It’s a cliché for a reason. Money is the force that shapes decision-making in all businesses – for-profit, non-profit and everything else. And every newsrooms is, of course, a business.
But while journalists are instructed to “follow the money” in their reporting – revealing power structures and their often problematic consequences – many are insulated from the need to understand the their own organization’s business model and its implications on how they spend their time – and what they’re told to measure and value.
This came into sharp focus by a recent experience I had. In November 2016, I was guest faculty at a Poynter workshop on engagement. The participants were journalists from a variety of newsrooms around the country. My co-teacher, Monica Guzman, (who runs The Evergrey in Seattle), and I opened up the workshops with a simple exercise that was quite revealing. We asked the journalists: tell us about a time you successfully engaged your audience.
One journalist talked about a Facebook Live video they did on the World Series that got a ton of impressions and huge reach. Another said a story on their town’s bicentennial got more than 1 million visits in a month. And another told us about a project they did spending time in one square mile of their community over the course of weeks. They focused on listening, really getting to know the people, and then produced stories on a variety of angles. How did they judge that project as successful? They asked the public what they thought of the reporting, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. The other key metric: They convened a community event, and everyone there conversed with one another civilly, despite traversing hot-button issues.
Can you guess which of those examples came from for-profit newsrooms and which from non-profit? Follow the money.
MONEY IS POWER
My background as a reporter has been in non-profit news – specifically WBEZ – a public radio station in Chicago best known for birthing “This American Life,” “Serial,” “S-Town” and “Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!”
I may be one of the only people who feel this way, but I love public media pledge drives. Before I was a reporter, I was a listener. Hearing reporters and station staff reveal how they did their jobs, what motivated them, and how much it cost to make the programs I relied on each week was illuminating. Their transparency in how their business model worked and their conveyance that I, a mere listener, was the reason they could do their jobs in the first place was galvanizing. Of course I had to give. The pledge drives made me recognize I was part of something bigger than myself, something critically important to the health of my community.
Public radio is funded by the public. The public votes its their dollars. Therefore, the public is ultimately in power.
EXTENDING THE POWER CORD
If members of the public like me felt empowered knowing we made public radio possible (with money), what would happen if we actually helped make public radio (with our insights)? We’ll get to that answer shortly.
In 2006, I crossed the chasm between being on the listening side of the radio to being behind the microphone in reporting for WBEZ. Thanks to an NPR internship and a clutch introduction, I got the opportunity to start freelancing feature pieces, despite not having gone to journalism school.
It was both thrilling and startling to go from having zero power to decide the stories that reporters made and shaped my community to having tremendous power to decide and make those stories. I suddenly had a seat at the table. And despite never being at a loss for viable ideas, and despite picking up awards for my work along the way, I never got comfortable with having that seat. Or more specifically: I never transitioned to feeling like I deserved that seat more than any other member of my community.
Thanks to the Association of Independents in Radio and its 2012 Localore initiative, which gave independent journalists a chance to incubate new ideas for public media, I was awarded $100,000 and a year to try to right what felt like a wrong. With it, I started a series called “Curious City.”
The whole idea was to extend the power that listeners had in making public radio possible, and share the power to shape the decisions we made about which stories we would produce on their behalf. Public radio of course prides itself on its public service mission, but how could we truly know what stories would be the most relevant and the most useful? I had a hunch that we could do better than just having a small group of people (who came from similar backgrounds and socio-economic classes) determine what to report on behalf of this diverse city.
Together with a peerless editor, Shawn Allee, and incredible multimedia producer, Logan Jaffe, we built a new process and workflow for making the news. At “Curious City” we extended power to the public at every decision-making juncture of the storytelling process. None of the stories we produced came from our assumptions about what the community “wanted” or “needed.” Instead, members of the community were invited to tell us what they didn’t know but wanted to know. We invited them to ask us questions about Chicago, the region and its people.
Questions, after all, form the backbone of journalism. They are the atomic unit of story. Public questions became our team’s story pitches. Questions ranged from the timely to timeless, and struck every tone and subject matter imaginable.
Rather than our team just picking our favorites, we curated questions that had the most promise to become compelling content and let the public ultimately decide what we reported by voting. And instead of just taking the winning question, running with it and putting the story out into the world, we invited the question-asker to be part of the reporting. This ranged from a community member getting to ask a source questions during an interview of the source, to the community member being the protagonist we built the story around.
Questions make for a handy and productive device. The opportunity to ask attracts people who are curious, have yet to form an unshakeable opinion on something and are so very excited for the opportunity to explore with us. Question-based stories by their nature are also adventure stories. There is a “quest” inherent in every question, giving every story a natural narrative arc: so-and-so wants to know X, and here’s how we discovered that information (or sometimes, how we couldn’t find it).
The stories that resulted from this public-powered model became (and still are) smash hits. After a year we looked at the analytics and found while just 2 percent of the stories WBEZ made were “Curious City” stories, they accounted for nearly half of the 50 highest-traffic stories of the year.
