Jennifer Brandel, co-founder of Hearken, Zebras Unite, Civic Exchange Chicago, Election SOS, Democracy SOS and WBEZ’s Curious City, shares lessons on designing experiments for sustainability, equity and impact.
(2:40) – Jennifer’s path to public radio and Hearken
(9:57) – Grants and designing experiments for sustainability
(13:36) – Lessons for instilling new ideas in newsrooms (or any business)
(33:45) – Hearken and a portfolio of listening
(40:22) – Zebra’s Unite and a different kind of tech startup ecosystem
(47:19) – Diversifying your organization, your inputs and your audience
(52:51) – Reflecting on election coverage
(58:12) – Rapid-fire questions
(1:09:35) – Fact check by Bay Edwards & Rachel Pickarski
Listen to the episode here:
- Jennifer Brandel: web, Twitter, Medium
- Hearken: web, Twitter
- Zebra's Unite: web, Twitter
- Election SOS
- Democracy SOS
- Civic Exchange Chicago
- “Sex and Startups“
- “Curious Citizens: Whose Voices Are Heard in ‘People-Powered’ Public Media?” “
- “I stopped reading the news. Is the problem me — or the product?“
- Colorado Press Association: web, Twitter, Facebook
Jennifer Brandel is Co-founder & CEO of Hearken, a company that helps organizations around the world develop and operationalize participatory processes. Hearken took home the prize for “Best Bootstrap Company” at SXSW and won the News Media Alliance Accelerator. Brandel received the Media Changemaker Prize by the Center for Collaborative Journalism, was named one of 30 World-Changing Women in Conscious Business, is a Columbia Sulzberger Fellow, an RSA Fellow, a member of the Guild of Future Architects and the National Civic Collaboratory. Brandel led the creation, fundraising and execution of Election SOS, a $2m collaborative initiative to support journalist’s critical information needs around the 2020 US elections. In 2022, she co-created Democracy SOS to support newsrooms making long-term culture shifts in political coverage. Brandel founded and led the ground-breaking audience-first journalism series Curious City at WBEZ Chicago. She is co-founder of Zebra’s Unite, a global movement and network of entrepreneurs, funders, investors and allies creating a more ethical, inclusive and collaborative ecosystem for mission-based startups. She also co-founded Civic Exchange Chicago which brings together civic startups in a collaborative learning community.
Transcription lightly edited from Swell AI (affiliate link), by far the most accurate automated transcription service we've seen.
Tim Regan-Porter: Welcome to the Local News Matters podcast, where we explore pathways to stronger journalism, better businesses and healthier communities. I’m Tim Regan-Porter, CEO of the Colorado Press Association.
Each episode, I sit down with guests from newsrooms and others in the news ecosystem to highlight the innovative work of local newsrooms and those that support them—as well as the crucial questions they face.
We may over-index on Colorado but our lens is national and encompasses all forms of media, various market sizes, and various types of organizations. Because I hold it as an article of faith that there’s no community, no market size, no medium, and no organization so unique that there aren’t lessons for everyone, if they try and tease out the right lessons.
We aim to provide a unique mix of strategic, tactical and even philosophical themes, a combination of business and editorial topics, a zooming in to examine what’s happening on the ground in newsrooms and a zooming out to look at the bigger picture of national trends, thorny issues and enabling organizations and technologies. Because to have thriving local news, to have financially viable businesses with journalism that makes a difference, requires a holistic understanding of business, community engagement, technology, culture, equity and more.
And I am so excited to bring you this interview with Jennifer Brandel. She is a serial entrepreneur and innovator who works between industries to address the same problem set: how to design systems that listen, respond and evolve with their stakeholders. Her curiosity and listening-based approach has yielded the kind of change that shifts sectors toward a co-creative paradigm. She is the co-founder of Hearken, Zebras Unite, Civic Exchange Chicago, Election SOS, Democracy SOS and WBEZ’s Curious City.
Jenn is one of my favorite people, one of my favorite thinkers and doers. She is skilled at that zooming out to understand the big picture, the fundamentals of business, ethics, culture and more. And then zooming in to experiment and put ideas into practice and help others do the same.
We cover a lot of ground, and whether you’re a media executive, journalist, philanthropist, entrepreneur (in any field, really), or just want to help make a better community, I think you’ll find something meaningful to ponder. I loved this conversation and get something new out of it on each listen.
If you like what we’re trying to do here, please subscribe in your favorite podcast app, leave us a 5-star review in Apple Podcasts and tell your friends about us. You can find a full transcript and relevant links, and sign up for our newsletter, at localnewsmatterspodcast.com.
And now, I am pleased to welcome Jennifer Brandel.
Regan-Porter: So why don't we just start with talking a little bit about your career trajectory. When you spoke at Mercer, you talked about coming in through the side door, which is something I can relate to, and many of my favorite journalists came in that way as well. But just kind of give me a brief rundown of how you got into radio and then all the things you've been doing since.
