The innovative startup that is helping the public shape the news

Jennifer is now the CEO of Hearken, a technology company that works with newsrooms to improve their process of story creation. It is a ‘listening first’ model supported by a technology platform that enables communities to have a much greater say in the stories that are created for them.

Hearken seems to have struck a chord as its customers now include a wide spectrum of media companies from small, local newspapers through to the multi-platform giants the BBC and ABC.

Here Jennifer, who will be speaking at this year’s Digital Innovators’ Summit (DIS), explains how Hearken works, talks about how it benefits journalists, newsrooms and readers and tackles one of the key issue of the day: whether newspaper websites need comments. 

About DIS:

Digital Innovators’ Summit 2017 takes place from 19-21 March (main Summit on 20 and 21 March) in Berlin, Germany. With digital in a continuous state of innovation and change, DIS2017 brings together experts from around the world, in media and in related industries, to share ideas, insights and expertise. Now in its 10th year, DIS is a premium event attracting more than 600 top-level delegates from 30+ countries.

In addition to the speaker programme, DIS2017 provides opportunity to meet, discuss trends, challenges and opportunities, and/or simply catch up and have fun through a number of formal and informal networking events. DIS is organised by FIPP, the network for global media, and VDZ, the German Publishers Association. See more at There’s still time to book at the standard rate.

You describe yourself as an accidental journalist turned CEO of a tech-enabled company. How did the journey from writer to founder of Hearken go? What was your light bulb moment?

There wasn’t a “light-bulb” moment per se, but there was a shower moment, when a variety of ideas that’d been swirling in my brain for a couple of years all came together into a coherent system. The short story is I did not intentionally seek a path to become a journalist and now business-owner, but I have always been curious and my curiosity led me here despite lack of training for these two careers.

Coming into journalism without prior experience, I had many questions about why and how stories were reported. In asking my colleagues and spending a lot of time in observing the processes, I was not satisfied that the traditional system was serving the public as well as it could. Newsrooms made decisions based on the input of very few people and those choices had massive impact on their communities. I wondered if there was a way to have the public represented in those decisions and in the process of story creation, rather than after it, and spent a few years tinkering with a new model to accomplish that. 

In this quest to ensure stories were as relevant as possible to communities, I discovered that bringing the public into the processes of journalism not only made that happen, it made for more original and high-performing stories, and it was deeply satisfying as a journalist to work with the public directly. After seeing success on metrics ranging from prestigious awards to highly popular stories to significant new email leads generated for newsroom subscriptions, I became convinced that this model could scale to newsrooms. 

So in 2014 I quit the series I was experimenting with this model (called Curious City) at WBEZ in Chicago and started my own business. Hearken is the name of this business, and the name of the listening-first model and supporting platform that me and an incredible group of collaborators have been developing for a few years now.

What then are the key benefits for journalists and media companies in getting the public involved in creating articles this way?

There are so many, but to keep it brief here is a breakdown: 

Journalists get: 

● proof that their audience cares about a topic before they’ve done a word of reporting

● permission to do more creative stories

● to learn who their audience is as individuals so they can better report on their behalf 

● to see first-hand the impact of their work

● a continuous stream of fresh story ideas from the public

● compelling sources that make for relatable characters in stories

● a sense of fulfillment by seeing how their work benefits communities

Newsrooms get: 

● deeper relationships with their audiences that generate more visits to their site

● email addresses for newsletters and subscriptions

● new visitors and new participants

● advertising or underwriting revenue from selling space on the Hearken tech tools

● an understanding of who their audience is as individuals 

● actionable insight into what they care about and need to know

● differentiated content from competitors

● a model that optimises their services for trust over speed

(Without trust, it doesn’t matter if you are the first to post the story.)

The most important question I think though is what does the audience / the public get? 

They get: 

● a direct say on the stories made on their behalf

● access to information and experiences that are otherwise off-limits

● coverage that’s reflective of a broader diversity of people and a broader diversity of concerns

● a view into and appreciation for how journalism is made

● to be heard, considered and served by those with far more power than they have

● civic empowerment

Can you give me some examples of the best ways that media companies have used the service?

Hearken is an extremely flexible model that enables newsrooms to bring their audiences into the fold at any point in the story process and allows newsrooms to produce all variety of story types (from local to international, topic-based or general appeal, investigative to profiles to timely quick-turnaround news to enterprise features). 

The BBC uses Hearken in many ways, including for original reporting from geographically based teams like in the West Midlands to FAQs after breaking news like the High Court’s Brexit ruling. Local newsrooms often use it to run eclectic, general assignment series like KQED’s Bay Curious in the San Francisco Bay or New Jersey Public Television’s Ask Away. Newsrooms are also using Hearken as a value-add to inspire readers to sign-up, subscribe or donate for premium content, like our partners at the Chronicle for Higher Education. Hearken works no matter what the final form content takes: video, podcast, radio story, newspaper, live event, etc.  

Hearken is such a great and simple idea – why do you think it has taken so long for someone to come up with it? Do you think journalists and media companies still obsess over being the gatekeeper?

