The Profile

Platform aimed at audience interaction generates story ideas, goodwill

August 22, 2016
Image source: AP

One morning in January, Elizabeth Marlow was on her way to work listening to KALW in San Francisco, her favorite local public radio station, when she heard an announcement encouraging listeners to share questions they wanted the station to investigate.

So Marlow, a nurse practitioner who has lived in the Bay Area for 18 years, went to the KALW site and submitted her question: “Where did all the folks living in tents along Division Street come from? Where did they get the tents?”

Some three months later, she got an answer. On April 12, KALW reporter Liza Veale aired an investigation based on Marlow’s question on Crosscurrents, its half-hour daily news show.

That, precisely, is the goal of Hey Area, a collaborative storytelling project that pairs questions from the community with reporters who can get answers. It’s one of many such projects powered by Hearken, a Chicago-based startup that builds tools aimed at making it easier for journalists do their jobs and strengthening audience connections with news enterprises large and small.

“A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself,” American playwright Arthur Miller once mused. Yet while news organizations are continually looking for better ways to interact with their audiences, be it through innovative online commenting forums, sponsored events, or mobile messaging experiments, the opportunity for readers or listeners to speak to journalists before they publish a story is rare.

Our customers are reporting back that Hearken leads to better and higher traffic content, better audience engagement, and attracting younger and more diverse audiences.”

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Hearken, a platform developed out of Curious City at Chicago’s WBEZ in 2012, has been working on just that issue. Founded by Jennifer Brandel (Curious City’s creator) in 2015, Hearken’s back-end system allows news organizations to gather, sort, and manage reader questions for reporters. Hearken initially launched with a price point of a few thousand dollars, scaled to newsroom size with help from subsidies through funders.

“Our pricing information isn’t currently public because we’re conducting a study on the value newsrooms are getting for the price of our services,” explains Hearken Community Manager Ellen Mayer. “In our initial findings, our customers are reporting back that Hearken leads to better and higher traffic content, better audience engagement, and attracting younger and more diverse audiences.”

More than 50 partner news organizations, most of which are state or regional public broadcasting outlets, are using the service in their own, unique ways.

Hey Area is a series of stories powered by a Hearken-powered widget on the station’s website, which launched in January 2016, and received 88 questions in its first two months. In its first voting round, more than 100 listeners participated. So far, KALW has published three Hey Area stories.

“We were impressed by the tool that Hearken created and impressed by the impact it had through Curious City at WBEZ,” says KALW General Manager Matt Martin. “Given our lack of internal digital development and capacity to create, we thought it made sense to use something that’s already been road-tested that comes with technical support.”

Other examples of public radio stations using Hearken to produce audience-suggested stories include KUT’s look at how and why Austin’s black population is declining, ABC’s dive into the Canberra region’s aboriginal history, and St. Louis Public Radio’s answer to why the Civil War still holds sway over St. Louis and Missouri. Hearken is particularly useful for small news organizations without the internal resources to develop social engagement. Inside Energy, an investigative energy reporting initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, also has a Hearken-powered widget on its homepage asking readers: “If you could ask Donald Trump one question about energy, what would it be?” And Reveal, by The Center for Investigative Reporting, is reporting stories based on readers’ questions about recent mass shootings.

“Hearken can be used not just to create new stories that don’t necessarily align with the timeliness of the news cycle, but that are also directly related to current events,” said Hearken CEO Jennifer Brandel in a recent Q&A with media accelerator Matter, which Hearken’s founders participated in a year ago.

One of KALW’s points of pride with Hey Area is that it answers every single question it receives in one of three ways: If a reporter is working on something related to the question, the question goes straight to assignment; if the question is considered evergreen, it’s put through a public voting round and tackled months later, as with Marlow’s question; or, if it’s already been extensively covered, KALW sends a personal email to the question-asker with a round-up of relevant coverage.

“We got so many quality questions in the first two months that we are still sifting through them and putting them in voting rounds,” says Olivia Henry, engagement manager at KALW. The response from listeners is pretty remarkable for a station as tiny as KALW. With a full-time staff of 10 and a rotating crew of contractors, volunteers, and trainees, it’s a small newsroom with a mission of producing “joyful radio.”