Brandel: Yeah, so I got definitely into journalism accidentally. I hadn't studied it in college, didn't really ever think of it as a career possibility. But I guess the short version of the story is there’s a confluence of a few different events in my college life that led me down the path. And one of which was being stopped on the way to a philosophy class that I absolutely loved by a friend of mine at school who said, “Hey, you have to skip class. There’s this amazing guy speaking at the Student Union tonight.” And I'm not a class-skipping kind of gal, but I decided to go. And it was Ira Glass. And I'd never heard of public radio before then. You know, I had grown up in a house that listened to AM talk radio, oldie stations and was summarily blown away and started volunteering at the community radio station in Madison, Wisconsin, WORT, right after that. And from there, unbelievably got an internship at NPR about six months later and started off my career kind of being at the mothership at NPR and starting to absorb everything I could. What was great about it is that I wasn't starstruck by anyone because I hadn't grown up with NPR in utero. So I would ask, like, Corey Flintoff out to lunch and Susan Stamberg, you know, to hang out and see if I could write out her holiday cards. And a lot of the other interns were very, like, very much like, “What are you doing? These people are gods!” And I'm like, “Oh, they are? Sool. They're very nice.” So yeah, I got very lucky and my ignorance landing me in that in that spot.
Regan-Porter: And where were you at college at this point?
Brandel: University of Wisconsin, Madison
Regan-Porter: And what was it that really attracted you?
Brandel: I think what attracted me initially—it wasn't even to journalism, but it was to radio and the power of the medium. And I remember Ira Glass talking about, in that tour that he was on, about the power of the voice to really transmit so much information—so it's nice we’re doing a podcast here—and also how other mediums, so TV or visuals, almost too much information where you might suddenly jump to unconscious biases right away because you're seeing someone and getting a lot more information and probably forming an opinion about them pretty quickly. And print, you know, just doesn't offer the richness and texture and emotion that hearing someone's voice does. And he played some of this podcast or some portions of his podcast in the dark which really hit me. So we were you know in this giant auditorium at University of Wisconsin Madison and you're hearing these powerful excerpts and all you have is this person's voice in their emotion and I found it to be so affecting and so beautiful that I wanted to learn more about, you know, audio as a format of storytelling and public media as a way to do that.
Regan-Porter: And I must say I'm a big fan of print. Most of our members are print. And you've worked with print newspapers at Hearken.
Brandel: Yeah, definitely.
Regan-Porter: So talk a little bit about once you got to the Chicago station and then realizing that—well, just talk a little about what had the idea for Hearken came to you.
… journalism was this job where you could get paid to learn, to be in spaces you otherwise would have no other business being in, to have people listen to you, and to be able to ask questions of folks, again, you never would have come across otherwise, and to be creative and trying to be of service of your community.
Brandel: Yeah, definitely. So from my experience interning at NPR, I kind of spent a lot of my 20s just kind of, I guess, experimenting with a lot of different jobs trying to understand what I wanted to do almost by virtue of what I don't like to do. So, you know, just trying on a lot of different hats. I was a ghostwriter for an exotic dancer and for John Hughes, the late, you know, movie director who made Pretty in Pink and 16 Candles and all that stuff. I worked in Tasmania picking grapes. I was a psychometric test developer in Montrea. And each of these experiences gave me an understanding of like what I really enjoyed and what I didn't. So it was almost by process of elimination that I found myself back in journalism about five or so years after I initially was interning at NPR and realizing that you know journalism was this job where you could get paid to learn, to be in spaces you otherwise would have no other business being in, to have people listen to you, and to be able to ask questions of folks, again, you never would have come across otherwise, and to be creative and trying to be of service of your community. And all of those things combined to be really exciting to me after having tried out manual labor and other sorts of things that I realized I was not a great fit for. They were just frankly too difficult for me. And I ended up starting to freelance at WBEZ in Chicago, here and there just doing stories while I was doing my odd jobs and starting a craft company and other random stuff. But it was in 2008 where I reported a story on the Baha'i elections. So the Baha'i faith is a faith that started in the mid-1800s in Iran. And it was—I had a bunch of friends in Chicago who were Baha'i, and they had a big election coming up which is the same year that, you know, we had a 2008 presidential election coming up. And when I learned about their process of democracy and how different it was from the way that we did democracy or I knew it, I was fascinated. And I ended up reporting a story for WBEZ about it. And from there got asked to see if I would work for the Baha'i faith almost as an in-house journalist helping them to de-jargon their faith, making it easier for outsiders to understand. And through that process, I ended up working for them for a handful of years.
