Flipping Traditional Journalism with Jennifer Brandel of Hearken

by Geekgirl, August 19, 2016

“I’ve always followed my curiosity and whatever has felt most interesting and urgent.”

Jennifer Brandel, CEO of Hearken, shared with By Geekgirl. This perspective has led Jennifer to a host of unique gigs from designing psychometric tests to ghostwriting for burlesque dancers. The Founder’s focus turned to journalism in 2006. Jennifer commented, “I fell in love with the fact that you learn something new every day and your job is a little different every day. You get exposed to people and ideas that you wouldn’t have otherwise.”

With funding from Localore in 2012, an initiative to support innovation in journalism, Jennifer began to experiment with the editorial process and where the audience comes into play at WBEZ in Chicago via her series, Curious City. “Our hypothesis was that if you bring community members into the process much earlier, a lot of things will change for the better.” That is exactly what Jennifer found.

With the development of her idea, newsrooms began reaching out to Jennifer wanting to figure out how to involve their audience earlier in the journalism process. “Curiosity again got the best of me and I decided that I needed to take some time to figure out how to scale this idea.” From that thought, Jennifer created Hearken and found a fantastic CTO Co-Founder, Corey Haines.

Flash forward to today where Hearken’s audience-driven model of journalism is used in over 50 newsrooms around the world.

The Problem with Traditional Journalism

By Geekgirl - Jennifer Brandel at News Xchange
Jennifer Brandel presenting at News Xchange in Berlin

“Since I came to journalism from the outside, I didn’t know what was right or wrong and how reporters make decisions on what to report and why.” Jennifer noted. Jennifer’s questions came without many answers. She related, “I never really found satisfactory answers and thought there’s no good reason that the audience can’t be involved.” The Founder’s unique background coupled with her natural curiosity led to the creation of something that completely transforms the traditional model of journalism.

“Our audiences were counting on us to understand their world and understand their city. I felt that weight running to press conferences every day, knowing that I couldn’t actually get into the depth of nuance that I wanted to and also just knowing that I’m not in the best position to ask every question without long-term knowledge on the issue at hand,” the Hearken Founder related. The pressure to bring multiple stories a day that covered topics in a deep and thoughtful way was challenging. Jennifer explained, “I’m just learning about this thing 20 minutes before the press conference. I have the microphone and I’m in the position of power to ask someone a question when I hardly know anything about it and there are people out there in the community who know so much more.”

Jennifer’s response to this pressing issue? “I wanted to figure out a way to bring the community’s questions to that person instead.” She wasn’t satisfied with the way journalism worked, so she changed it. She imagined journalists as conduits rather than gatekeepers.

In the beginning of Hearken, Jennifer used Google Forms as a cheap way to gain information from a news site’s users. Once submissions reached 1,000, the data got to be too much to manage efficiently. With additional funding from the Knight Foundation, Jennifer was able to work with an outside development company to create her own system. Finally in 2015, Jennifer partnered with her now Co-Founder and CTO to take that tech to the next level. Jennifer commented, “It’s been one of those games of raise some money, go as far as you can go with what you have, and raise some more money.” The Hearken Founder has played the game well. The platform’s curiosity and voting modules are fully customizable and easily integrated into a site. “It’s been such a treat to have a company where you have technologists working five days a week rather than in fits and spurts.” Jennifer shared.

Partnering with the Public

By Geekgirl - Jennifer Brandel at Google
Jennifer speaking to media colleagues at Google News Lab.

With the use of Hearken growing throughout newsrooms internationally, Jennifer can see the results of her idea. One illustration of how Hearken is used can be seen with Michigan Radio. The group ran a series of stories based on a listener question they received with Hearken’s help and ended up winning a regional Murrow award for investigative journalism. Reveal was inspired by Hearken to to collect follow-up questions on a big investigation on the California drought.

“One of the things I love is that a lot of these stories coming through would not have made it were it not for this process.” Jennifer explained, “Editors have a very specific filter about why we do a story now and not later. By virtue of just being one person, they can’t always know what the community is interested in.”

Creating Hearken has been quite the learning experience for Jennifer who describes herself as a creative type. Figuring out how to become a business type didn’t come easily. To fill the gaps, Jennifer has focused on creating a team that has complimentary skill sets and a diversity in backgrounds. “The skill set that you need to be a good journalist is similar to the skill set you need to be an entrepreneur,” Jennifer related, “You need to be comfortable with ambiguity, with things changing all the time, deadlines, crazy hours, and also just being someone who’s willing to make decisions based on a few pieces of information.”

Jennifer is making headway changing the way a hundred year old model works through the use of technology. Her propensity to ask questions and take action has proved to drive success in not only journalism, but also entrepreneurship. Read more on Jennifer and Hearken on Medium and Twitter.

Your Voice

Have you noticed a business model that needs to change? What challenges have you faced as you strive to change the way things work? Let us know your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.