In nearly every newsroom across the country, you can be guaranteed one editor is looking at a readout of his company’s Web analytics and quietly saying to himself, “Our audience is stupid.”
What other reason could there be for a silly trivial story to skyrocket to the top of their online traffic reports, while a well-researched and time-consuming report everyone patted themselves on the back to produce barely made a traffic dent?
Welcome to the top-down newsroom of 1980, where editors and reporters arbitrarily decided which stories deserved to be told, regardless of who their readers were. The only input they ever cared about receiving from their audience was the 25 cents it cost to purchase the newspaper.
Obviously times have changed, but this editorial mindset still persists at an alarming number of media companies, even as their organizations publicly preach “digital first” and “audience engagement.” In too many newsrooms across the country (probably even your own), interaction ends with counting the number of likes and retweets a post has received on social media and allowing readers to leave their comments at the bottom of stories (which Ad Age estimates 65 percent of readers never do).
“Reporters and editors are very paternalistic, and not only do we think we know best, we believe our audience is made up of a bunch of children,” said Jennifer Brandel, a former reporter who has made it her mission to point out the importance of readers. “It’s a falsehood I’m trying to do away with.”
Brandel has been described as an “accidental journalist” and the “air traffic controller for all things curious,” but in reality she’s a cold bucket of water to the face to a mindset that has had a chokehold on newsrooms for decades: Journalists under-appreciating (or flat-out dismissing) their audience and quietly deciding among themselves what is and isn’t important enough to cover.
She’s also the founder of Hearken, a software platform with a simple objective—to bring readers into the story-creation process.
The genius of how Hearken works is in its simplicity. The platform, embedded directly into the pages of a media organization’s website, allows readers to suggest questions and vote on the ones they’d like to see reported out. Think of it as beta-testing story ideas before any valuable time is spent reporting and writing.
“People tell me I’m trying to get rid of editors, but editors are the most important people in the newsroom,” Brandel said. “This tool only gives them more insight into what the public wants and gives them more interesting questions to struggle with.”
Hearken was born from Curious City, a project Brandel began back in 2012 at WBEZ in Chicago, that asked listeners to submit questions and vote on the ones they’d like to have answered. Listeners who had their questions selected were then invited to work with the station’s journalists as they reported on their stories.
WBEZ has won many awards and published several popular and widely shared stories based on the simple concepts Brandel has pushed. One of the most read was “What does the Lincoln Park Zoo do with all its poo?” which was a result of listener Kelley Clink’s question, “What happens to all the, um, ‘animal waste’ from the Lincoln Park Zoo?”(Her follow-up question, “Which animal is the worst to clean up after?” was equally as interesting to WBEZ’s editors).
A question by Sarahlynn Pablo, “Where does our unmistakable and lovable Chicago accent come from?” proved so fascinating and popular it led to three seperate WBEZ stories, covering everything from the origin of their strange vowels to how the Chicago accent is evolving.
Readers’ questions can also lead to more serious endeavors. Michigan Radio won a regional Murrow Award for investigative journalism thanks to a series of stories about the Enbridge pipeline that started with a single question from listener Justin Cross, “What’s the status of the aged Enbridge oil pipeline running through Lake Michigan at the Straits of Mackinac?”
It turns out inviting input from readers editors so often disdain can provide the insight for popular, widely-shared stories. Even better, editors don’t have to sacrifice clicks for the type of journalism they feel their organizations have come to be known for.
“If you’re only doing clickbait stories, you’re going to have a lot of unhappy journalist sad about their job and not really serving anyone,” Brandel said. “We want organizations to be helpful and relevant to their audience, not forced down a path of doing stories everyone feels sad about.”
All that is true, but any editor can create a poll using Google Forms and Polldaddy for free, while a subscription to Hearken starts at $5,000 per year. So why are more than 50 media organizations in nine countries around the world willing to pay for Hearken’s platform?
There are two main reasons. The first is the convenience of not having to collect and organize survey data by hand, an annoying process that is almost impossible for many newsrooms stretched to the limit when it comes to manpower.
The second? It just seems to work.
At KQED in San Francisco, Brandel says stories produced using Hearken’s platform performed on average 11 times better than stories produced by the station’s normal process (and spending an average of 5.32 minutes engaged with those stories). At Detroit public radio station WDET, Brandel told Fast Company the first story produced by Hearken’s platform broke their site’s former page view record by more than double. And even though just two percent of the stories posted to WBEZ in 2014 were done through Hearken, Brandel says they made up nearly half of the top 50 stories of the year.
There is still a lot of work to be done in the infamously recalcitrant newsrooms many of us work in, but Brandel remains optimistic editors and reporters can be nudged to look at their audience in a different light. After all, they already do while they’re reporting.
“When working on a story, every individual might have value to give them. They forget that when writing for their audience,” Brandel said. “They just need to start looking at their audiences the same way they look at their sources.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Philly.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.