My first experience in journalism was at an internship at the Committee to Protect Journalists in their Africa Program. I was tasked with the job of researching and reporting on incidents of injustice to journalists across the continent. I loved it. The role gave me the opportunity to see the impact of journalistic work, and the value of the industry in countries where a free press is not the norm.
When I finished, I didn’t necessarily dream of being a journalist — which was a good thing, because when I finished university and started looking for jobs it was a truly catastrophic time to try and get hired as a reporter — but I did want to do something that kept me close to content creation and to the journalism industry. I decided to take the business route instead, accepting a position in the syndication department of the New York Times, based in Paris.
At the time, it seemed like a pretty non-consequential decision — I got to move to Paris (yay!) and work for the New York Times (pinch me!). I didn’t really think beyond those two wins. What developed during that experience, though, was a realisation that the journalism industry was in peril, and that I was committed to finding ways to stabilize it.
Since then, I have visited hundreds of newsrooms across the world and spoken to countless editorial and commercial stakeholders about their challenges and visions. It’s a diverse landscape out there, and one thing is for certain — no two newsrooms are the same. What is also certain, though, is journalism is undergoing tremendous change, and I think will continue to indefinitely. This means there is no magic solution that any company or person can offer to ‘make things right.’ Instead, I believe that what is called for is deeper changes in mindset and infrastructure that will set up the journalism industry to accommodate change — and maybe one day even thrive on it.
So, this where Hearken comes in. I became aware of Hearken in 2015 at the NewsXchange conference in Berlin. I heard Jenn speak, was fascinated by her vision, and have kept tabs on the company ever since.
What I loved about Hearken, and still do, is how it is grounded in the concept of listening, which, in all its simplicity, has often been de-prioritized in tightly strapped news environments. In my tour of newsrooms, I found that the challenges were often centered around speed, efficiency and clicks, and the desired solution was always something that could or should be done internally. Not until very recently did newsrooms begin to look to their audience for help.
The irony, of course, is that readers and newsrooms are a codependent couple, one cannot exist without the other. So, why aren’t news outlets paying more attention to the communities that help them stay afloat?
Hearken addresses this question through a blended business model of technology and consultancy. I believe having both is key. Technology has revolutionized newsrooms and having a concrete manifestation of Hearken’s methodology will help maintain audience-first practices across newsrooms long-term. And yet, Hearken also acknowledges that the tech is not enough. Returning to the fact that each newsroom is different, Hearken embraces this and has built custom consulting offerings into the core of its business model.
Outside of its methodology and offerings, I joined Hearken because of the culture through which the company has come to exist. Hearken embraces a ‘Zebra’ business model, which means building a path to sustainability and embracing responsible growth. After having spent two years in the tech industry, in which the hockey stick is the north star, this commitment to a healthy and tenable business is deeply welcome to me.
Finally, what has struck me most about Hearken is the broader impact that its methodology can have on industries beyond journalism. If you zoom out, and think about Hearken on a macro level, it addresses the crisis of institutions managing top down, and for their own benefit, across any vertical or sector. Government, finance, education and beyond could all do with a dose of listening to their users and customers to better understand how they can serve them and why they serve them. Journalism is perhaps the most visible industry in this crisis of non-audience centered thinking because its product — content — is so highly exposed. But beyond that, Hearken’s methodologies address the increasing gap between the needs of communities and the structures that are meant to support them. Journalism is where we will start at Hearken, but I see potential in its vision far beyond, and I’m tickled to be part of a team that is going to realize it.