Hearken Lets Newspapers Listen First, Write Second

Part of a Series Featuring the 2017 Accelerator Pitch Program Winners

How do you decide if a news story is important to your readers? This is the question Jennifer Brandel set out to answer.

Sure, you can check the comments and Letters to the Editor after a story runs. But the metrics of importance only were available after publishing.

What if there was a way to get reader input and answer readers’ questions before going to print?

Enter Hearken, which means “to listen.” And that’s what the company wants to help news organizations do.

Brandel says Hearken, launched in 2015, can tell publishers if they are serving their audiences well.

The concept is simple; it allows each story to start with the audience instead of ending with them. It is public-powered journalism. Unlike user-generated content, where it’s a side dish to journalism, public-powered journalism is the main course, Brandel says.

The technology platform allows the newsroom to solicit questions. The voting modules are embedded on the news organization’s site or in social media.

“You expand the audience thoughtfully,” Brandel says. “You start hearing from people you wouldn’t normally hear from.”

This helps increase the diversity in the newsroom.

Another boon of Hearken is the disappearance of internet trolls that often invade comment sections of stories.

“Comments attract people who have pre-formed opinions,” Brandel explains. “Questions require a degree of vulnerability, to say ‘I don’t know something.’ Comments are rarely actionable.”

Radio station and Hearken client KQED runs the show “Bay Curious” based entirely on audience questions. They usually receive about a dozen questions a week, but they were shocked when they received 1,300 questions from listeners on the topic of homelessness.

Hearken keeps a roundup of how different newsrooms are using the model and curates them into best practices. In addition to the platform, Hearken offers engagement consulting, to help the newsroom begin to think differently about audience.

“We are there every step of the way,” Brandel says.

Publications running Hearken report performance that is 11 to 15 times better in terms of page views than stories without Hearken technology.

“It is providing a deep and meaningful way to engage audiences outside of pure consumption,” Brandel explains.

Though Hearken is still young, Brandel has big plans. In the next year, she wants to focus on expanding use of the Hearken platform across the news industry and continuing to collapse the distance between people who shape the narrative of news and the audience.

“We’re providing a more sustainable form of journalism,” she says.
In five years, she hopes for one-quarter of all stories to come from outside the newsroom. “Sometimes I feel like a quarter is too small,” she admits, but she wants Hearken to move from being a side project to a core newsroom strategy.

“Increasingly we see newsrooms are starting to optimize for depth and engagement,” she says. “Not as much pure audience growth. The numbers game might sound sexy, but we see what that yields people that are gaming the system and writing stories they’re not necessarily proud of. We’re really focusing on engagement and how to help people better understand.”


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