What’s more, these stories reconnect “the public” — this amorphous, abstract concept — to “the media,” another abstracted (and often vilified) group. It draws journalists into focus as living, breathing, caring individuals who are all just trying to do our best navigating a complex world, together. I don’t have to go into the crisis of trust we face in the media, but suffice it to say that not giving people access to power and not being transparent in decision-making doesn’t do much to create trust.
THE BUSINESS CASE
While public media couldn’t exist without individual donations from the public, newsroom budgets also include advertising (aka “underwriting”), among other revenue generators (grants, sponsorship, etc.). We learned local businesses were eager to pay a premium to have their name and brand seen and heard alongside the community-driven reporting of “Curious City.”
And because partnering with the public in reporting requires getting in touch with the folks who ask questions, we collect their email addresses. After just two years of running “Curious City,” we compared the nearly 10,000 emails that flowed in against WBEZ’s customer relationship management system. We found a whopping 56 percent of those emails were qualified new leads, meaning they were people who were not yet members but who loved the station enough to desire the opportunity to have their question answered and report alongside us.
I began hearing from journalists in other newsrooms who’d caught wind of our “Curious City” experiment and liked what they heard. They wanted to do this new process, too. Logically, there was no reason our model couldn’t work everywhere and for every kind of newsroom, no matter their business model. Again, curiosity got the best of me: I had to see if there was a way more newsrooms (not just public radio ones) could adopt public-powered reporting alongside their traditional approach.
So after just two years running “Curious City,” I left WBEZ and started a completely new business called Hearken. The word hearken means “listen.” From the results of the experiment at WBEZ, I knew without a doubt that the public has terrific questions with journalistic value. What I didn’t know was, if newsrooms were given the support to create a new workflow (with consulting and technology), would they actually listen to the public’s questions like we did?
We’re just about two years into Hearken’s life, and the results so far are exciting. We’ve scaled up to serve more than 80 newsrooms in 18 languages around the world. Our partners are of all variety: from local to international to topic-based, non-profit and for-profit, and produce every kind of story format (newspaper, TV, digital-only, podcast, etc.).
They’re reporting their top stories, winning awards (partners earned seven regional Murrows this year), finding high-value advertisers for their series, and collecting tons of emails for their customer relationship management systems, which they can translate into newsletter subscriptions or paying subscribers, depending on their business model.
One of our partners, Bitch Media, which produces a magazine and digital site, conducted a yearlong experiment and found readers who engaged with Hearken were five times more likely to convert to paying subscribers. This jibes with what I learned from public radio pledge drives: Explain how you do what you do, give people the opportunity to get involved, ask them to support you, and they will.
The communities our partner newsrooms serve are proving hungry for this opportunity to have reporters provide fact-checked, validated information so they can make informed decisions. To state the obvious: In a democracy, an informed citizenry is the foundation of a healthy society. And this need for people to get answers to questions that they have neither time nor expertise to investigate is not going away. If anything, it’s growing increasingly urgent.
LISTENING BETTER IS MISSION CRITICAL
Audience engagement and “listening better” to the public are thankfully no longer the quaint concepts they may have been in some shops before the presidential election took the industry by surprise. They are critical to every newsroom’s survival. Some are recognizing and adjusting to this reality more quickly than others.
Entire news operations are putting the public at the very center of their business model. For-profit newsrooms like The New Tropic in Miami and The Evergrey in Seattle (both run by the company WhereBy.Us) are community-centric and community-driven to their core. And the Dutch newsroom De Correspondent is leaping to U.S. shores to share the learnings of and spread their successful engagement-based model.
As more newsrooms bear the consequences of decreasing revenue from click-based advertising and feel the sting of Facebook owning their hard-earned relationships with their communities, difficult conversations have to happen. But there is good news in all of this: serving the public (not advertisers) first is what journalists have always wanted to do. It’s why they got into the game. And from my experience and experiments starting in 2012 toward serving the public directly, there’s ample proof that doing so actually produces more relevant, valuable stories – stories that are ultimately more capable of being monetized.
The Media Insight Project’s May 2017 Study focusing on why people subscribe and pay for news states unequivocally: “The future of journalism will increasingly depend on consumers paying for the news directly.” And it concludes: There is “substantial evidence that more consumers could begin to pay for news in the future—if publishers can understand them and serve them well.”
That “if” is the challenge of our time, and where all focus must now turn. So I’ll leave you with a few important questions to explore.
• What practices and processes does your newsroom have in place to truly listen to your audience (beyond looking at metrics)?
• Are you giving people opportunities to convey their information needs?
• And if you are, do you have workflows in place to be responsive?
Perhaps the biggest question of all: How long will you stay in business if you don’t listen to, understand and serve your communities well? ***
Jennifer Brandel is CEO and co-founder of Hearken, founder of WBEZ’s “Curious City” and recipient of the Media Changemaker Prize. She began her career in journalism reporting for outlets including NPR, CBC, WBEZ, The New York Times and Vice.Email.On Twitter: @JenniferBrandel
Tagged under: Freelancing