.. they have this very different approach to being in service than I had ever seen before. Which was not going into a community and saying, “Hey, I know what's best for you. Let me teach you and try and get you to adopt something and then I'll leave and you'll be better off for whatever I've taught you.” Instead they went in with this humble posture of learning, saying, “You know your problems best. What do you need help with? And I got two hands or I got time. What can I do to support you?” And thinking about this was revolutionary as it related to journalism because journalism really took a different tact which was, “We know what's best for you. We know what information you need. Let us tell you what's important to know.”
So I was working for the Baha'i faith for a few years traveling around the country trying to learn about and report on how they were doing community building. And one of the things that really struck me was that they have this very different approach to being in service than I had ever seen before. Which was not going into a community and saying, “Hey, I know what's best for you. Let me teach you and try and get you to, you know, adopt something and then I'll leave and you'll be better off for whatever I've taught you.” Instead they went in with this humble posture of learning, you know, saying what— you know your problems best. What do you need help with? And I got two hands or, you know, I got time. What can I do to support you? And thinking about this was revolutionary as it related to journalism because journalism really took a different tact which was, “We know what's best for you. We know what information you need. Let us tell you what's important to know.” And so there was an opportunity in 2011 through this organization called AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, in which they were giving away $100,000 to 10 different creators and newsrooms in public media to try and do things a little bit differently. And I just kept thinking about how the process of journalism would change if we started off not assuming we knew what others needed to know but assuming that they were smart enough to have their own needs and they might need help finding information that journalists are uniquely positioned to do. And so that was the start of Curious City really based on this principle of start by listening, start by trying to understand the questions people have and really accompanying them on finding those answers and not just telling them the answer but really showing them how you found it and trying to leave people better off.
Regan-Porter: It's interesting that what eventually became Hearken was really started with that grant. Brandel: Yeah.
Regan-Porter: You know, there's a lot of emphasis in the last handful of years in journalism on grant funding. And if you're not using grants to really think about sustainability and new ways to reach people, I think it's a very much a lost opportunity for the industry and for individual outlets. I assume that was crucial to getting WBEZ to consider this, what was—did they think of it as an oddball project, or what was their reaction?
… one thing I would encourage anyone who's listening, who's creating grants or trying to design interventions to help innovation, is to think about who can enforce that experiment being done to the best of its ability and how do you protect someone from being pulled outside what they were trying to prove or do. Because at the end of the day, you'll have a watered-down experiment if you do that and you won't know if it actually would have worked because you didn't get a chance to give it your all and then you end up with crappy data and kind of a wasted opportunity.
Brandel: Oh, man. Yeah, I mean absolutely to the point about grants and sustainability. There was actually a really genius design of this whole initiative by this woman, Sue Schardt, who ran AIR at the time. And one of the innovations in how they administered this initiative—which technically wasn't a grant but kind of operated a lot like one—is that AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, hired me. So I was not a staffer of the station. They hired me, and they essentially gave me to WBEZ to do the thing that I proposed doing and that the station signed off on and that AIR was ultimately the backstop for. So I know for a fact that if I didn't have a one-year time horizon, money and a different boss that I would report to then the newsroom, I surely would have been pulled into other projects. Or it would have been, you know, just given a few months or kind of one cycle to see how it goes. And it wouldn't have been given the time and it wouldn't have been protected in the same way to kind of see it bloom over the course of the year. And so that's one thing I would encourage anyone who's listening, who's doing, who's creating grants or trying to design interventions to help innovation is to think about who can enforce that experiment being done to the best of its ability and how do you protect someone from being pulled outside what they were trying to prove or do. Because at the end of the day, you'll have a watered-down experiment if you do that and you won't know if it actually would have worked because you didn't get a chance to give it your all and then you end up with, like, crappy data and kind of a wasted opportunity. So WBEZ, when I originally took the idea to them, it just so happened that the person who I would have typically taken it to, like the managing editor of the newsroom, was away on holiday. And the grant was due a few days later. I waited till the last second, like many journalists do with a deadline. And so I actually had to take it to the CEO at the time, this guy, Torey Malatia, to get approval on, instead of my direct supervisor. And what was amazing is that I think, again, that might not have gotten approval to do this were it not for me going to the top. In part because the people at the top have the most ability to take creative risks because they have the, what they say goes. And they also have the clout and kind of capital, social capital to say, let's try something new and innovative. Where I think, you know, no disrespect to the managing editor at the time, but her role was to keep the train moving and to not disrupt the progress and to just incrementally improve things. And this was quite a departure from the process and the things that would have been done before. And so when she learned that we got the grant or that we were part of the initiative after the fact, there were some reparative conversations that needed to happen and some assurance that needed to happen from the CEO saying, nope, we're going to do this. Yes, I understand your concerns that having the public involved might compromise some of our sources or lead to bad outcomes, but it never did. So none of those fears actually came to pass, but I was lucky in that I just so happened to get a check mark on the idea from the very top person, which also felt very lucky.
