Trust, understanding and reward: Ongoing effects of the public-powered journalism approach
Now that early-adopter newsrooms have pioneered Hearken’s public-powered journalism model for several years, it’s possible to assess the impact of their work on both journalists and citizens.
In early 2018, researchers from the Agora Journalism Center conducted 28 interviews with editors and reporters at 15 Hearken partner newsrooms in 12 states. Their research and resulting study exploring how these newsrooms were engaging with their audiences reveals how the public-powered journalism process is transforming journalists’ understanding of those they serve.
“Our findings indicate that many journalists we interviewed developed more trust towards their audience and understanding of its preferences, needs and suggestions,” Thomas R. Schmidt and Regina G. Lawrence stated in the resulting report, “Constructing Engagement: How news organizations are using Hearken and its model of ‘public-powered journalism.’”
The interviews demonstrated a variety of ways that inviting citizens to participate in the reporting process at various points from pitch to publication influenced the journalists and their work.
Starting from the innermost level — the minds and attitudes of the journalists themselves — and working out to examine the impact listening to the public had on their internal processes and then the stories they produced, Agora’s report displays the comprehensive changes that can stem from a citizen-centered approach to journalism.
In the interviews, evidence for a mindset shift emerged among a group of mostly reporters. They “pointed to perceptible changes, sometimes after initial skepticism, towards embracing deeper engagement with audience members,” according to the report:
“‘One of the things that Hearken does,’ [News Director] Ann-Elise Henzl (WUWM) said, ‘is it encourages us to use a voting round for listeners to select what they want to hear. I remember one that was being presented to us at the initial meeting and I thought, ‘Oh, come on, we’re gonna really turn over control to listeners?’ Because again I had no idea what people would be interested in. Maybe I just didn’t respect how constructive their ideas would be, or how creative,
and how interested they are in things that are around them.’”
The researchers found several areas where the public-powered approach directly contributed to a mindset shift in the newsroom.
- Allowing believers to show benefits to skeptics. For interviewees who were already convinced of the value of this process, using Hearken allowed them to demonstrate what engagement journalism is to those who did not understand what that meant.
- Increasing journalists’ understanding of their audience. The study found that journalists came away from the experience of working with citizens with a sense that the public was more engaged than they had previously believed.
- Rewarding experiences that inform best practices. “For those reporters and editors who described changes in their expectation or attitudes,” the study stated, “they said they experienced interactions with the audience as more rewarding than in their previous work, they felt more sensitive to the needs of their audience and, as a result, that they changed practices so that audience-orientation would play a more central role.”
With a deep understanding of their audiences and belief in the value of their contributions, newsrooms that follow the Hearken model have changed their internal practices and expectations to support citizen-centered journalism, the study found.
“Elizabeth Koekenga-Whitmire (AL.com): ‘I think we’ve always had really high expectations, and we’ve always kind of gone to the audience to help drive the direction that we’re going in. I think what Hearken has done is give us a really good system for that, and because we decided we’re going to do this every week, it’s really, I would say, held us accountable, just because we have this tool we’re paying for, we decided we’re going to do it once a week, and we’ve assigned a
reporter to do that.’”
Another interviewee said that expecting to get good questions from the audience has changed the way they do engagement journalism. The reporters and editors shared several ways they have adjusted their internal processes as a result.
- Crafting intentional audience outreach. The organizations that have been testing out this approach have to learn from their experiences, which makes them seek to be more precise and thoughtful in how they reach out to their audiences.
- Expecting the public to be involved with the story. The Hearken approach increased the expectations within the newsrooms to involve citizens with the story, the researchers found.
- Respecting the audience’s knowledge. Instead of journalists deciding what the public needs to know, listening to their audience has led them to trust that citizens understand what they want to know, and will reliably share that information with newsrooms.
“Hearing from readers has ‘solidified our expectation that the audience knows
what it wants. That we should trust the audience when they say, “This is
something that we’re interested in,” even if we think, “Oh. Well, nobody would
ever be interested in that story.” If the audience says they are, then they are. I
think that we expect our audience to ask good questions, and they expect us to
give good answers now. And so, I think, to some extent, that’s changed the way
we do engagement.’” — John Hammontree (AL.com)
The journalists told researchers that their trust in the audience’s ability to choose stories highlighted areas that they themselves would not have thought to cover. They willingly were giving over story choice to the audience, because they knew the audience would offer them good stories to cover.