Well the simple answer, but the one that is sure to make me unpopular with some people is: the patriarchy. So many of society’s longstanding institutions have been designed by and long-run by men (government, universities, health care, journalism, etc.). While gender equity in leadership is happening to some degree in various industries, all of these systems and their processes were conceived of, optimised for and primarily run by men. Culturally speaking, men are not often encouraged or rewarded for collaboration, or for ceding authority and admitting they don’t know something (which are some of the principles Hearken is built on).

I say this not to insult men, if these same systems were all designed and run by women for centuries, there would be an equally imbalanced dynamic going on, too, just in another way. So I think Hearken’s approach kind of had to have been developed by a woman, and by a woman who didn’t enter into the industry by traditional means of study and practice. 

Overall, I’m a huge believer that when outsiders enter into an industry, their energy and ideas can allow those within it to see their work in new ways and find seemingly obvious solutions to problems that have been stared at by the same eyes for too long.

In answer to your second question about journalists and media companies obsessing over being the gatekeeper: yes indeed. But I think what the internet age has shown journalists is that they are not smarter than the public at-large, and that their work can become greatly augmented, improved and more effective with the public’s contributions and help in final distribution. 

There is a lot of interest in Hearken from smaller local publishers? What are the key benefits for them? Also is it a concept that is less relevant to larger, say national media organisations?

Hearken can work for any sized publication serving any community of interest (whether that’s local, national, international or topic-based). What I love about working with local newsrooms is that this model helps unearth tremendously interesting story ideas about a shared environment and lived experience. Hearken turns a town, city, or region into a museum of sorts, with journalists as curators to showcase the stories and fascinating histories often hidden in plain sight. I love how this collaboration also enriches the lives of locals by honing in on a special sense of place, and by showing how everything around them was the result of some person’s decision, and that they likewise have the power to make decisions and change the way things are, too. 

Regarding local, it’s no secret how critical local news is to the news ecosystem at large and to societies and their governance. We see our model helping to strengthen local reporting and newsrooms by helping them forge deeper relationships with their communities, who then see themselves better reflected in their news sources. That powerful tie means the community has a vested interest to insure that newsroom’s survival, as it is a mirror they require to examine and make sense of their day-to-day lives and make decisions for the health and vitality of their communities. 

Regarding national and international, we work with those kinds of newsrooms, too (BBC, ABC, YLE, NPR, MediaWorks, etc.). Hearken is at work in nearly a dozen countries and languages, enabling a public-powered approach for all manner of reporting and communities. 

Do you think it is an issue that so many media companies now have switched off comments? Do you think there will ever be a backlash against them?

I have many feelings about turning off comments. On the negative side, it removes a key ability for newsrooms to hear back from and close the distance between their staff and their audiences. It tells the audience “you are not welcomed on our site” and that audience input does not shape editorial decisions. On the positive side, removing comments removes a poorly designed space that most newsrooms did not have the wherewithal to groom or make useful. 

Many newsrooms who have removed comments have done so in the hopes of replacing that opportunity with a better-designed dynamic that leads to actionable insight and maintains respect among participants. In that sense, I am glad when this is their intent. We’re happy to be serving NPR as an alternative after they stopped comments (so far on just a few verticals). Beyond using Hearken (which is an upstream, full journalism model), software like the Coral Project and Civil Comments are doing wonderful downstream work designing better commenting platforms. 

More generally do you think news organisations are doing enough to counter trolls and inappropriate debates in their comments?

No, it doesn’t appear that they are! It’s hard work and takes a lot of commitment and modeling of good behavior.  

Why do you think that so few journalists end up creating and running tech startups?

That’s a fair question. I think journalists are natural entrepreneurs – they’re curious, resourceful, are able to make quick decisions based on limited information and generally are hungry to know how things work. In some ways the same things that made me love journalism (constant learning, no two days are alike, communicating ideas, being creative), are the same things I love about running a company. I know of a fabulous bunch of former journalists running tech companies, including Mara Zepeda of Switchboard, Andrew Haeg of GroundSource, Pia Frey of Opinary, Steve Henn of 60db, Jake Shapiro of Radio Public, to name a few off the top of my head. 

Running a company of any kind is not for everyone of course, but I hope more journalists make the plunge in starting their own thing. I also get excited about there being more businesses in the world run by people who ascribe to journalistic ethics, including a commitment to honesty, fairness, justice, and seeing many sides of any given story. 

How do you see the future for collaborations between journalists and their readers? Could live video be used in developing stories? Will there be a role for connected devices via the internet of things?

I feel certain that journalists and their readers will continue to collaborate more deeply as models, tools and strategies evolve, but less willing to make a bet about the specific distribution and creation platforms. But I’m excited about it all, and about seeing and being part of the answer to how journalism next evolves. 

Hear more from and meet Jennifer at DIS 2017 in Berlin. Early Bird tickets are available until 1 February. See the list of speakers so far confirmed, here.

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