Regan-Porter: That's fascinating. I come from a tech and business school background and some of the very fundamentals that you learn in those scenarios—I mean, Clay Christensen, when he wrote Innovator's Dilemma and Innovator's Solution, talked very explicitly about some of these things. You have to isolate new ideas from the crushing bureaucracy of what's working now if you're going to get to what's working down the road. Eventually you started Hearken as a standalone business, and you got involved with Zebra's Unite. And I'm curious from your experience across all of those things, what lessons—particularly as you tried to expand what you were doing at BEZ to other newsrooms—what lessons have you seen and what works and what doesn't in trying to instill new ideas in newsrooms?
… it really is about making sure you have buy-in from the right people and for the right amount of time to give something a go and that you do set some sort of benchmarks as to what you expect and check in over time to make sure it's going in that direction. And the ability to kind of call an audible here and there and say, “Hey, you know, it's not working how we thought. Do we still think it should continue, or should we massively rewrite our hypothesis?”
Brandel: Yeah, there's a lot. I'll try and be concise about it because, man, it's a book's worth of lessons that probably someone's already written. But, you know, it really is about making sure you have buy-in from the right people and for the right amount of time to give something a go and that you do set some sort of benchmarks as to what you expect and check in over time to make sure it's going in that direction. And the ability to kind of, like, call an audible here and there and say, “Hey, you know, it's not working how we thought. Do we still think it should continue, or should we massively rewrite our hypothesis?” At the end of the day, you don't want to keep pushing something forward that's mediocre. You know, you want to test things that are actually working. So I always advocate for but I can't force our partner newsrooms at Hearken to do this, to have regularly scheduled times in which they're reflecting on what they're learning, what they're doing, which not only helps you stay on track and learn from what's working, what's not. But I think it also allows people to develop a culture and a new vocabulary for the things that they're doing that is so, so important, so subtle, but grows over time. Like I remember at WBEZ, you know, with Curious City, we would have these weekly reflection meetings about, how did the participation go? What did we learn? Could we have done anything better? We just started having these shorthands around like, oh, you know, how to construct an episode. Let's Princess Bride this one or let's do one like we did that last episode about X thing. We started to develop this kind of approach. And then we also started to develop our own workflows and our own templates where we would require a story pitch to have an explanation and our argument up top about what role engagement was going to play in the story, how it was going to be baked in throughout, what our goal for the question asker was. So how we were trying to be of service, how we're going to know if it works. We required this prethinking, which no other department was doing at the time and ended up becoming kind of templated for other departments to take on, which was really cool.
… have a process by which you're constantly learning about what you're learning from one another and getting that input. I also think just starting small, and if you're not in a position, like most newsrooms are not, in which there's free floating dollars to try new things and throw spaghetti at the wall, it's about trying to figure out who in your newsroom already has a sparkle in their eye to try something new and not trying to force someone into doing something top down that they wouldn't otherwise be interested in doing.
So I think having, like you said, with the Clayton Christensen quote, protecting, you know, that group of people of doing something. But I think to have a process by which you're constantly learning about what you're learning from one another and getting that input. I also think just starting small, and if you're not in a position, like most newsrooms are not, in which there's free floating dollars to try new things and throw spaghetti at the wall, it's about trying to figure out who in your newsroom already has like a sparkle in their eye to try something new and not trying to force someone into doing something top down that they wouldn't otherwise be interested in doing. So how do you find the coalition of the willing, as we call them, to prove the thing out and then to start to show success in ways that can attract others who might be interested or, you know, kind of bring the other part of the curve, the adoption curve along? And then also just to think about what are the wins in various levels? So whenever I'm talking to a newsroom and trying to help them sell engagement, you know, whoever comes to me—sometimes the CEO or the head will come to me and say, I need my newsroom to become more engaging. And so we need to talk about who do I need to convince and what right now is their mark of success and what are their incentives and how can we show them that engagement can help those things out? Just like if a reporter comes to me and says, “Hey, I totally get this. This makes so much sense. I want to do it. How do I convince my boss?” We need to know what does your boss care about? And how can we show them analytics or metrics or dollars that help them be successful in their job? So a lot of it at the end of the day is, I guess, what I would call politics. But it's really about understanding your audience and who you're pitching and what story they need to tell, which is something I think a lot of journalists know to some degree, but maybe haven't practiced internally before. So I think kind of helping people get better at some of the culture shift and change management work, which they might not see as part of their jobs, but is directly correlated with the success and the buy-in and the longevity of the things that they're really passionate about that are showing some signs of success.
Regan-Porter: Yeah, and it's interesting. So you had both ends of the spectrum in terms of hierarchy. So as your example of Curious City illustrated, you needed executive buy-in, but you need that, the ideation that usually comes from the ground up. So you took Curious City, what you were doing with that kernel of an idea and formed a whole business out of that, Hearken. And as you worked with other newsrooms and eventually you had to expand beyond newsrooms, so I'd like to get to that. What did you see was the key selling point in getting that wedge in there, particularly with the executives, to consider something beyond standard business?