“As Olivia Allen-Price from KQED put it, ‘In a way I am heartened by the fact that I no longer feel that I can predict what a hit might be, and I think the reason I’m heartened by it is because, to me that means that this engagement thing is working, because stories that are not on my radar, that I am not excited about but the audience is telling us they want to know, we are doing, and we are giving them, and they are liking, even if it’s not something that I personally would have
thought of to begin with.’”
This transition from story selector to story receiver on the part of the newsroom also transformed how the journalists thought about what and who to cover.
- Selecting stories that otherwise would not make it through editorial filters. As interest in certain stories is validated through the public-powered process, journalists reported they possessed a more finely tuned sense for the questions citizens have that they would not have previously considered.
“‘I think that maybe sometimes what we need to realize as reporters…that the
people who are actually living it have questions that we may not even think
about.’” — Ashlie Stevens (WFPL)
- What the public can contribute to the story. The journalists also developed a deeper understanding of what citizens can offer to the story that is produced. Instead of simply the “real person” perspective, the citizens were viewed as active participants in shaping the narrative.
- What the audience needs to know. The expertise that reporters and editors have built up can sometimes be a hindrance instead of a help when it comes to understanding the information needs of the public. By reaching out directly to ask the audience about their questions, they increased their understanding of the basic questions that needed to be answered on the topics they were covering. Vermont Public Radio reported in an award entry that having question-asker Mike Brown accompany them on interviews “helped us stay grounded during wonky stormwater discussions.”
What shifts for the audience?
The Agora researchers pointed to the need to better understand what this shift means for the audience, participating in journalism in a new way. They identified several areas for further research, including: whether audience members trust news organizations more after becoming involved in the reporting process; why they get involved in Hearken stories; and what level of
involvement do audience members want?
From the citizens who have worked with Hearken partners, there are numerous examples of their participation having a significant effect on their relationship with both the news organization and their willingness to commit themselves to understanding and engaging with issues in their communities.
Janice Thomson, who partnered with a local organization to organize a series of outreach events on sustainable electricity, was inspired to take up the cause after she asked a question of WBEZ’s Hearken series Curious City. She devoted hundreds of hours of time to research and training because, she wrote, “Knowing that the staff at WBEZ’s Curious City cared what I did,
that they valued citizen input as much as that of experts, kept me going. The quest I began with WBEZ as a “curious citizen” one year ago has now culminated in the launch with C3 of Electric Community… Who knew a radio program could have so much power?”
Mike Brown asked Vermont Public Radio’s Brave Little State about how to address aging sewer systems. He came to every interview conducted for the show, getting to ask his own questions of sources in the process. The reporting was able to shape his perspective, as he shared in the piece: “Part of me, deep inside, wants to rail against it and go with the popular idea of, let’s never dump anything into the river,” he said. “And what I’m trying to wrap my head around is the idea that it could be worse.” Brown has remained in touch with the podcast.
Robert Beedle, a Chicago resident who asked Curious City about what laws govern demolition, was inspired to get involved with a community organization trying to reform environmental regulations in the city after his question was addressed.
“If it wasn’t for the journalists and if it wasn’t for WBEZ and Curious City who have reached out, this would have gone unanswered, and I doubt I would have been able to have a conversation with the buildings commissioner any other way,” Beedle told Curious City afterward. “It’s a really valuable service to the city and everyone who lives here.”
The transition from traditional journalism to a public-powered approach is not an easy one for newsrooms to make. Journalists interviewed in the Agora study said it was challenging to involve the public regularly in the reporting phase, and the researchers found that public participation was highest at the story assignment and feedback phases of the process.
But given the many benefits the newsrooms discovered from their willingness to listen to the questions their audience wanted them to ask, it is perhaps not surprising that the researchers found “most editors and reporters we spoke with said they would like to see the use of Hearken expand in their newsrooms.”
As newsrooms’ willingness to listen increases and citizens’ ability to contribute expands, it will be exciting and important to continue to research the long-term outcomes of this approach for both the citizens and the newsrooms.