Winners of the 2019 Champions of Curiosity Awards

The best public-powered journalism published by Hearken partners

Dec 18, 2019 · 17 min read

For a fourth year, we’ve gathered the best examples of newsrooms that deeply commit to public-powered journalism. These newsrooms, series and stories model what’s possible when a newsroom invites audience questions into the editorial process. We hope you’ll be as inspired by this work as we are.

A huge thank you to our outside judges — André Natta, Adriana Lacy, Bec Feldhaus Adams, Evan Mackinder, and Floco Torres — who tackled judging three of the most competitive categories: best investigative, breaking news, and public service stories or series. The other categories were judged by members of Hearken’s engagement team.

The award categories (see winners below):

  • Champion of Curiosity newsroom
  • Best newcomer
  • Best participation by question-asker
  • Best investigative story or series prompted by a question
  • Best use of Hearken in a breaking news environment
  • Best public service story prompted by a question
  • Hardest story to report
  • Most fun story to report
  • Favorite story that would not have been assigned in traditional editorial process
  • Biggest blockbuster story
  • Best live event
  • Best promotional strategy to solicit questions and votes
  • Best collaboration between organizations
  • Best use of creative visuals or interactivity

Champion of Curiosity

Winner: KUT (Austin, Texas)

Part of the KUT team at the Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Awards in 2019

KUT collected its first questions through Hearken in November 2015 as it launched the series “ATXplained.” In the time since, the Austin public radio station has widely adopted public-powered journalism practices.

KUT rose to the top of this year’s finalists because the newsroom excels on so many levels:

  • Variety of ways it invites and responds to audience input
  • Consistency of inviting and responding to engagement over the past 4 years
  • Scale of engagement (both questions and votes)
  • Quality of engagement with question-askers, and quality of stories

Some of the variety of ways the newsroom invited audience members to get involved:

General curiosities:

  • ATXplained: “What question do you have about Austin’s people, places or culture that you want KUT to investigate?”
  • Hi Who Are You?: “Who makes up the ‘landscape of your community’ that you want to meet? Who do you already know that the rest of us should meet?”

Breaking and topical news:

Elections, voting and government:


Live events:

Engaging consistently and at scale:

  • More than 3,000 people have submitted questions to the newsroom, including 300 people who have submitted multiple questions over the years.
  • More than 11,000 votes have been cast for people’s favorite questions in the 17 voting rounds that the newsroom curated.
  • The newsroom has published answers to more than 100 questions.
  • More than 25 reporters (including interns) have bylined public-powered stories.
  • Audience members in more than 200 ZIP codes have sent in their questions.
  • The newsroom has answered questions about locations across its listening area:
Map created by KUT
Credit: KUT


The newsroom has won many awards for the quality of its public-powered reporting, including regional and national Edward R. Murrow awards, Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Awards, Online Journalism Award, and more.

Reporters have done a fantastic job at involving question-askers in the reporting process. A few memorable question-asker moments:

Best newcomer

Winner: KSAT (San Antonio, Texas)

KSAT, a Graham Media Group-owned ABC affiliate in San Antonio, launched its series SAQ in late February 2019 and gathered 1,900 questions by mid-December. They produced more than 40 stories, many of them emphasizing breaking news and health concerns. They took advantage of live broadcasts to cover special topics, such as foster parenting and vaping.

KSAT is a great example of a newsroom that often explained its Hearken work to its audience and invited viewers to participate. Here’s a video of the KSAT team talking about SAQ on-air.

Reporter Sarah Acosta invites viewers to submit a question for SAQ

Ahead of the launch of their general assignment series, KSAT saw the opportunity to begin engaging their audience around more targeted topics after multiple arrests within the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office. Viewers sent in their questions on how the sheriff’s office investigates and disciplines its own employees and KSAT tackled those questions the next day in their evening newscast. They used this as an opportunity for a quick turnaround in a breaking news situation and adding context for the audience in an ongoing story.

