Public-Powered Journalism   

Back to Summer 2023: Volume 112, Number 2

By Jennifer Brandel

I believe journalism plays an outsized role in determining whether American democracy flat out fails or evolves to meet the needs of the current complex context. Journalism is many things at once: an industry, a practice, a bogeyman, and a system through which to create sense-making, belonging, and collective action. Because of the many ways journalism is woven into the fabric of democracy, I find it impossible to separate it out completely from the threads of business, governance, public health, and culture and examine it as though it’s a stand-alone object. Regardless, journalism is not working as it should—at least for most people.

So, what I’ve been endeavoring to do in my career is to tease out some of the myriad problems with current journalistic practices and incentivize structures to replace what’s been frayed with stronger, more durable approaches that can reinforce a healthier democracy.

Of the various initiatives I’ve started, there are dozens that have petered out or whose time has not yet come. So, what I’ll share here are those that are in motion, along with others that I believe will be operative relatively soon, and how they relate to journalism and the health of democracy.

Each of these initiatives has come about through relationships with other thinkers, practitioners, and contacts with organizations who are game to test out new ideas and learn together. Every subsequent intervention was born from bumping up against the limitations of a system and the need to create new rules to break through.

Public-Powered Journalism

In 2012, I had an opportunity through a unique collaboration started by the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR) to conduct a yearlong editorial experiment. I applied for AIR’s Localore program with an idea that came to me after working for the Bahá’í faith for a few years. Though I’m not Bahá’í myself, I am fascinated by the religion and how it approaches the work of strengthening and improving communities and honoring the dignity and wisdom of individuals. Bahá’í is organized through a worldview that we are all members of one human family and that we are all experts in what we need through our own lived experience. Members of the faith do not approach a community with the idea that they have all the answers. They do not proselytize. Rather, they approach others in a posture of learning, listening to what people need, and asking how they can be of service.

This is the opposite of how most institutions, including those in journalism, operate. Journalists and editors work from the assumption that they know what the public needs to know and that it’s their job to determine what’s important to tell the public. This is despite the fact that no newsroom mirrors the demographics of the communities they serve and that journalists are not mind readers. I wondered: What if, instead of assuming that they already know what people are curious about and what information they need, journalists would start by asking them?

This simple idea—of giving the public power over the coverage they receive through the act of starting with their questions—was one that gave me quite a burst of energy. Having worked as a freelancer for newsrooms, I was always bothered by how much power I had to shape the narratives that hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to without first knowing if what I was reporting was actually useful to them. I was also flummoxed by how a newsroom could essentially operate as an autocracy and serve a democracy. Autocracies are governed by a very small group of people operating in a closed system, who make decisions for a very large group of people outside of their system. The power imbalance in newsrooms seemed profound, and this walling off of decision-making power from those whom those decisions ultimately impact felt like a real shortcoming. If journalism was to achieve its promise of creating the conditions for an informed and empowered citizenry, it seemed clear to me that those conditions would have to change.

Curious City is the name of the news-gathering experiment I started in 2012 at WBEZ Chicago to test a more public-powered methodology. A small but mighty team consisting of a reporter/producer (me), an editor (Shawn Allee), and an intern (Logan Jaffe) began to source the ideas for our journalism outside of our editorial room and our own heads. We started by asking the public, “What do you wonder about Chicago, the region, or its people that you’d like WBEZ to investigate?” We did this in a variety of ways, including pounding the pavement with a microphone, launching custom-built surveys, and even a call-in number to leave questions for the newsroom. We then collected their responses, curating lists of questions that were related by tone, scope, or difficulty in reporting and let the public ultimately vote to decide what we spent our time reporting on. We did this through an online tool we developed that enabled visitors to visit the WBEZ site to cast one vote per voting round. We introduced this voting process—another democratic intervention—to make the process of journalism better reflect the system we were trying to operate within. Then, we invited the person whose question we were answering to be part of the storytelling. This meant that we opened up the mysterious and often idiosyncratic process of gathering information and shaped it through outside input and opinion.

