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🗝 A Fund to Help Newsrooms Become Better at Listening and Engagement 👂🏽

By Jennifer Brandel and Andrew Haeg.

Let’s start with a simple premise: Journalism at its core and at its best, is a service.

Is that fair? Yes?

Then, it follows that the crisis in trust that journalism is facing reflects, at some level, a failure of service. We can argue about the culprits and the roots of this failure. But we all share in the problem and need to take responsibility for solving it.

Certainly it’s not an issue of quantity — never before have we had access to so much information. And it may not even be one of quality — never before have we had access to so much smart and informed writing and opinion.

Journalism is suffering from a problem of connection.

Connecting people with information they are looking for or need (vs. will click on). Connecting journalists with people who are left out of the conversation. Connecting newsrooms with underserved communities.

If a lack of a connection is the problem, then what might be the solution?

We believe it’s relationships.

What should the 21st century newsroom be optimized for — production and efficiency or trust and relationships?

The core functions of newsrooms are to listen broadly and deeply, and then distribute what was learned.

Over time and technological innovation, newsrooms have optimized for production: to efficiently push an increasing volume of content out on various channels, rather than optimizing for listening — the necessary preceding part that builds relationship and trust.

How do we know newsrooms aren’t optimized for listening? Many have shut down their comments sections. See if you can find, in one or two clicks, how to get in touch with a reporter, or even the main number or email of a newsroom. Go into their social media feeds and note the mix of posts pushing out content versus calls for stories or feedback, or responses to people in the feeds. Hunt for any opportunity where you’d have a chance at truly being heard by them. And then be left to wonder if any person who actually isresponding from the newsroom has a process or the power to take what they’re hearing from you to those in charge. And then wonder if there’s actually any incentive for those in charge to change anything.

Not long ago, the industry learned the hard way that when newsrooms don’tlisten well, they fundamentally misunderstand the experiences and needs of the public. They get the story wrong, (very wrong) which erodes credibility and weakens the very purpose and function of journalism in a democracy.

In other words: optimizing for listening, and for trust, is a BFD.

Listening is not about deploying a shiny new tool while continuing business as usual. It’s about fundamentally shifting how a newsroom thinks, behaves and serves the public. Technology can help make some of that work more efficient, but it’s not about technology. It’s about refocusing efforts to public first, production efficiency and distribution second, and having workflows and job descriptions follow.

Change of course, is hard. Newsrooms must experience the power and efficacy of listening in order to believe, or perhaps remember, how critically important (and fulfilling) it is.


Enter The Community Listening and Engagement Fund (CLEF, for short). It’s designed to help newsrooms rebuild those connections and deepen relationships, by helping newsrooms generate capacity and muscle for listening and engagement.

With the support of The News Integrity InitiativeDemocracy FundThe Lenfest Institute for Journalism and The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, CLEF will help newsrooms operationalize listening, feedback and engagement required to better meet the needs of today’s news consumer. CLEF is working with Hearken (👋🏽) and GroundSource, two companies founded by journalists, that have created models and technology to help newsrooms dip their toes into new experiences with listening and engagement practices.

If you’re a musical person, you may know already the origin of the word “clef” means “key.” And it’s no accident we named the fund accordingly. Listening truly is the key to unlock the purpose and promise of journalism’s role in society and democracy. 🗝

At this point, if you work in a newsroom and are interested in getting in on this, you’ll have a lot of questions.

But you also may be wondering more about GroundSource and Hearken. What are they?

Hearken enables news organizations to listen to and engage the public as a story develops from pitch to publication. Our unique public-powered methodology and supporting engagement management system platform leads to top-performing, differentiated and award-winning stories while also growing newsletter signups, paid subscribers and membership. An annual subscription to Hearken includes expert consulting, training, their custom platform, data reports and entry to a global community of best practices. Developed out of WBEZ as part of AIR’s 2012 Localore initiative, Hearken is now at work in more than 100 newsrooms around the world in various formats (TV, radio, newspaper, digital) and content types (feature investigations, breaking news, beat reporting, live events, topic-based or geographic-based coverage).