Throughout the year, KSAT utilized their live broadcasts to engage their audience and answer questions on-air. Here are some of the great examples of broadcasts that KSAT produced this year:

KSAT has also answered many viewer questions about common weather occurrences in the region:

KSAT’s SAQ series also utilized other platforms like Facebook Live during breaking news events. After the first case of measles was diagnosed in San Antonio this year, KSAT turned to their audience for their questions on the disease, and invited in a local doctor to answer them on Facebook Live. Public health scares are an opportunity to invite questions and address concerns.

Not only is KSAT recognized for their Hearken series, but other outlets are taking notice of the work the station is doing with developing a membership program. A recent article in Nieman Lab digs into the efforts at KSAT to innovate on the membership model, and includes this telling quote about the the station’s attitude:

“Our overall opportunity lies in audience engagement, and really being the voice of our community, but also the ears of our community,” said KSAT news director Bernice Kearney, who has been at the station for 25 years. “We have been the legacy station for 22, 23 years, so we know we can’t just rest on our laurels or assume that will always be the case. We have to continually work with our audience to make sure they love us later as much as they love us now.”

Best participation by question-asker

Winner: Beth Braun, How Do You Find Out If Your Neighborhood Has Lead Contamination?, WBEZ Curious City

From the nomination: “Beth’s journey to understand how a local steel mill was impacting her neighborhood was the focus of both the audio and video stories. She also recruited friends and neighbors to participate in our soil sampling experiment, which was crucial to the reporting process.”

Best investigative story or series prompted by a question

Winner: WBEZ Curious City, How Is Chicago Doing On Its Ambitious 2020 Climate Goals?

From the nomination: “No one entity has kept track of progress towards those CCAP goals. So we took it as a challenge to spend several months reaching out to dozens of city departments, public utilities, and think tanks to track the progress ourselves.”

From the judges:

What strikes me initially about the piece is the functionality of the story. By offering readers five drop-downs and a simple checklist, readers can easily understand the progress made on Chicago’s climate goals. The piece does a great job of not only listing what the climate goals are, but provide readers a short summary of why the goal was in place, along with answering if the goal was achieved. The piece also identifies the question-asker in the piece, information about the public-powered journalism model and links relevant reading at the end of the story. It is clear that the reader is the center of the piece, and the analysis shows a commitment to high standards.

The audio is crisp, lively and informative. The takeaways are clear.

Reporting done in a manner that is accessible to all residents in Chicago. The information was transparent, engaging and lighthearted even though some of the statistics could be a little sad. I also liked how they made Alison Anastasio sort of the star of the article and that this encourages more readers to reach out when they have specific questions.

Runner-up, investigative story or series

The Stream from WXPR, a series which launched because of a WXPR Curious North question on water quality and PFAS. The series continues to invite more audience questions to drive future reporting.

From the judges:

The urgency of the issue here and dedication of resources here makes this series indispensable. … the sheer amount of content here is impressive and displays doggedness.

Best use of Hearken in a breaking news environment

Winner: KPCC/LAist’s coverage of wildfires in fall 2019

From the nomination: “In October 2019, KPCC continued to build on its tradition of fire coverage for question askers. That month alone there were about 270 questions and 243 of them have been answered so far.” (Update as of Dec. 16: “For that burst of fires, we received 301 submissions and answered 253 of them.”)

Selected stories:

From the judges:

KPCC leveraged Hearken to provide a “real-time” approach to responding to questions in a critical time for their region. It helped both new and long-time residents (and outside observers) better understand what was happening in a valuable way both online and on-air.

The LAist coverage of the #GettyFire was produced like a handbook that told me everything I needed to know about wildfires & I’ve never experienced one. Clear and engaging layout of information that didn’t feel like just listing facts & numbers.

