with that ‘Chicken Farmer I Still Love You’ rock?
Reporter: Paige Sutherland, New Hampshire Public Radio, Only in NH | Question-asker: Kelsey McNaught

From the nomination: “New Hampshire Public Radio went to significant lengths reporting the origins of a local piece of beloved graffiti.”

Comments from the judges:

“What a delightful little story! The first-person “detective” point of view really feels like you’re along on the adventure, and I love that the reporter followed back up with the question asker at the end to get her reaction to the solved mystery. Just lovely.”

“Tells the story of the reporting process really well.”

“This story achieves exactly what it sets out to do.”

The remaining categories were judged by Hearken’s consulting team:

KUT, collaborating with 5 Texas newsrooms

KUT and its collaborators reported out more than a dozen stories answering Texans’ questions about how the state’s legislature works. When the legislature convened for a special session, the group of newsrooms continued to solicit and answer questions about how special sessions work.

Note: KUT won this award last year for earlier work of the same collaboration, which in 2016 focused on the fall campaigns and election. This collaboration was so nice we chose it twice.

NHPR’s Civics 101, a podcast that answers questions about government. This mighty entry started around President Donald Trump’s inauguration, and initially was supposed run only for his first 100 days in office. They gathered a fast following, secured funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and have put out 80 episodes. The podcast also goes above and beyond to engage with its audience: it has a weekly newsletter and hosted a bar trivia night.

Fairly Curious
Reporter: Laura Ellis, WFPL, Curious Louisville | Question-askers: Multiple

WFPL reporter Laura Ellis lived at the Kentucky State Fair for a week. She both collected and reported answers to audience questions on the ground there, for a miniseries called Fairly Curious. In addition to the reporting for radio and WFPL’s website, Laura took over the Kentucky State Fair’s Twitter account for two hours and fielded questions about the fair. She also did a Q+A in real time on Twitter that was updated as a roundup on the WFPL website.

WBEZ’s Curious City analyzed the geographic location of their question askers, identified areas that they weren’t reaching, and worked to boost participation in those target neighborhoods. WBEZ Curious City Editor Shawn Allee and engagement producer Bill Healy went after this in a number of ways, from targeted Facebook ads to hitting the streets, but found the greatest success in a partnership with the Chicago Public Library system.

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The Curious City team went to libraries in underrepresented neighborhoods, set up tables near the entrance, and asked patrons to pose questions. Their write-up on the project noted “The experience had all the positives of gathering questions in-person (such as providing an opportunity to answer patrons’ questions about Curious City itself), but the process benefitted from the credibility of the host organization.”

Some great stories came out of this effort, delving into questions about viaduct mural disparities, where lottery funds go, City Hall prayer practices in Aurora, Chicago-invented dances, and “rubber stamp” aldermen.

KQED’s Bay Curious went to the Bay Area Science Festival in October 2016, “where thousands of kids and their parents go around and visit booths for all sorts of different educational organizations and groups,” they said in their nomination. And it was a huge success! They collected more than 200 questions at the event, and noted many “were super creative because they were from kids.”

Among the stories that grew out of that event was this one investigating what dinosaurs roamed the Bay Area.

The Cha-Cha Slide And More: What Dances Were Invented In Chicago?Reporters: Monica Eng and Katherine Nagasawa, WBEZ, Curious City | Question-askers: Multiple

From the nomination: “[This story] brought a highly visual topic to life through 5 short videos, and also took us to communities in Chicago we don’t (but should) cover very often. It was by far our most successful use of video, with more than a million video views for the series in total.”

A Tribute to Vermont’s Old, Falling-Down Barns
Reporters: Angela Evancie and Liam Elder-Connors, Vermont Public Radio, Brave Little State | Question-asker: Janette Shaffer

From the nomination: “In our episode about Vermont’s falling-down barns, we asked our audience to send in pix of their own/favorite old barns. We got a TON of responses, and collected them in an interactive atlas!”

