When I attended the Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2016, the opening panel that night felt more like a funeral than a kickoff event.
It was just a few days after the election. Donald Trump was elected president. Journalists weren’t expecting this outcome. The polls didn’t call it. Certainly, Trump flouted most conventions of a presidential candidate. So journalists were asking, “what did we get wrong?” and “where do we go from here?”
We know now what happened: outlets failed to take candidate Trump seriously, facts were dismissed or questioned, an over-reliance on polls, but most importantly, journalists failed to listen to people of all political stripes, living on the margins, who felt like the current government or the candidates didn’t care about them.
As Jennifer Brandel wisely put it:
I can’t help but think that if you unpack the anger news folks can have toward their audience, you’d uncover sadness. It’s sadness that the public doesn’t understand or respect how much work and consideration goes into good reporting, sadness that they can’t always do their best work with ferocious daily demands, sadness that someone who they’re ultimately trying to help and serve thinks they are terrible at their jobs, or a terrible person.
I could feel the anger and sadness from everyone in that conference room. I know I felt it. I got into journalism because I know personally how the power of information opened new opportunities for me and I wanted to open that door for others.
But I too also know what it’s like to not be heard. It’s a daily thing if you’re Latino.
You might think that after that conference, I was inspired to roll up my sleeves and launch some kick-ass audience engagement effort that reached people who never even heard of public media. But in reality: I didn’t have the time or the resources. As a producer at KERA, I was splitting time between producing the morning show, the mid-day newscasts, reporting, and whatever else was needed.
And this is the case for a lot of newsrooms: they don’t have the time, the money, the people, or the culture built in to take that on. It’s sometimes demoralizing as a journalist to be on a never-ending cycle of deadlines. You don’t have room to stop and think about what master you’re actually serving, and when you do, you sometimes realize you’re just trying to feed the beast.
For the most part, I was successful at KERA — and one would think, comfortable. But deep down, there was this itch I couldn’t scratch — that journalism has a representation problem and I wanted to fix it.
I care so much about representation it sometimes hurts.
I often think about the state of diversity in newsrooms. (That’s another story for another day.) I often think about ways in which journalists can connect with people they don’t traditionally reach. Ultimately, good journalism is representative and responsive to the needs of the community.
Hearken is helping newsrooms make that happen. So that’s why I’m here.
When people have a seat at the table, change happens
Hearken’s not a technology, it’s a philosophy: when you invite people into the reporting process to pitch and participate, it results in better journalism.
When you invite people in, you can flesh out complicated issues in a way that breaks from the minute-by-minute coverage and gets into the real questions that people are asking, such as the separation of migrant families on the border and the ongoing gun debate.
When you invite people in, you get stories that wouldn’t have come down through a traditional editorial process, like why Vermont is so white, where the word ‘Dixie’ came from, and why New Hampshire doesn’t support an income tax.
And most importantly, when you invite people in, you’re telling them their voices matter. You’re building trust in parts of your community that have perhaps been ignored for a long time.
It doesn’t matter if you work for a large or a tiny news organization, Hearken can work for you. Through our consulting, Hearken helps newsrooms enact best practices and strategies tailored to the resources available. Reporters can focus their energies on stories requested from the public. Newsrooms can easily see the fruits of their labor, the questions and votes and contact information of community members they’ve reached all in one place, the Engagement Management System (EMS).
And in many cases, the result of engagement is newsrooms meeting their bottom line. Inviting the public to the editorial roundtable isn’t just fulfilling a promise of service, it’s good business sense. (It’s true. We have receipts.)
The best receipt of all, though, is something that doesn’t have a price tag: trust, and better representation of the communities newsrooms want to serve.