This series demonstrates a comprehensive approach to a hot topic. The team put together content that always honored the seriousness of the issue, but didn’t shy away from providing practical and eye-opening advice (Actually, don’t volunteer or donate your goods) and explainers about common lingo. It’s an approach that will bridge education gaps and further inform the community.

Runner-up, breaking news

Selected stories:

From the judges:

From beginning to the end of KUT’s school closing coverage, the public was at the center of reporting. By collecting the questions ahead of its special broadcast, KUT was able to ensure that the public controlled the outlet’s coverage of the closings. While the live show was lengthy, choosing to stream it both on the website and on Facebook made the coverage more accessible for the audience. Lastly, the explainer format for its equity vs. equality piece was a great example of a service journalism piece, seeking to make sense of a complex issue.

Smart way to be responsive to a breaking story, putting up a live event, taking questions in advance, and then opening up the conversation.

Best public service story prompted by a question

Winner: How Do You Find Out If Your Neighborhood Has Lead Contamination?, WBEZ Curious City

From the nomination: “Beth was a relatable question asker since she was an everyday citizen (as opposed to an environmental activist) worried about the impact of pollution on a community she hopes to live in for a long time. Other concerned citizens can replicate the process she went through to test the soil in her yard and the dust in her home.”

From the judges:

“I was struck by the pairing up with an expert, and watching the process unfold. There are times when stations force a reporter’s presence in a story when leaving them out would actually make it more effective. It was smart to do that here. It worked well for the video, and then the reporter’s voice made more sense in the audio. Great use of both platforms.”

Great story for current & potential homeowners. Great to see a question like this initiated by someone in their 20s and also, creating more accountability through citizens concerns while reminding residents of the power they have. I might have dug up some of my own dirt if it hadn’t started snowing while I was reading.

This piece takes a multi-media approach (video, audio, and story) to answering a complex question. The reporting is thorough, and it also places the instigator (Beth) at the center of the piece. I love that! It’s a good example of getting a lot of mileage out of one simple but critical question.

WBEZ did a great job of prefacing both the video and the written text about the impact that lead contamination has on a community by mentioning the number of people that live in the area, why the residents choose to live there and the impact the investigation had on the questioner. Pairing the questioner with the researcher made the lead contamination investigation more understandable, as Beth Braun asked questions that a typical reader would want to know, thus making it engaging to the audience.

Runner-up, public service: The Duke Chronicle, Class of 2023 series

From the nomination: “We designed a question callout inviting Duke’s incoming first-year class (Class of 2023) to ask their pressing questions about the University. We addressed these questions in different formats and, in addition to publishing them normally, posted in first-year-specific Facebook groups. It was fun to hear what incoming students were wondering and helpful for our own reporting practices to consider how to answer subjective questions (such as those involving the social scene at Duke).”

Selected stories:

From the judges:

The Duke Chronicle’s effort had the potential to actively engage not just the incoming class, but returning students. It provides a resource that can be referenced and revised often and serves as a way to encourage an extended conversation for the Duke community.

This is a strong service for the incoming class at Duke. It was thorough and included previous reporting from the Chron. They used the medium well, but I didn’t get much about the questioners. I appreciated their note about experiences being individualized.

Hardest story to report

The initial audience question was “When did Milwaukee change from wards to districts? And why?” The reporter talked to government officials in Milwaukee and Madison.

So, that seemed to be the end of a pretty cut-and-dried story. I called Steve [the question-asker] to relay the news. He was expecting more political fireworks but was satisfied with the answer provided.

But then, the night before the story was supposed to air, I got a phone call that said otherwise.

After hearing from a former Democratic state representative that said the change was made by white city leaders trying to dilute the black vote, the reporter researched his claims by comparing maps at City Hall Library, and then talking to a historian, the reporter was finally able to publish with confidence.

Most fun story to report

This story was full of laugh-out-loud moments, and both question-askers seem like a hoot, too. We can only imagine how many more silly moments didn’t make it into the piece.