What does the mayor of St. Louis actually do?
Reporter: Jenny Simeone-Casas and intern Rici Hoffarth, St. Louis Public Radio’s Curious Louis | Question-asker: Whitney Panneton

This question let the station check something off its bucket list, and gave its audience a truly engaging explanation of something that could have gone deep in the governmental weeds. From the nomination: “We had been looking for an opportunity to try using a web comic to tell a story and this Curious Louis question was the perfect opportunity. Using an illustration was an engaging way to answer this civics 101 question in a fresh and digestible way.”

Why is Adam Goodes’ Australian of the Year plaque covered in perspex?Reporters: Sonya Gee and Nevanka McKeon, Australian Broadcasting Company, Curious Canberra | Question-asker: Russell Ayres

Curious Canberra wanted to do more than give the surface answer to this question, digging deeper than the reporting which they noted “could’ve stopped at the revelation that the plaque the questioner initially enquired about had been vandalised.”

From the story:

“Former Sydney Swans player Adam Goodes confronted racism before and after he was named Australian of the Year. A young Collingwood supporter called him an ape in 2013, and he was booed repeatedly during matches in 2015.”

Goodes declined to be interviewed for the story, so the station partnered with Ask Me Anything, an organization that puts together diverse panels of volunteers who visit high schools and answer questions from students about race and ethnicity.

Ask a Trucker: Professional drivers answer your questions about driving safely
Reporter: Meghan McCarty Carino for KPCC | Question-askers: Multiple

KPCC in southern California gets an honorable mention for their work about driving safety following an increase in truck crashes. They put together a special feature, Ask A Trucker, and then brought in two professional truck drivers to answer audience questions.

Foghorns: Who presses the play button?
Reporter: Laura Klivans, KQED’s Bay Curious | Question-askers: Andy MacKinnon and Jen Liu

For this Bay Curious podcast episode, reporter Laura Klivans “got to travel all over the Bay Area seeing different foghorns in all their glory,” according to the nomination. She managed to wrangle a visit to an off-limits part of the Golden Gate Bridge, a giant boat at a nearby Naval Academy, and the Coast Guard station. We love that this is an audio piece, because the foghorn sounds are a very present part of the finished product.

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Mario Territo, operating engineer for the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway & Transportation District, shows off this international-orange foghorn. (Brittany Hosea-Small/KQED)

Are bikini baristas a Pacific Northwest phenomenon?
Reporter: Anna Boiko-Weyrauch, KUOW’s Local Wonder | Question-asker: Jake Koukel

In their nomination, the newsroom mentioned they were surprised by how difficult the piece was to report. Here’s what they had to say about the process: “It seemed so innocent at first…take a historical look at the beginning of the bikini barista trend which has its early roots in the Pacific Northwest. Turns out that bikini barista stands are so closely linked to prostitution that nobody wanted to talk for this story. Our reporter Anna Boiko-Weyrauch made call after call after call. Some people seemed interested at first, but then never followed through with the interview. Eventually Anna found a former barista stand owner (one of the originals) to speak on the record. Our photographer spent an entire day traveling all over the Puget Sound Region from one bikini barista stand to another trying to take photos but no one would allow it. Luckily one owner granted us permission to use older photos.”

We truly appreciated how KUOW took this question seriously, and didn’t treat it like a joke. Their investment in the reporting showed in the quality of the finished product.

Are Lancaster County’s volunteer fire companies raising enough funds to protect their communities?
Reporter: Lindsey Blest, for Lancaster Online’s We the People | Question-asker: anonymous

Here’s what she had to say about the piece: “I was assigned to answer a question about whether volunteer fire companies have the funds they need. There is not one overarching body that manages the 67 volunteer fire companies in Lancaster County. I could have talked to someone from every fire company and every municipality to include everyone’s voice. But I didn’t have the time to do that, so I reached out to as many as I could. My reporting got to a point where I had to be OK with stopping.”

WYSO Curious Looks At Racial Gap In Local Policing
Reporter: Jason Reynolds, for WYSO Curious | Question-asker: Talis Gage

We wanted to give this piece an honorable mention because it was reported by a community member, Jason Reynolds, who learned to produce radio through WYSO’s Community Voices training program. In nominating the piece, here’s what they said: “The Community Voices producer who took on this story has, up to that point, done mostly arts and culture features. He was interested in taking on a newsier, more challenging story, and this topic was certainly that.”