At the time Marlow asked her question, San Francisco was getting significant national media attention because of its homelessness crisis. Marlow, who works for the San Francisco County Jail, is passionate about providing healthcare for the homeless. For several months, she had been hearing rumors about the tent encampments on Division Street, which she passed on her way to work. “It’s always been a place where there were urban campers,” she says. “And it would get really bad for six months or so, and then the cops and Department of Public Works would come along and sweep it.”


She saw this cycle repeat for more than five years, but in 2015 something shifted. “Over the past year, it just exploded,” she says. Amidst the rumors flying around about what the city would do in response to the epidemic, and whether in fact there were more people on the streets, one rumor asserted that a man had raised money to buy tents for people on the street, enlisting taxi drivers to deliver them. Marlow wanted to know the truth.

Liza Veale, a reporter for KALW covering housing issues, was assigned the question. “I started trying to figure out where the tents were coming from,” she says. “There was a lot of weird hearsay–The Salvation Army, the city itself–but when I called, they denied it. So I started asking people on the street.”

Ultimately, she discovered Shaun Osburn, who raised $18,000 for the tents. She introduces the man in a story ultimately presented as a reporter-forward narrative of her investigation. But she also provided listeners with a lot of context.

“A part that I thought was really insightful that I learned from the story that I didn’t know, was that about 70 percent of the folks who are homeless now became homeless in 2008 as a result of the economic crisis,” says Marlow. “So they were probably marginally housed already, things fell apart, and all of sudden there is a whole number of people on the street. So this idea that’s being floated out there nationally, that people come to San Francisco for the benefits and for this and for that, these were already residents of the city who were poor, and then they kind of got screwed. And I think it’s a really important statistic.”

Anybody can tweet to their audience or send out a Mailchimp to share. But what we were trying to do to is solve the problem of making that work into a reporter’s workflow.”

Amplified by the Hearken community on social media, the story is now one of KALW’s top 10 stories for page views in 2016 to date.

Hearken’s disruption of the traditional, linear, report-publish-then-open-for-comments publication cycle continues this fall, with the launch of an Interactive Reporter’s Notebook, software that will allow reporters to share dispatches during the course of their reporting while maintaining a comfortable workflow. The latter was the issue reporters struggle with most, a fact that emerged after Hearken conducted interviews with reporters using its platform.

“What’s similar about it [to Hearken], is that its real value comes from the way it’s organized on the backend,” says Mayer. “Anybody can tweet to their audience or send out a Mailchimp to share. But what we were trying to do to is solve the problem of making that work into a reporter’s workflow.”

For example, people who participate in one of KALW’s voting rounds have the opportunity to leave an email address when they vote. As a reporter works on a story, they could seamlessly sent dispatches to that list of people along the course of reporting from their interactive notebook.

A less conventional use for Hearken has been in the classroom. This past spring, the company gave a free trial to a class of CUNY Social Journalism students to experiment with and reflect on.

“We’re thinking a lot about the long game in journalism,” says Mayer. “So we love the idea of catching journalists early, when they are just learning the trade, and having this idea of public-powered journalism as part of their training, so they go into the world with different assumptions about whether journalism can be collaborative.”

Bridget Boylan, a 30-year Bay Area resident who is also a big listener to KALW, had been keeping her eyes and ears open for stories to suggest on Hey Area. One morning, she heard classical music playing and thought it was an outdoor string quartet. As a lover of music and a music catalogue librarian at the San Francisco Public Library, she followed the sound and realized it was being broadcast out of speakers at a Burger King. So she asked Hey Area to investigate why it was playing there. A few weeks later, she received an email from a reporter who would be covering the story. It aired on June 30.

Both Marlow and Boylan explain that their usual method for researching rumors about local happenings is to either ask neighbors or look online, but often, neither strategy provides satisfying information.The opportunity to ask a journalist to investigate is a novelty.

“I think you would ask a different kind of question of a journalist,” Marlow says. “You expect someone to dig a little bit more.”

Jihii Jolly is a freelance journalist and video producer in New York City