Newsrooms are shrinking, and today’s reporters have far less time to take the pulse of the community. Hearken is a startup founded by a former journalist with a software platform that supplements dwindling newsrooms and supercharges community outreach with one deft stroke: by bringing readers into the story-creation process. By letting users vote on which story they’d like to see written, newsrooms using Hearken like Chicago's WBEZ, San Francisco's KQED, and Seattle's KUOW have seen Hearken-generated stories get consistently higher visibility—and even win awards. Hearken had been quietly beta-testing earlier iterations of its platform with public radio and local news outlets while the startup fine-tuned its approach, but it has recently released Hearken for any newsroom that wants to shake things up and give readers a voice at the editorial table.
Currently, editors scan comments and track social shares and pageviews to determine postmortem whether a story was interesting to readers. But check out any story’s comment section and you can see how reactive and negative those spaces can be, says Hearken founder Jenn Brandel, a former journalist for public radio station WBEZ who created Curious City, Hearken's predecessor. Instead, before a single word is written, Hearken’s platform polls readers to vote on which of several story topics (typically culled by editors from reader suggestions) they’d like to see a reporter make into a full article. Readers nudge reporters toward topics they care about, and feel included at the editorial table, while reporters write stories that have a greater chance of being heard or read and shared. That isn't to say the reporters only write what the readers want to hear—reporters still pursue reader-chosen topics with journalistic rigor and address why the reader suggested the topic in the first place. But bringing readers into the process early is almost like beta-testing ideas so that reporters spend time on stories that will perform and resonate better with readers.
"In the tech world, it would be inconceivable to create a product without user testing," says Brandel. "Any validation that happens to show the public is interested, even if it’s only 10 votes, is 10 more votes that people are interested in that thing. Think of it like a movie trailer: ‘I see this movie coming and I will see it when it gets out.’"
And they do come out to see the finished stories. Hearken claims that at KQED, for instance, stories made using its process got 11 times the pageviews as the median non-Hearken story. They're spending longer on the page with an average time for Hearken stories of 5.32 minutes, contrasted with the industry time-on-page average of 1.16 minutes.
"At WBEZ, even though just 2% of the stories posted to their site last year were done through Hearken, those stories comprised nearly half of the top 50 stories of the year," says Brandel. "WDET broke their site's former pageview record by more than double with the first story they made using our model."
Beyond its polling mechanics, Hearken’s benefits for newsrooms are obvious: more interaction with readers means more site visits and time spent on your site, which conceivably leads to more advertising revenue. Newsrooms subscribing to Hearken’s SaaS platform get coached by Hearken staff about how best to harness Hearken’s polling power—not just how to find a winner among the user-voted topics but also how to follow up with users who submitted the non-winning questions.
Often the backstory behind a user’s suggestion leads to another full-fledged story itself, says Brandel. Plus, once signed up to Hearken’s platform, newsrooms can trade article ideas and import article concepts that worked particularly well for newsrooms in other areas.
Of course, news sites already poll their readers, often using Google Forms or Polldaddy—and those are free. Why should newsrooms pay an average annual cost of $5,000 (or more for bigger newsrooms) to use Hearken? Because collecting and categorizing survey data by hand is a huge pain, especially at scale, and so is building embeddable polling widgets that work with your site. Brandel knows—she used Google Forms and Polldaddy for Curious City, the award-winning reporting series she created for WBEZ.
Curious City was a proto-Hearken model for reaching out to readers and organizing poll results. Brandel got into the San Francisco-based Matter startup incubator, and there her team re-built an open-source platform that Brandel had built a few years before that was 20 versions behind and full of server holes. But in the process of reviving and refining the open-source platform, Brandel and her team found that most newsrooms do not have the budget or staff to spin up, host, and maintain an open-source tool. Thus Brandel's team's final product coming out of the Matter incubator, Hearken, handles all the back-end and storage for newsrooms as a turnkey subscription service.
Today’s smaller newsrooms are usually dedicated to attacking two types of stories: breaking news reactionary pieces and longer projects of the reporter’s invention. Hearken stories are a third type of story, says Brandel, that try to pick readers’ brains. They don’t ask, "what should we report on?" she says, but rather "what are you curious about?" And since Hearken’s tech doesn’t require users to log in to ask their questions or vote in polls, they get a bigger audience: WBEZ analyzed thousands of tip emails coming in through Curious City’s platform and found that 56% of them were new leads—i.e., people not in their membership funnel or user databases, Brandel told Current. And having a reader write in with a tip is a great story hook.
"In traditional journalism, you have a story idea and then you look for a person that says, "This is a real problem,’" says Brandel. Hearken stories, on the other hand, give reporters a concerned person right out of the gate. "To have a user or a curious citizen helps to shape [the story], and for reporters, it offers a meta-narrative that becomes a kind of adventure story: someone asked a question for a good reason."
Hearken is still working out a price model for individual reporters or solo bloggers. Hearken has already signed up a dozen newsrooms to its SaaS platform, including public media giants KQED and WBEZ, as well as local papers like the New Jersey-based New Brunswick Today. Most of those newsrooms are regional publications and radio stations, news outlets that have a local focus and concerned userbase that make them ideal for Hearken. But there’s no reason Hearken can’t also work for an independent blog or podcast, Brandel says—or any site that wants to poll its audience about the content it produces. Hearken has a few new products in the pipeline coming out next year to help gather story ideas and to help with the actual reporting process.