Baring it all: Why boys swam naked in Chicago schools
Reporter: Monica Eng, WBEZ’s Curious City | Question-asker: Michael San Filippo

This piece explores the history of nude swimming for boys in Chicago’s schools. The story became the top performing web story of all time on, and prompted hundreds of people to send comments and personal stories to the station about what they remember or had heard about the practice. The best of those were posted to Tumblr.

Redd Up Your Pittsburghese: A Deep Dive Into How Yinz Talk
Reporter: Katie Blackley, WESA’s Good Question | Question-asker: Multiple

Here’s what they had to say about the story when they nominated it: “As evidenced by the number of Steelers bars worldwide, Pittsburghers and Pittsburgh culture is everywhere, so it didn’t surprise us that this story would be popular. What was surprising was the way our listeners engaged with the story, from laughing to reminiscing, and then when it got picked up by NPR’s Facebook, the reach grew even more. It was one of our most popular web posts and Facebook posts ever, easily in the top ten. It’s so much fun to talk about accents and I think including people in the feature that actually spoke that way brought a tangible element to the story of, ‘Yeah, people in Pittsburgh really do talk funny.’”

Bag or Bay-g? Understanding Wisconsin’s Accent… As Best We Can
Reporter: Rachel Morello, WUWM’s Bubbler Talk | Question-asker: Grace Zupancic

The story became the most viewed story on their website ever. The newsroom also says it was fun to report: “The reporter and question-asker took a little field trip around downtown Milwaukee, approaching folks to ask them questions about how they talk.”

(We’re sensing a trend here with all these accent stories being blockbusters…)

Heilbronner Stimme’s Noch Fragen wins for its social media interaction around around a story about a city district in Heilbronn that has big social problems and a peculiar name (Hawaii). It had huge success on Facebook, with metrics about 10 times the average for their pieces.

  • ABC’s Curious Canberra won for the biggest gap, in a voting round where first and second place were separated by 1,378 votes. The first-place question was, “Why are flights in and out of Canberra so expensive?” Asked by Lillian, this question earned 53 percent of the vote, while second and third place questions had 27 and 20 percent.
  • WBEZ’s Curious City won for the largest percent, for a winter-themed voting round where the winning question earned 61 percent of the vote and the other two questions tied at 19 percent. Jake Riley asked the winning question: “Where do all the homeless people in Chicago go during the wintertime?”

Two voting rounds stood out in this category, winning for two different ways of being close.

  • WBEZ’s Curious City wins for having a neck-and-neck round, for its boozy voting round collecting three questions about Chicago’s bar scene. Throughout the month of voting, the winner changed five times, and the questions were never separated by more than about 80 votes. In the end, the winning question had garnered 34 percent of the vote, with the other two questions coming in at 33 and 31 percent.
  • ABC Darwin won for the narrowest winning margin in a voting round. The winning question barely edged out ahead, with a 0.5 percent margin — just 17 out of the 3,506 votes cast — putting it into first place.

Several newsrooms have student journalists who help report out answers to audience questions. Here are two of student-reported pieces that rose to the top this year:

How Field Trips Level the Playing Field
Reporter: Intern Mankaprr Conteh, WFDD, Carolina Curious

Which Schools Are Integrated?
Reporter: AnnMarie Welser, KCPT, Curious KC

That’s all for 2017! Here’s where you can find the 2016 winners. Interested in public-powering up your newsroom with Hearken? Reach out.

Want to learn how to better engage the public? Download our free engagement checklist guide.

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and…


Written by


News organizations use Hearken to meaningfully engage the public as a story develops from pitch through publication. Founders: @JenniferBrandel @coreyhaines

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:


Written by


News organizations use Hearken to meaningfully engage the public as a story develops from pitch through publication. Founders: @JenniferBrandel @coreyhaines

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:

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