… if we design innovation in ways to align with what is universal in human nature and what is good about human nature, then you can really create a lot of different outcomes. But you need to look first and foremost at what you're doing now and how is it actually bringing out the best of or the worst in people.
Brandel: Yeah, it's a great question. I mean, when we first started as a business—so I was at WBEZ doing Curious City from 2012 until 2015, which I left and started Hearken as a standalone company in part because I had so many newsrooms coming to me saying, “Hey, we want to do this. Can you teach us?” And I was just like, I think so, but I don't have time during my regular job to do this. So I was curious enough to see what it would be like to try and help them and to try and figure out if there's a business to be had in helping them. Which every year is the question I have to answer again because of the landscape changes and economics change and the world in which we're living has changed quite a bit. But when we started in 2015 and I would talk about engagement as an idea, it wasn't the same way that it's understood now as being a must have instead of a nice to have. People would kind of say, “Well, why should we listen to our audience? You know, they're a bunch of idiots and assholes.” And that was really disturbing to me as well, just hearing how pervasive that disdain for the audience can be in some newsrooms. And in part, I understand why it is. It's because there have been poorly, very, very poorly designed opportunities for interaction with the public that don't leave reporters, editors, producers, etc. being like, I don't want you to engage with me in this way, whether that's comment sections that are poorly curated or not curated at all, whether that's letters to the editor or only ways to complain essentially or say that you're wrong or you're stupid. So I really think if we design innovation in ways to align with what is universal in human nature and what is good about human nature, then you can really create a lot of different outcomes. But you need to look first and foremost at what you're doing now and how is it actually bringing out the best of or the worst in people. And so I think, depending on the newsroom boss or wherever the buck stopped, you know, the argument would be around money, you know, or around mission. So we work with a lot of public media stations. So mission ends up typically being the first and then money being secondary. Saying, hey, if you listen to the public, they're much more likely to give their email address. So you can email them when you have a membership campaign. Or they're much more likely to feel closer to your newsroom and want to support it in some way. But with other commercial newsrooms, typically they had to have the money argument first and then the mission second, whoever the, you know, the boss was. Really, ultimately, the heads of these organizations, it was part understanding their personality and what drove them to do this work and then understanding the business model of their news organization and how to speak to both of those things, which is a lot of reporting skills. You know, deep listening, trying to start with questions instead of a pitch, which took me a while to go from just being like, “Let me tell you everything!” And then see what questions you have to actually starting by asking questions and listening and then tailoring. But you know, over time, we've gotten a chance to work with 250 some newsrooms around the world. You know, not all our current clients now, but on some level, a lot of them not being clients is a sign of success and that they have decided to do this work on their own and to build their own things and to continue it. And if everyone did this, I would be out of this particular business, which would actually be fine with me. Because it would mean that we were successful in helping to make a shift toward listening happen and to create the groundwork for other businesses, technologies, etc. to help people do that better. So anyway, I think I got off track of answering your question.
Regan-Porter: No, no, no, that was good. When I was at the Center for Collaborative Journalism, we gave you our Media Changemaker Award. And that must have been right at the beginning of starting Hearken.
Brandel: Yes, thank you for helping to show my parents that what I was doing was not crazy. They're like, “Wow, you're getting an award?” Like, yeah, check this out.
Regan-Porter: Anything to help with the parents.
Regan-Porter: And we were an early customer. And my perception from afar—and we hired Andrew Haeg, who started Ground Source, which is another community engagement tool. So, I'm well aware of sort of the ups and downs in working with newsrooms. My perception as a customer and observing what you've been doing from afar is, it's very difficult to get newsrooms to pay for anything and that's understandable and to innovate. And eventually Hearken expanded beyond just newsrooms. Can you talk a little bit about that evolution and what do you think were the biggest challenges in breaking into newsrooms? And where did you see— this is a lot of multi-part question—but where did you see the most success in terms of getting innovation adopted in a newsroom?
… this same problem set of the people making decisions being too far away from the people those decisions affected and not being in connection with one another was really something that like every industry struggles with.
