Jennifer Brandel
Feb 14 · 8 min read

In honor of Valentine’s Day, Hearken responds to three letters (fictional) that tackle some of the most common relationship woes journalists are having with the public.

Engagement. Relationships. Trust. These are what the journalism industry is turning toward as the economic models of treating the public as a consumer are crumbling. The good news is: newsrooms are comprised of people, and the public is comprised of people, and as people we all have experience being in relationships! We know what it looks like and feels like when relationships are working and when they’re not.

So in honor of Valentine’s Day, we bring you three fictional letters that tackle some of the most common relationship woes journalists are having with the public. May they help you turn up the love dial for those you’re serving, and vice versa. ❤

  • Letter 1: How to commit to a LTR (long-term relationship)
  • Letter 2: How to rebuild trust that’s been broken (or was never there)
  • Letter 3: How to convince your bosses that you’re ready for LTRs

Trouble Committing to a LTR

Dear Hearken,

I’ve been on the scene for a long time. I’m tired, I’m broken down, I’m stressed out. I’m so busy with my job but long for the kind of meaningful, mutual relationship that will make my work more enjoyable. Basically: I’m looking for a serious LTR with my audience, with the hopes of being engaged and us supporting one another through thick and thin. Yes I’m talking emotional, financial, and all the practical stuff — helping each other out day to day and being there in the long-term.

It’s scary to admit this, but if I don’t figure this out (and soon), I don’t know if I can go on.

All of my attempts to find lasting relationships have been short-lived. Like a special project I did for a few months where I dedicate myself to being a good partner, to listening and responding and being there. But then inertia kicks in and I go back to my old ways of keeping my distance, and only reaching out to the public when I need something. I know that’s not how good relationships are developed. And I fear that my on-again-off-again approach might actually be making things worse.



No more one-engagement-project-stands


Dear No More,

The first step is admitting you have a problem. Cycling in and out of the public’s life when you feel like it and just when you need them for something, as you have recognized, is not a winning approach for cultivating a long-term relationship.

Here are a few pieces of timeless advice to start to internalize:

  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Check out Andrew Losowsky of Coral Project for his advice on how to keep your promises. There’s also a bonus section on “dirty talk” you won’t want to miss.
  • Listen more than you talk. As you know from dating, there’s nothing worse than sitting across from a date who only talks, and who fundamentally lacks curiosity about who you are and what you’re looking for. Check out Joy Mayer’s great post about engagement and dating.
  • Listen with your whole self. We can’t overstate the power and need to cultivate good listening practices. Here’s a post Hearken CEO Jennifer Brandel wrote about listening as a form of healing.
  • Value the relationship by showing it matters. Actions > words. Let the public know when they’ve helped you out. Write it into your stories, send them a note, broadcast your appreciation to the world, heck — send them a tote bag of appreciation!
  • Maintain that relationship: follow up and follow through. You aren’t going to be able to keep a zillion relationships thriving at a time, but you can set expectations. What do you intend to do with the relationship? When can they expect to hear from you? What are the next steps for connecting and who is responsible for initiating it?

Those are just a few ways to get started, but nail those and you’re on the right path. If these seem too hard to make part of your daily reality, there’s good news: there are audience relationship experts who can help you and your newsroom get consistent in your relationship practices, to go deep and understand where you can grow and what you’re most ready to learn.

  • If you know who you want to get in a relationship with but first need more info on what they’re looking for, we suggest working with The Listening Post Collective and doing an information needs assessment survey.
  • If you want to start more casually with a group thing — inviting people to gather and seeing who among them might be eager for deeper hangs, check out GroundSource.
  • If you’re ready to commit to dating and developing those LTRs, Hearken helps you match with members of the public who are ready for an LTR, too. Reminder: like dating apps, technology is only one part of the relationship. The goal is to be with actual people — not to just use a platform. You can work with Hearken to set up your dates IRL and learn how to successfully follow-up with people over time.
  • If you want to know what people think of you and whether you’re doing a good job as a partner, check out Coral Project. They’ve cracked the code for comments and making them a better space for learning and dialogue.
  • If you’re ready to go on a deep journey with a group of BFFs to forge soulful bonds, check out the work of Spaceship Media and the Free Press News Voices approaches.

Building trust

Dear Hearken,

There’s a group of people who I want to get closer to and be helpful to, but I know they don’t trust me. I know this because whenever I try to talk to them, they are on edge, they don’t want to reveal much, and they complain about how I treat them. I’m trying to do better … I want to really be of service and advocate for their needs … where do I start?


Ready, eager but uncertain

Dear Eager But Uncertain,

This is a worthy endeavor. Trust in a relationship, once lost, can be difficult to gain back. You may be held accountable for mistakes made years, even decades ago. But it is possible to forge strong new connections from the rubble.

You’ve got to be willing to be vulnerable, to hear people out. This is about actions, not words. Don’t start out by shouting, “Like me! Trust me!” You might need to first hear some things that are hard to take and respond respectfully.

Here are some ways you can set out to make a fresh start:

Remember, Eager, it takes time to create something that will last. But know that your investment now will pay off, in a big way, down the road, when you’re better able to fulfill your mission and sustain yourself.

Getting buy-in

Dear Hearken,

I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching and reading about how to live the kind of life where I don’t have regrets. What I’ve learned is that the connections we have with others (the quality, the depth, the way we help one another, listen to one another and are there for one another) is what actually matters in the end.

I yearn to connect with the public in this way, but my bosses say there’s no time for that. They’re convinced that more is better: more posts, more clicks, more likes, more … but that’s not right for me and I actually think it’s a very extractive and ultimately destructive motivation.

How can I convince them to let me spend time on building relationships that feed my soul and others’? I have so much to give, I so badly want to be of service to my community, and the way my life is going I’m not able to.


Hopeless in the Heartland

Dear Hopeless,

You are not alone. So many of us are plugged into systems we know are broken and have a hard time convincing those who are above us to let us do things differently, to try something new.

Why? There are a lot of reasons. Sometimes it’s fear. Your bosses might be afraid of trying new things, of letting you try new things, because of the unknown. They might look at others and try to copy them because it’s all they’ve ever known. Sometimes they don’t think they can afford to be in relationship — because they fear it takes too much time, because they have to “feed the beast,” because it’s hard to point to a meaningful conversation when it’s not part of the metrics they’re measured against.

But really, your bosses, deep down, yearn for the same things you do. To feel connected, to be of service, to go to bed every night feeling like they did something that mattered and helped others.

If you really want to help them understand why engagement matters — not only for you, but for your editorial mission and your future as a business — send them these studies on the benefits of engagement.

So how do you get on the same page? How do you align your time and the way you spend your days with what’s important and lasting and builds trust and stability for your newsroom?

Try sending your boss those articles and this guide from Hearken about bringing together your mission, your audience and your business model to create meaningful, revenue-generating journalism.

We hope that helps, Hopeless. When it comes to the future of engagement journalism, we see a lot of reasons to be hopeful.

Want to get engaged and not sure where to start or how to find the audience relationships of your dreams? We’re here for you ❤.

Thanks to Bridget Thoreson for collaborating on this post!

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:

Jennifer Brandel

Written by

Accidental journalist turned CEO of a tech-enabled company called Hearken. Founder of @WBEZCuriousCity Find me: @JenniferBrandel @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:

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