Ultimately, we found that the stories created through this process were noticeably better than the stories we reported through the traditional process of a small, homogeneous group of people pitching a story, an editor assigning it, and a reporter deciding what information should be gathered and written up—all out of sight from the public they’re serving. These public-powered stories were more original—there were no other news outlets in town doing this same story. Our stories often broke news because they drew on observations that weren’t otherwise known to a reporter. And they centered on the public, rather than on people in power, in determining why the story should even exist in the first place. All these stories were asked for by the public, not bequeathed to them by newsroom assumptions. It turns out that reporters also felt more fulfilled by reporting these stories because they knew that these stories mattered. They didn’t have to guess whether people cared about the topic because people in the community had chosen it in the first place.

Within the first year of Curious City’s life, other newsrooms started contacting me to better understand what it was that made our approach different and how they could launch a similar intervention in their own newsrooms to make their editorial process more democratic.

After hearing from a dozen or so newsrooms, I decided that my time could best be spent trying to answer the question, ‘Is the public-powered process replicable and repeatable?’ I wondered if I could help more newsrooms become more democratic by supporting them in testing and gaining confidence in the public-powered process.

While I had initially hoped to be able to answer that question while continuing my work at WBEZ, it became clear that this project was beyond the scope of the station’s particular mission for serving Chicago (and not the whole news ecosystem). I’ve found this to be a constant battle for systems thinkers and builders; we have to find containers that allow for the expansion of emergent insights. Most organizations are not able to accommodate emergence, so we need to either start our own more flexible companies or live our lives in a somewhat scattered way doing work across a variety of organizations.

Thanks to some financial support to scale the public-powered concept, I stepped away from WBEZ in late 2014 and started a company called Hearken in 2015. (Curious City is ongoing and celebrated its 10th year in production in 2022.)

Hearken to Hearken

The word hearken means “to listen,” which felt like the perfect name for a company that’s rooted in listening. Hearken has been focused since 2015 on helping other organizations (mostly those in the journalism industry) operate more democratically by opening their closed processes to outsiders. We’ve seen that for newsrooms to be successful, they need more than philosophy: they need the technology to help them operationalize the practice and make it part of their routines. They also need consulting support to help them get over the inevitable challenges of thinking in a new way and not returning to the status quo.

One of the major problems we’ve come across in working with newsrooms is that often their routines are still rooted in the machine age—a time when there was information scarcity and newsrooms competed with one another to be the go-to source for truth about “what’s happening.” Prior to the digital age, it made sense for newsrooms to optimize for speed, efficiency, and distribution. After all, they were in a market of information scarcity, so hustling to get their information out as soon as possible in whatever formats were available (i.e., TV, radio, and newspapers) was how they judged their success and built their economic models. This operating system is the one in which journalists, editors, and producers are charged with “feeding the beasts,” that is, every day they go to work knowing they need to produce a certain amount of content for whatever container they’re working in (e.g., a broadcast clock or newspaper column length).

Though the public has been completely oversaturated with information for decades, the incentives driving journalists to create as much content as possible and as quickly as possible persist. Imagine if, instead, journalists were incentivized to support collective sense-making, or to distribute the responsibility for care within a community, or to provide a forum for people to find common ground and other like-minded people to take civic action? The industry would need to change on fundamental levels.

At Hearken we’ve noticed newsrooms that have acknowledged we’re now in the information age are becoming less fixated on producing as much content as quickly as possible. Instead, they’re optimizing for relevance, trust, and service. In today’s low-trust environment, rife with misinformation, it does not matter whether you’re producing incredible content if there’s no public that trusts your news outlet enough to even receive it. In this context, public engagement in the editorial process and the public-powered journalism model I started testing at WBEZ become assets.

We’ve found that newsrooms with journalists who listen to and involve the public in their editorial decisions report that their stories land better with the publics they already serve and get further out to audiences they haven’t yet reached. There are a number of reasons for this. One thing journalists can take for granted is that it’s exciting for people to be in the news (when it’s for a good reason). When journalists involve and credit the person whose question or information needs catalyzed a story and name them in the story—be that on video, in an online article, on a podcast, or in another product—that person is highly motivated to share with his or her circles. And when their circles learn their friend is in the news, they’re likewise inspired to pay more attention to that media outlet and to that issue—perhaps even to the extent of becoming involved themselves. In this process, the public helps to identify and shape an understanding of the issue, which can then encourage greater participation in creating potential solutions.

