Why I joined Hearken: Because community engagement requires a culture shift

Stephanie L. Snyder
Feb 1, 2018 · 6 min read

A lot can — and, honestly, probably should — change in six years. Sometimes, a lot can change in six weeks (more on that later).

Here I am reporting at the Dominican Republic-Haiti border while I was a journalism student at Arizona State University. Needless to say, my ‘first job out of college’ expectations were slightly off.

When I was trying to land my first full-time job in journalism in 2012, the biggest problem the industry was facing was figuring out sustainable revenue models that would allow newsrooms to grow instead of shrink. It was a daunting time, especially for recent college grads (👋🏼 ) who were enthusiastically, and somewhat naively, entering the workforce with skills they were told were the “future of journalism” (multimedia reporting, data visualizations, social media, etc).

While the majority of newsrooms of all sizes and business models are still facing that same sustainability problem, the most talked-about hurdle the news industry is currently facing is one that fundamentally rocks journalism’s purpose of providing a public service: distrust.

Trust in the media has hit an all-time low. We’ve been hearing some variation of that sentence for over a year now — leading up to and, especially, following the 2016 presidential election.

And as news organizations continue to struggle with dwindling staffs and the need to diversify revenue streams beyond pageview-driven online advertising, regaining the public’s trust will require a strong focus on building quality relationships and creating personal experiences for readers, listeners and viewers.

Enter that word we talk about all the time: Engagement.

If we want the public to help sustain journalism, we need to foster meaningful connections. We can’t just turn to them when we need something, like a quote, a source, sharing content or—the most increasingly common ask among nonprofits and for-profits alike—financial support.

This, however, is a relationship built on extraction, rather than a back-and-forth dialogue that leads to newsrooms inserting more value into communities and members of the public bringing more diverse perspectives into newsrooms.

For news organizations to accomplish that, community engagement can’t just be one person’s job that you’ve seen evolve from managing social media to interacting with the public more frequently through events and other feedback loops. Instead, it needs to be approached as a culture shift in the way that editorial decisions are made and what a newsroom’s role in the community looks like.

This was especially crucial in the newsrooms I most recently worked in — Denverite in Denver and Chalkbeat in New York City — where we weren’t the main outlets in town, mostly due to being startup or niche publications in markets with legacy media.

Earning respect from your audience, sources and those with influence is difficult when no one has heard of your newsroom before, to the point of consistently having to spell out the name of the organization on what seems like a never-ending basis.

In those situations, differentiating coverage and building a loyal audience isn’t something that comes with the benefit of name recognition with a century-old institution. You’re constantly working to prove your value and relevancy.

A few members of the Denverite team (including me!) set up a pop-up booth on downtown Denver’s busy 16th Street Mall in September 2016 (three months after the website launched) to talk to the public about their perceptions of the space and what should or shouldn’t change. (Kevin Beaty/Denverite)

A major step to doing that successfully is putting more stock in being a resource that people truly want, not just need, to be a part of how they live as engaged citizens and residents.

So when they’re asked to support your news organization financially — whether by becoming a member or subscribing — it’s akin to paying for other experiences within the community that they value: like an annual membership to the local independent movie theater or the city’s botanic garden or an art museum.

For members of the public, paying for news needs to feel like it falls somewhere between supporting cultural institutions that help build great cities and donating to a cause that provides a public service and creates informed communities.

The bottom line: The majority of people with disposable income will give their money to organizations they personally believe in, support and value. How do those organizations become vital parts of these personal lives? By establishing a focus on building relationships on individual and community-based levels.

And that’s why I believe in Hearken

Hearken is doing the work to help enable newsrooms to connect with their audience at a very critical time for the journalism industry.

Not long after Hearken launched in 2015, I immediately wanted to start working with both the technology and deep engagement expertise the company had to offer to better do my job as the community editor of Chalkbeat New York, a nonprofit news organization covering local education issues in New York City schools. (I even wrote, and was awarded, my first grant to help make it happen. S/O to my alma mater, the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, and the Knight Foundation for the opportunity!)

After we started collecting and answering readers’ questions through our Hearken platform, we also incorporated the task of finding out what people wanted to know about the city’s school system by asking those we met while reporting or at community events. Some of the questions we answered included:

We saw success reaching an audience outside of our typical readership and explored topics in a way that aimed to be more accessible to teachers and parents across the city.

It was also an opportunity to fuse my training as a beat reporter with what I’d learned about audience development through a serious rebranding effort at the (formerly Scripps-owned, now Gannett) Ventura County Star, where I helped conduct dozens of interviews with local residents to understand how we could be serving our community better.

I believed in the public-powered model so much that I did my best to launch a similar series (without being a Hearken partner) in my next role as the engagement specialist for Denverite, an online startup news organization covering Denver that launched in summer 2016.

While we answered a LOT of readers’ questions (including many about Denver’s growth, transportation, homelessness issues, food and the city’s unique quirks), there wasn’t the same focus on relationship-building with the question-asker as the Hearken model encourages.

I can also attest that simply making a Google Form or Typeform to collect questions on specific landing pages doesn’t cut it after you’ve had the chance to work with Hearken’s engagement management system, consultants and tech team that together provide countless hours of support with best practices and targeted strategies. Without it, you’re basically being handed a platform and told, “GO FORTH, ENGAGE!” and then left to figure out all the hard stuff about new relationship etiquette and best practices on your own.

While working for Hearken has remained a dream job for me since I was first introduced to the team 2.5 years ago, I can’t claim that I willingly left a newsroom position for this role. Remember, that six-week timeline I mentioned?? I won’t get into the details here, because that’s what Twitter is for, but we all know layoffs aren’t fun.

(tldr: gets laid off with one-third of editorial staff →️ helps workshop related to unexpectedly-lost job️️ →️ takes full-time PR gig →️ ️ realizes that isn’t a great fit →️ stars align and Hearken is hiring →️ offered new job I love!)

I’ve continued to be inspired by countless examples of Hearken-powered journalism and the way that newsrooms across the country (and the world!) have incorporated the public-powered model. And I’m thrilled to be starting this role focused on supporting news organizations of all sizes and business models as they experience the value of listening to the public to help build and inform communities. Isn’t that the main reason most of us got into this line of work, after all?

Hearken’s engagement consulting team (from left to right): Julia Haslanger, Stephanie Snyder (me), Janine Anderson and Summer Fields.

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: http://www.wearehearken.com/

Stephanie L. Snyder

Written by

✨ Engagement Consultant at Hearken ✨ | Former journalist with a focus on community engagement and audience development for local startup news organizations.

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: http://www.wearehearken.com/

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