GroundSource is a platform newsrooms use to build and scale two-way relationships with audiences and communities via mobile messaging and voice. It’s also a service that helps newsrooms imagine and implement new ways of reaching out to communities, building trust, and becoming more responsive to their needs and interests. GroundSource is in service at dozens of newsrooms, civic organizations and nonprofits around the US, and around the world — and customers report much higher engagement (open and response) rates than email newsletters, and success in sustaining relationships over time. Founder Andrew Haeg created GroundSource out of his work as a magazine and public media journalist, and as co-founder of the Public Insight Network at American Public Media.

Can Hearken and GroundSource be used together? Why yes. Here’s how the Washington D.C.-based WAMU’s national talkshow 1A is doing just that.

WAMU’s 1A Talkshow — A CASE STUDY

“You ignore the audience’s voice and curiosity at your own detriment,” says Gabe Bullard, senior producer of the national radio talk show 1A, a production of WAMU in Washington, D.C.

Gabe Bullard 1A

Gabe Bullard, senior producer of 1A.

Bullard came up through local journalism and newsrooms, first in St. Louis and later in Kentucky at WFPL in Louisville.

For Bullard, audience engagement has always been a natural reflex — “You’re always doing this for the audience” he says.

So when given the opportunity, and the resources, to build a radio show from scratch, he and other producers wanted to build a genuine audience feedback loop into the very DNA of the show. They use the Hearken to invite the audience to suggest and then vote on show ideas, and GroundSource to text out questions to a growing community of 5,000 plus audience members.

Using GroundSource, they they’ll hear back from hundreds of people within minutes, sharing personal stories and questions — some of which they’ll read on air, and all of which help them see where they’re hitting or missing the mark.

Gabe Bullard 2

“You can speak to everyone, and broadcast out, anyone can find the show, but having people who give feedback to you and make what you’re offering stronger is good,” Bullard says. “It gives the listeners a voice in what we’re doing”

1A often invites its fans to use a Hearken module to send in questions about specific show topics (for example, Bitcoin). Near the end of 2017, the show invited listeners to send in questions about any and all topics, to help them shape the show’s calendar for 2018. Bullard filtered through the responses, and invited the audience to vote on which of the top questions the show should pursue. “A lot of the ideas that came in were ideas we might not have thought of.”


That three-show series based on audience questions, which aired in early January, addressed profoundly gifted studentsthe growing human population and increased interest in socialism among young people. “Just knowing that thousands of people want to know about these topics was really valuable,” Bullard says.

The 1A team at work. (Photo: Gabe Bullard)

The capacity to listen to their audience, ask questions, and be asked in return, gives Bullard a daily, deep connection to the 1A audience — an invaluable finger on the pulse of whether their show is truly the service they hope it to be.

“What Hearken and and GroundSource offer is this ability to read the audience really well and find out what the audience is thinking,” Bullard says. Plus, he says, “it shows listeners that we are listening.”

The two, together, give Bullard and host Joshua Johnson a feel for their audiences interests and curiosity day-in, day-out in a way that comments sections or call-in lines can’t touch in terms of scale and manageability.

“You want to tell people something they don’t know.” Bullard says. “Or even so they can be informed or delighted or knowledgeable about the world and the systems around them,” he says.

“It’s not just the quantity of comments and interactions,” he says — though it’s great to see traffic spike on Chartbeat. “But it’s even better,” he says, “when you look at what they’re saying and sharing personal stories and asking insightful questions showing that they value the information, and give something back to us.”

So if trust is the big problem in journalism, how does building these kinds of connections with the audience do anything to solve that?

“It sounds basic,” Bullard says, “but you trust someone you know more than a stranger who’s walking up and telling you something.” And using Hearken and GroundSource has allowed 1A to be less like a stranger speaking from on high, and more like a friend chatting with the audience like other friends, asking questions, and being genuinely curious to ask (and answer) questions in return. “Hearing your own voice reflected in journalism, and having your own curiosity addressed, I think goes a really long way to building trust.”

1A texting.png

But here’s the rub: Bullard works with a national show, with a big audience, and while they don’t have a big staff, they have enough capacity to pay for and manage these tools day in day and day out.

We talk to many newsrooms around the country, and around the world, and know that a lack of resources and capacity is a big barrier to doing this kind of engagement at smaller newsrooms — the kind where Bullard used to work.

“I think people are really really open to trying these things,” Bullard says, “but not having the resources to do all of this is something I hear a lot more, and is a real thing,” he says.

Thanks to The Community Engagement and Listening Fund, if your newsroom (or one you care about) doesn’t have the resources to do this work, that’s about to change.

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