Brandel: Yeah, man, it is really difficult. So essentially, we are… You know, if you have a company in which you're selling a product or a service to help someone do something they've already agreed is important, but you're helping them do it faster, cheaper, better. That's a totally different ballgame than trying to help an organization or a group or, you know, company do something that they haven't tried before. It's just a completely different ballgame. So part of me wonders, and I joke about with some other entrepreneur friends that like, had we chosen any other business, we would be wildly successful because of the amount of like grit and resilience and determination and things that we've tried, you know, to work in this field that just ultimately, you know, there's so many headwinds. So Hearken’s evolution beyond just newsrooms was really seeing that this same problem set of the people making decisions being too far away from the people those decisions affected and not being in connection with one another was really something that like every industry struggles with. You know, whether that's healthcare, higher education, government, arts and cultural institutions. It gets really hard, especially the bigger institutions get, to have that agile feedback loop of listening and responding and growing alongside whoever you're trying to serve. It's a challenge no matter what. And what we saw was just that there were other industries that kind of had this need as well where these ideas could really be grafted onto very easily. You just, you know, sub out audience member for stakeholder or alumni or, you know, whatever fill in the blank term of art there is. And it's essentially the same process of—you know, kind of like design thinking has these steps. Ours is similar to design thinking, but it's about listening all the time rather than just as one step and having empathy all the time rather than just one step. So we have been exploring over the last few years, which industries and which leaders, really, because it's not even an industry specific, but which people are ready and willing and able to start experimenting and doing things differently because they know the status quo is not working and will not work going forward. So we're kind of trying to, you know, I wouldn't even say pivot, but just expand to try and let folks know who are ready to do better listening and engagement that we're here to help them and to design and help them execute on some pretty ambitious projects.
I really think there's an opportunity for journalism down the line. This merger to me made sense in that as newsrooms were thinking more about engagement, how could they think of themselves more as a node in a network for mutual aid, whether that aid was around information or otherwise.
So we've been working, we acquired and merged with another company in 2020 called Switchboard and they have like a mutual-aid board. And that's been great to get to work with a lot of higher education and other organizations that use Switchboard. I really think there's an opportunity for journalism down the line. Like I, this merger to me made sense in that as newsrooms were thinking more about engagement, you know, how could they think of themselves more as a node in a network for mutual aid, whether that aid was around information or otherwise. And as the pandemic hit and other, you know, crises, climate crises have hit, I see more and more the need for like newsrooms to be in the mutual aid business. But I think that's still a stretch for them to see themselves that way. So we still might be early on that front.
Regan-Porter: And which industries were those that you found most open, and what industries do you think newsrooms can really look to for inspiration and learn ideas from?
Brandel: Gosh, I don't know that there's any industry writ large that's just like kicking ass and doing such a great job. But I think there are really inspiring things happening in a variety of industries. And so one thing we did actually in 2019 is Hearken had our first, and so far only because of the pandemic, Engagement Innovation Summit. And we had a whole track at that summit of what journalists can learn from XYZ, like fill in the blank. So we had what journalists can learn from community health workers, what they can learn from organized religion, what they can learn from the medical field—because there's a lot of amazing people working in the medical field right now who are helping doctors better listen and better diagnose patients. And one of the wild things I learned at that summit was that the number one cause of death is actually misdiagnosis. And when I think about, you know, the number one cause of like community consternation and conflict, I think it's also misdiagnosis as to like what the problem is and what's happening, which is in some part journalism’s' job to describe accurately and portray accurately, which for many reasons doesn't happen very often. So anyway, I just feel like there's no one industry, but we have been working with higher education, which has, you know, a mandate to better serve its student body and make sure that they have good outcomes. We've been working with some governments and cultural institutions as well. So, but it's really when I think about it, it's come down to the leaders and the culture of that org as to who's been successful at listening and doing well with it.
Regan-Porter: Before we move on to pivot to sort of your pivot at Zebra's Unite and election integrity work, tell me some good examples of where newsrooms have used community engagement in Hearken well, and particularly where it's made a difference in the bottom line or a measurable impact on, you know, how their audience perceives them?
Brandel: Yeah, sure. Oh my God, there's so many examples. Where to begin? Well, one that's top of mind is because we do every year these Champions of Curiosity Awards in which we listen to our partners and hear what they did and learn from them as to what they deployed because we aren't a big enough team to know what's going on with each of our partners in such detail. But Vermont Public, which used to be Vermont Public Radio, they have a series called Brave Little State, which is one of, to me, the gold standards of the Hearken experience. And they end up producing a monthly podcast, sometimes more often than that, but like a really beautifully, highly produced, like 30 minute podcast, answering a question about Vermont, the people or the region. And they've just been doing such incredible work over the years. They've been a partner of ours for, gosh, five or six years. They've won Murrow Awards, like regional Murrow Awards, national Murrow Awards. And a couple of really cool things have happened in the last few years. So one is that this has become such a beloved program or initiative at the newsroom that they have this beautiful branded kind of Brave Little State logo and icon. And they made those into t-shirt, and in their membership drives, they sell out immediately. Like they tend to be the top performing, you know, half hour, hour of any pledge drive is whenever they have Brave Little State gear because people feel so connected to the sense of place, to the sense of humanity, to the curiosity and the wonder and delight that comes out of this series. So it has definitely increased their bottom line just in terms of like fandom and people wanting to become members or up their subscriptions and memberships, etc. But another cool thing that happened this year is that a local brewery—so pretty much, you know, you can't throw a rock in most towns now, mid to large towns without hitting a local