As noted above, these stories and this model can drive economic wins for newsrooms as well. Our aim is to help more and more newsrooms realize that by failing to involve the public in a meaningful way in editorial decision-making, they’re losing out on a number of major benefits that can help them meet this moment and sustain their businesses. But transitioning from the mindset of optimizing for speed and distribution, rather than for relevance and trust, is extremely difficult in a business that’s focused on deadlines and short-term thinking.

Trying to build Hearken into a company for the long-term by relying on newsrooms to make this paradigm shift quickly—and paying us for our services—was a major stumbling block and pointed the way to the next intervention I needed to create.

Zebras Unite

Image courtesy of Arthur Jones.

Without inserting a 10,000-word treatise on the foundations of capitalism and the realities of start-up culture circa the early 2000s, suffice it to say that I’ve found starting a company as a woman and looking for aligned capital to grow it have been nearly impossible.

Zebras Unite is a founder-led, cooperatively owned movement creating the culture, capital, and community for the next economy. Here’s how it got its start: in 2016, I coauthored an essay called “Sex & Startups” with a dear friend and fellow start-up entrepreneur, Mara Zepeda, who is the founder of Switchboard. We articulated the difficulty of starting and sustaining mission-based, for-profit companies such as ours that can scale up and the lack of capital for companies that don’t fit the Silicon Valley model (so-called unicorn companies valued at over a billion dollars). Zebras are companies that balance profit and purpose and see collaboration, not competition, as core to their survival. Since 2016, we’ve taken this idea and the energy it released and spun it into a multistakeholder cooperative and a 501(c)(3). We have chapters around the world, a community of thousands of entrepreneurs and investors, and we are working to create the culture, capital, and community necessary to support the types of businesses we believe will be needed for the complex problems the 21st century portends.

Just as the public-powered model of journalism subverts the autocracy of newsroom editorial decision-making, Zebras Unite subverts the autocracy of funding. Typically, new companies have to find start-up capital through investors or banks—which tend to be small groups of people who do not demographically represent the people seeking funding. The statistics for getting capital are abysmal for companies started by women and people of color. But through pioneering different funding and lending models such as the Inclusive Capital Collective, Zebras Unite is creating new processes and vehicles for finding aligned capital.

We’re also working to understand how cooperative ownership structures can align with the needs and goals of news organizations. We are working with the Media Enterprise Design Lab (MEDLab) at the University of Colorado Boulder, which is a think tank for community ownership and governance in media organizations. We collaborated with them on a new model to help the owners of start-ups think not about an “exit” (sale) to the highest-paying investor in order to make a lot of money, but instead “exiting to community” and selling ownership to the people you’re serving. Out of these conversations sprang a special group that’s working to apply cooperative models to news start-ups. We believe that when the ownership and governance of news organizations belong to the people they are meant to serve, the incentives become powerfully aligned and will have ripple effects on editorial planning, collaborative reporting, and financial sustainability. Instead of newsrooms needing to answer to advertisers, hedge funds, or investors to be paid, they’ll need to answer to the people whom they’re designing their reporting to serve.

Given the learning that happens when ambitious, community-centric entrepreneurs start newsrooms with a new model and the fact that the field of investment capital is rapidly changing to become more impact-oriented, I expect that, in a few years, there will be far more diverse paths for those who want to start such news organizations. Further, they will be able to find the seed funding to get them off the ground so that they eventually can be owned and operated by the community.

To me, this is the biggest and most important shift that can happen for the media. It’s not immediate; it’s not going to fix the misinformation crisis, nor will it stanch the bleeding of newsroom layoffs, consolidations, and shutdowns. But just adding more journalists to newsrooms that are built on broken business models and financial incentives will definitely not help support people in communities doing the work of addressing the shared problems that threaten our democracy.

The Citizens Agenda

As I’ve sought to create frameworks, processes, technology, and culture around listening and decentralized decision-making, I’ve found additional ways to extend these concepts and apply them to journalism. I want to talk now explicitly about democracy.

While it’s become clear to newsrooms in the past few years that listening and engaging with the people they serve is essential to their relevance and survival, still, we find imaginations are limited in newsrooms for how they can pull away from the feeding-the-beast mentality of churning out content. This inertia becomes especially dangerous when applied to one of the most important functions journalism can play in a democracy: to help people understand what’s at stake in an election and to help them make informed choices when casting their ballots.