From the nomination: “Blucifer — not his real name — is a beautiful and controversial piece of art, a rearing blue mustang with red lights for eyes that greets travelers at Denver International Airport. ‘Mustang’ — his real name — is both beloved and reviled, just what art should be. We had a few questions in Co Wonders about it, took the questioners right up the belly of the beast, and in what we think is a first, our reporter got to visit the New Mexico studio of the renown artist who died in making the horse — it fell on him and he bled to death. Okay, that part isn’t fun, but the artist’s widow invited reporter Stephanie Wolf to stand inside the belly of the mold.”

Favorite story that would not have been assigned in traditional editorial process

From the nomination:“This is a perfect example of a question that wouldn’t get an editor or reporter’s attention but is something that people in the community often wonder about. It’s why this story is ‘evergreen’ and recently made the rounds on Twitter again eight months after it was published.”

Runner-up: What Happens To All The Poop From The Animals At Zoo Boise?, Boise State Public Radio

From the nomination: “I can’t imagine this Hearken-powered, listener-based story would be assigned in our regular editorial process. It took a member of the audience to bravely ask, ‘give me the poop.’”

Biggest blockbuster story

From the nomination: “This blockbuster was most unexpected. It’s the number two story for us this year in terms of pageviews, number three for engaged minutes — a whopping 50x the typical digital story. The amusing headline video by Tyrone Turner has also been seen more than 7,000 times — more than any other video we’ve produced this year. What makes it special, beyond the hustle it took for reporter Ally Schweitzer to get out there and do it when seven months pregnant, is how it developed a second life this October during the Nationals’ playoff run. Amazing how a Hearken question anticipated national curiosity five months later!”

Best live event

Curious City had more than 350 attendees at this event as part of the City of Chicago’s SummerDance Celebration. “We brought together music and dance from three disparate communities in the Chicago area.”

Best promotional strategy to solicit questions and votes

Winner: WXPR, Curious North road trip

From the nomination: “It got us out of the station and created a way to engage with listeners. We received over 50 questions and left posters and stickers all over the community.”

Runner-up: WBEZ Curious City, Rat zine delivered to public libraries

The newsroom also tweeted out a thread showing the WBEZ staff members who delivered copies of the zine to each library:

Best collaboration between organizations

Chi.Vote involved 10 news organizations in Chicago working together to cover the spring 2019 Chicago municipal elections. The collaborative invited and addressed audience questions, as well as offering readers other ways to engage (a quiz!).

Read more about how the Chi.Vote collaboration worked from Solution Set.

Best use of creative visuals or interactivity

From the nomination: “Both a digital and physical zine — print versions were distributed through the Chicago Public Library branch system by WBEZ staff!”

The web presentation worked well, and the project really shined on paper. (Printable PDF here)

The reporting still covered the public-powered journalism best practices, including talking with and highlighting the question-asker:

Following the publication of the zine, the newsroom held several events, including one family-friendly event and a 21+ event at a bar:

Runner-up, creative visuals: What’s Inside The Governor’s Old Fallout Shelter In The Woods?, Podcast Party, WPLN Curious Nashville

“We swear: This year’s puppet rendition of a story was even better than either of the past two years. The puppetry team reverted back to shadow puppetry this time — but they did so on a grand scale, and their use of old-fashioned overhead projectors was a perfect aesthetic match for a story focused on the 1950s Cold War and the state’s nuclear bomb shelter that was long kept secret in a hilly area outside of Nashville.”

That’s a wrap on 2019! Here’s where you can find our 2016, 2017 and 2018 winners.

Interested in public-powering your organization with Hearken? Reach out or download our free resources.

Looking to show your public-powered pride? Our new online shop sells “Pivot to People” T-shirts and “I’m the cutest audience you’ll ever engage” onesies. They make great gifts, too!

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and…


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News organizations use Hearken to meaningfully engage the public as a story develops from pitch through publication. Founders: @JenniferBrandel @coreyhaines

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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