Public-powered journalism in practice

December 2018.


5 min.

Bridget Thoreson
Editorial and Community Manager

Hearken grew out of a project designed to answer listeners’ questions at WBEZ in Chicago. Co-founder Jennifer Brandel asked: what if we turned the power of the reporting process over to our audience, all the way from pitch to publication? That question has grown into a movement of more than 130 newsrooms worldwide listening deeply to their audiences.

What is public-powered journalism?

So many terms are thrown around that claim to be “engagement” journalism — measured by likes or shares on social media, reach of content or response to opinion polls and surveys. But unlike other “engagement” practices, the public-powered model of journalism practiced by Hearken’s newsroom partners includes members of the public from the very outset of the editorial process.

Journalists committed to involving citizens in their work from the outset must be willing to open up their practices to community input. Step by step, the process can include:

  • Soliciting questions. Newsrooms seek audience input by asking them what they, the readers, listeners and viewers, want to know. This can be general prompts around curiosity such as practiced by WBEZ’s Curious City and KQED’s Bay Curious, or specific requests for questions relating to certain topics or breaking news.
  • Validating audience interest. Before reporting out a story, news organizations can get a sense of their audience’s interest in the question by putting it up to a voting round. Voting rounds allow newsrooms to get a sense of who is interested in potential stories, even allowing them to collect email addresses of those who would like to see the final story.
  • Involving the public in the reporting process. For those newsrooms willing and able to find members of the public who want to participate in the reporting process, they can interview the question-askers and invite them along as they research the question. This can involve on-site visits to conduct source interviews or explore the location being discussed. The process can include checking back with question-askers before publishing the story to see whether it adequately addressed their question.
  • Invitations for further interaction. The public-powered reporting process is not a linear task to be completed — instead, it creates a virtuous cycle where the value of the public feedback displayed by newsrooms creates more opportunities for the public to have a voice in the stories produced for them.

A new approach

By taking the process of pursuing stories out of newsroom meetings and into the community, public-powered journalism opens the door to new possibilities. For journalists, this process changes their approach in these areas:

  • Story selection. Instead of working with predetermined beat structure, public-powered journalism addresses a wide variety of subjects.
  • Audience alignment. Instead of relying on after-the-fact metrics to determine whether their coverage is meeting the audience’s information needs, the public-powered process gives journalists immediate feedback as they report.
  • New communities. As newsrooms solicit questions on new topics, they are able to reach audiences that may not have responded to previous coverage.

“Working in a 150-seat student-powered public media newsroom, we are continuously on the hunt for new and interesting story ideas. Having Hearken as a portal for audience engagement has provided our students with dozens of stories that neither they nor we would have otherwise thought of and covered.”

Ethan Magoc, news editor, WUFT

“As part of the gubernatorial town hall, we turned to Hearken to connect with community members about the questions they had for the candidates. More than 1,100 people responded with questions and I see concentrations in neighborhoods outside of our traditional listenership.”

Ashley Alvarado, director of community engagement, Southern California Public Radio

The impact on the audience members is also significant. By becoming involved, they are given greater agency to influence the news they consume and also greater insight into the reporting process.

One such example is Robert Beedle, a Chicago resident who asked Curious City about the laws governing demolition after noticing all the dust and debris that was kicked up in his own neighborhood. As his question was investigated, Beedle came along on interviews with the reporter.

“If it wasn’t for the journalists and if it wasn’t for WBEZ and Curious City who have reached out, this would have gone unanswered, and I doubt I would have been able to have a conversation with the buildings commissioner any other way,” Beedle told Curious City afterward. “It’s a really valuable service to the city and everyone who lives here.”

After the piece was produced, Beedle was inspired to get involved with a community organization trying to reform environmental regulations in the city.

Beedle’s story illustrates how citizens benefit from the public-powered journalism process, and how it impacts the relationship between journalists and their communities:

  • Citizens get access to people and information they would not otherwise be able to get.
  • Their areas of curiosity are given wide exposure that can help like-minded people join the cause.
  • They are able to see concrete examples of value that the news service provides.
  • They receive positive attention from the press and their community for simply being an engaged and curious citizen.

Newsrooms that put the public first are finding they are building relationships with their audiences, increasing their understanding of what their audiences want from them, and enhancing their ability to validate the worth of the stories they pursue. In mirrored ways, audiences get increased access and understanding with their news organizations, grow in their understanding of how newsrooms serve them, and enhance their ability to influence the news

they consume. This is engagement the way it is defined outside of journalism, when it comes to real-life relationships — a lasting, mutual commitment between two parties, and the beginning of a lifelong adventure together.