Meet Hearken The Chicago Startup Revolutionizing Editorial Decision Making

Imagine a world where you’re able to measure the success of a project you’re working on before actually creating it. A world where your thoughts and insights are guaranteed to appeal to your audience and your following.

Sounds impossible, right?

In the world of journalism, the seemingly impossible is now possible. Chicago-based tech startup, Hearken, is an audience-driven platform that enables journalists to create high-performing stories for their readership before the reporting process begins. Serving newsrooms in any medium that needs attention such as print publications, conference panels, serviceable blog sites or classroom lectures, Hearken is the smartest — and incredibly delineative — concept that we’ve come across in awhile.

It’s no secret that our world today demands a certain style of information giving and receiving by wave of audience engagement. But not everyone understands how that works. From age-old news corporations to budding online broadcasts, it only makes sense that any content creator makes sure its readership’s wants and needs come first. But that doesn’t always happen.

So, Hearken is making it happen.

A Different Way of Doing Journalism

Jennifer Brandel, Hearken’s CEO and co-founder, clarifies the concept:

“Hearken is a different way of doing journalism and making content,” she explains. “We have a supporting technology to help content creators understand their audience’s information needs before they make those stories. It is a different kind of framework for bringing an audience in, making it easy and manageable for our partners to organize.”

Whereas the traditional framework of journalism simply assumes their audience’s approval and liking, the Hearken platform allows readers to tell reporters what they want to read, validating interest before putting effort into reporting.

“I don’t think the traditional model is broken,” Brandel says. “I just think it can be vastly improved by having feedback earlier. Journalism is due for an upgrade, and traditional journalism doesn’t really jive with the way the world is moving with information gathering.”

All’s not lost, however, if there’s a way to bridge the divide between writer and reader. Brandel explains, “We’re helping to further activate and deepen the relationship of existing organizations and their audiences.”

How the Technology Can be Used in Newsrooms

While the platform is not an actual app, newsrooms can incorporate it in their app because it is responsive technology. The audience-facing side of the platform is through modules that can be embedded in an article or a direct link. The newsroom-facing side is the engagement management system, having a centralized location for tracking progress in one place so that it’s easily organized.

The Brains Behind Hearken

For being the head of such a time-consuming and intricate system, I was blown away by the welcoming and pleasantly casual nature from the young entrepreneur. Whereas other startup founders might not be exactly sure who they are as a business owner or where their company’s direction is going, Brandel is the opposite. She’s confident in her creation and focused on the Hearken mission.

Not trained traditionally as a journalist, Brandel’s endearing curiosity of questions revolving around the newsroom essentially lead to the dawning of this “partnering with the public” platform. During her research and targeted experiments at Chicago public radio station, WBEZ, in 2011, Brandel began playing with the concept that an audience should be a more integral part of the story-making process.

Upon studying target markets beyond traditional media, and exploring this new way of creating more original, more relevant and more popular content, Brandel was offered an incredible opportunity through the Association of Independents in Radio, where she was one of 10 recipients awarded $100,000 to push ideas forward and test new theories concerning journalism.

She spent a year at WBEZ incubating the idea of bringing the audience into the journalism process way before publication. During the process she asked herself, “What if the audience was involved from the very beginning? In fact, what if we didn’t start with our ideas, but what if we started with their ideas?”

She acquired the answers through physically partnering with people in the Chicago community, collecting questions from subjects on the notion of really understanding people’s wants and desires concerning news delivery.

The series was so successful at WEBZ that other newsrooms started knocking on Brandel’s door asking what her secret was and how they could achieve this success themselves.

“It was really nagging at me if there was a business model behind this approach,” Brandel says. “I didn’t know if this was something that was just a perfect combination of talent that made this popular, or if it was something scaleable.”

The Birth of Hearken

After the completion of the series, Brandel was accepted into an accelerator program in San Francisco called Matter, where she started to figure out that there could actually be a business within this developing program. Fast forward to this conversation two years later, and Hearken is now at 50 plus newsrooms in eight different countries and six different languages. The idea is rapidly spreading as the model keeps improving with the supportive technology getting better and better every day.

The wild success of the startup has definitely exceeded the team’s expectations of a growing business that is coming about mostly through word of mouth.

“It’s been attracting people who are as like-minded as we are in trying to figure out how to make this framework the norm, and it has been pretty organic so far,” Brandel says.

“We haven’t been cold-calling newsrooms and trying to persuade them. I fear the day where we will have to do that. I hope we don’t.”

As long as potential partners are understanding of the multistep process that occurs within the framework, and they want to benefit from feedback earlier as opposed to later, Hearken works with them.

The content that customers make with the philosophy and technology of Hearken can be through any media format a newsroom chooses. This can include a live event, a podcast, radio show, article or video. The point is to increase audience size and engagement, hence deepening those relationships with the community.

“We have some pretty wild hopes and dreams for it, which is that this philosophy and this approach will be the norm in the next 10 or 15 years,” Brandel remarks.

“If you’re not giving the people who you’re serving the chance to give you input before you make the expensive decisions, you’re probably missing out on a lot of different opportunities. And if that doesn’t manifest in terms of this exact company, we’ll figure out another way for these ideas to come to fruition.”

Hearken is hoping to be a solid Chicago story (we think it already is), with the aspiration of making its presence known in at least 100 countries.

Brandel concludes by saying that we are developed in a different time where different things are possible, and that the goal is to find the right person in each newsroom who gets this concept and believes fundamentally that an audience is more than a bunch of “clicks.”

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