brewery. We found a lot of beer companies want to collaborate with and underwrite or sponsor, these kind of public-powered, community-powered initiatives. So we got Sierra Nevada, Goose Island, and then in Vermont, there's this company called Lawson's Brewery. And they collaborated to make a brave little state beer called Brave Little State. And the logo is really awesome. It's got like a beer in one hand and a microphone in another, like two hands like cheersing and a portion of the proceeds of that beer go back to the newsroom. So it's a really cool collaboration. And Vermont Public, this year, answered a question that the public had around how are newly settled Vermonters, so people who have just come to the state, doing in the pandemic. And what they learned was that people are really lonely because they hadn’t made community yet. They got to Vermont and then everything shut down. And so Vermont Public decided, and Brave Little State, to create this community event. And they invited all these different Vermonters if they were new to Vermont to come. They served the Brave Little State beer, and they had all these folks come together. And they had some trivia and fun and storytelling and whatnot. And they wrote in their Champions of Curiosity entry that, you know, people were exchanging phone numbers at the end of the night and people made friends with one another. And to me, that's just such an example of how a newsroom can act as a conduit as a connector and not just like here's information. But you know, there's all these people—I picture it, you know, I picture all these people tuning in to this one radio station from around the state. And if a newsroom is only thinking about we're just going one direction and broadcasting versus we are connecting these people to one another, it is not actualizing the power of the community that it has and the people that don't know each other and that can benefit from knowing one another. So to me, that's just one of the examples of like a multifaceted, you know, array of wins that can come doing this kind of approach.
Regan-Porter: And I'm almost afraid to ask this question, but you know, my organization represents print and online newspapers. Do you have examples of newspapers who've made good use of Hearken?
Brandel: Yeah, definitely. Oh, man. Yeah, there have been for sure. The Philadelphia Inquirer, I know when they first started with Hearken, I think they collected like 6,000 questions in the first, you know, handful of months that they were doing this work. I can check for sure actually here. Let me just let me actually get you the right number so we don't have to track this. Okay, yep, it's not in the deck. I thought it was. But yes, there are newspapers who have done well with this process and the Philly Inquirer is one we work with, the Financial Post in Canada that's done a really good job. You know, we worked with a variety of newsrooms large and small across the country. And I will say it just does take that extra layer of people to think creatively in newsrooms to get those questions since newspapers—you know, for sure the actual printed paper—it's hard to be a two-way medium. But you can put things like QR codes on a newspaper, you know many people have a smartphone they can open up their phone to click on something and engage and speak back. And of course, you know, most newsrooms have pretty great digital sites right now. And so you have the opportunity to embed polls or question forms or other ways of engaging with people as well. The other thing is a lot of our radio partners have partnered with local publishers. So whether that's local ethnic community publications or big newspapers in town and cross-publish one another as well. So I think there's also really good partnerships that can happen with newspapers too.
Regan-Porter: And before we move off this, it occurs to me that we haven't really defined what Hearken is or what you offer in the tool set and how people use it. Can you give the elevator pitch for Hearken?
Brandel: Sure. Yeah. So Hearken, the word itself, means to listen. And so really what we try to do is help existing systems, you know, whether that's in an institution or a company or an organization, better listen to and respond to the people that they're trying to serve. And with that, we're helping teach them through new practices and through deploying new workflows and technologies, how to be more responsive and better serve people. And so, you know, we have a variety of different methodologies to do that. But at the end of the day, it's kind of a mindset shift followed by a behavior shift. And we have tech and consulting and workshops and coaching and all sorts of stuff to help people do that.
Regan-Porter: And I know in Colorado, the CoLab which we helped start and fund the Colorado News Collaborative is working with Hearken and offering that up to many newspapers. And so part of my understanding of the tool, well the tools that have been there since I became familiar—was that seven years ago?
Regan-Porter: —are basically tools to ask the community what stories they want covered, tools to vote on stories. Are there other specifics beyond the training and the mindset shift in terms of the online tools?
The meaningful distinction I want to say, too, is it's not to ask the community what they want covered, in part because if you frame it in that way, it ends up attracting a lot of people with an axe to grind or people with their minds already made up. But it's really about what questions they have. So what do they not know or understand that they want the newsroom to look into? So it does attract people who are humble enough to say, I don't know something. And you know, questions are ultimately the foundation of every journalism story …
Brandel: Yeah. The meaningful distinction I want to say, too, is it's not to ask the community what they want covered, in part because if you frame it in that way, it ends up attracting a lot of people with an axe to grind or people with their minds already made up. But it's really about what questions they have. So what do they not know or understand that they want the newsroom to look into? So it does attract people who are humble enough to say, I don't know something. And you know, questions are ultimately the foundation of every journalism story, whether it's, you know, what's the weather, who won the game last night or why is city council doing X thing? It really can all boil down to a question. So it allows a lot more people to participate from traditional kind of like tip lines or pitch-us-a-story kind of approaches. So yeah, we have these embeds that can be used to be put on to people's websites and shared in social media, et cetera, for collecting questions, voting on each other's ideas, showing one another what each other is asking or what you've already answered. And then we also have this, the CMS, the Community Management System, otherwise known as Switchboard, which is this mutual aid network, which is a way for people to ask and offer what they have. So we have a couple of different technologies essentially. And then we have just a lot of different ways of putting these practices into, you know, realized products, whether that's an event or a long-term series or a big initiative or a capital campaign. It's kind of like a formula that works, but that people have not deployed very often in newsrooms because they have been kind of unidirectional for a long time. And we're helping people kind of punch holes in their processes to get the light and the insight from the public back into their newsroom in as many ways as they're able, willing, and committed to doing.