In 2019, media critic and scholar Jay Rosen was in Chicago and stopped by the Hearken offices. We got to talking about his Citizens Agenda approach, a reporting framework that starts with what the public wants politicians to talk about as they compete for votes. It is essentially public-powered journalism applied to the election beat. We decided to collaborate so we could operationalize the Citizens Agenda and help newsrooms with a step-by-step guide to using this approach for covering the 2020 elections.

This movement to make the Citizens Agenda easier for newsrooms to follow became the catalyst for an even bigger intervention we created around the 2020 elections.

Election SOS

Hearken used its own listening approach and asked, “What do journalists wonder as they approach the 2020 elections?” Newsrooms knew that the ground had shifted since the election of Donald Trump and understood that the way they’d covered the 2016 elections was not a good match for the times. But what to do instead was still a matter of much debate.

Hearken heard from many journalists about the needs they had: They needed specific training in how to apply the Citizens Agenda, they needed support for increasing their trust in the public, and they needed targeted training about how to recognize and handle emergent threats to a successful election (e.g., disinformation, White nationalism and violence, voter suppression, COVID-19 and vote-by-mail protocols). In collaboration with the American Press Institute and Trusting News, Hearken launched a pop-up collaborative called Election SOS. It included not only targeted resources and training, but also fellowships and grants to directly support newsrooms in responding quickly to urgent needs.

Election SOS was very successful by every metric we established. We served thousands of journalists, trained and deployed fellows, and disbursed hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants, but, of course, the threats that existed during the 2020 election have not gone away. So, in 2021, we launched the Democracy SOS fellowship, which builds off the lessons learned from Election SOS. Hearken and the Solutions Journalism Network are partnering to bring our “best of” training modules into a long-term fellowship program, which started by focusing on the 2022 elections while also deepening the potential for change in how journalists approach their work and how newsrooms operate.

Specifically, we created a training module about high conflict, a term that refers to discord that develops into a good-versus-evil kind of feud that fans the flames of polarization. This module is designed to help journalists better understand how their reporting practices can—and often do—exacerbate high conflict and undermine democracy in the process. We’re interested in naming and reframing the role journalism plays in democracy, in equipping practitioners with an understanding of how they create harm, and in learning how to mitigate that harm through their practices. For instance, we know that presenting only two sides to a story creates a binary “us vs. them” narrative that encourages black-and-white thinking and leads to further polarization.

We’re learning that to help inspire changes in journalistic practices to support democracy, we need a mixture of short-term incentives and long-term support for paradigmatic change. The Democracy SOS fellowship used the short-term need to supply better coverage for the 2022 midterms as a training ground for deploying different practices that will support trust-building with the American public and directly serve their information needs.

The Future Is in Decentralized Decision-Making

You’re probably sensing a theme to the interventions I’m drawn to creating: it’s about ensuring that the power to decide is distributed and that the people who stand to be most affected by the decisions need to be involved in either creating the choices people are deciding between or shaping them so that the outcomes will be useful, relevant, and will inflict the least amount of harm. This thesis is not something I consciously set out to work with; it’s only in looking back at my body of work that I see it’s the central value amid all my various companies, projects, and initiatives. In considering democracy as a system of governance in which decentralized decision-making forms the foundation of how a society functions within and outside of a geographic territory, I think any way that journalism can support better listening and decentralized decision-making within its practice and within the communities in which it operates, the better chance our democracy has at survival.

For journalism to better inform people doing the work of supporting democracy, the industry must start seeing itself and acting as part of a larger, decentralized network of the civic body, rather than as a siloed industry. It must see that the information it provides is just one stream in the larger flow of information that supports collective sense-making. And journalists must appreciate that some of the solutions required to improve the health of our democracy are in their hands.

I don’t know that I’ll see the change toward healthier newsrooms and a thriving media ecosystem to support democracy within my lifetime, but my hope is that at least one (or more) of the interventions I’ve been fortunate enough to build and deploy thus far, results in some noticeable and useful change.

Jennifer Brandel is cofounder and CEO of Hearken, a company that helps organizations around the world develop and operationalize participatory processes. She began her career in journalism reporting for outlets including NPR, CBC, WBEZ, the New York Times and Vice.

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