Regan-Porter: I appreciate the shift in how I phrased the question you asked. Because that, how you phrase things and the perspective you come at it makes such a big difference. I mean, I’ve—in thinking about my own organization as we seek to serve members and also as newsrooms really seek to serve their communities, focus groups have very limited value. There's the old Steve Jobs quote or, well, there's even a Ford quote. You just ask people what they want, they're going to tell you some improvement on what they've always done, you know, a faster buggy, etc. And I'm thinking about things like, I heard Tampa Bay reporters talking about the Pulitzer-winning reporting they did on the education system there. And I'm reading Invisible Child right now, which is a Pulitzer-winning book about some families in the welfare system in New York. And in both of those cases, the reporters embedded themselves in those people's lives. Like they were literally at people's homes as they woke up and tried to get to school. And that, you know, that's kind of a core tenet of design thinking, is you don't just ask people, you don't just send out surveys. You actually try to go through all kinds of methods to figure out what are the real pressure points, what are the needs? And I just want to throw that out and see if you had any reaction to that.
… a newsroom needs to have multiple ways that they're listening to the public because there's no one way that's going to do it all.
Brandel: Yeah, I mean, it reminds me, I've been wanting to write this piece for about the last year, kind of about a portfolio of listening. You know, so I think a lot of people who are strategic about how they deploy their finances and how they make money and whatnot. Like you always hear about having a diversified portfolio. Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Don't, you know, put every effort into the same thing. I think the same thing as to insights as to what people are getting. And I think about it across a few different dimensions. So I feel like a newsroom needs to have multiple ways that they're listening to the public because not, there's no one way that's going to do it all. You know, focus groups are really good for depth. If you're able to spend some, a lot of time with people, you might be able to go really deep on one subject, but they take so much effort. And they don't always result in content, and you're not able to do them very frequently because they're expensive. There are other things like the Hearken engagement management system in which you can have it on 24-7 and it's very low effort and it yields questions that turn into content. And so that's a way of having a very lightweight thing, but you're not getting like super deep insights just from that interaction because people are just writing in a question or two. But in the follow-ups that you do with those people, you can get very deep insights. So it's kind of like thinking, you know, we have an exercise that we do with some of our customers in a workshop around looking at their portfolio of listening and how are they listening and who gets those insights and does it turn into content? Does it have value? How much effort are you putting in? Oftentimes when we do these exercises, people are like, oh my God, I'm putting in a 10 out of 10 effort for something that's resulting in content very rarely. And that's a wake-up call, you know, as to how to align your time as efficiently as possible. So I do think focus groups can be valuable, but they vary. You know, if you end up being like people want more education coverage and you tell that to your education reporter, they're like, “I do education reporting like coverage every day. You know, that does not help me.” So really you have to get specific, is where I think questions come into play because they're specific calls to action and something a newsroom can actually use.
Regan-Porter: Yeah, absolutely. Let me do a quick time check. We could probably spend a lot of time talking about election coverage and… (Oh, yeah.) What's your hard stop?
Brandel: I have about 15 more minutes if that's okay.
Regan-Porter: Yeah, and if we need to and you're open to it, we could maybe do a part two. Okay. So let's discuss the sort of pivot. Well, I don't know if this is so much a pivot. Let's talk a little bit about how you got more involved in the tech world and then Zebra's Unite and sort of the whole startup world. A couple years after you were in Macon, I heard you on, I forget the name of the podcast. I think it was a Gimlet version.
Brandel: Zigzag or The Pitch?
Regan-Porter: The Pitch. And so what did you learn from sort of getting involved in that world, and how did Zebra's Unite come about?
… it was very hard to find investors there because in part people might say, “Oh, I want impact. I want things to be different and better.” But they weren't doing things differently.
Brandel: Oh, man. Well, Zebra's Unite came about in part because of the company that Hearken is and I've been trying to steward all these years, did not fit the typical Silicon Valley narrative. And I actually got into an accelerator program right after I left WBEZ and was part of the reason I left was like, Oh, there's a little bit of money here for me to try and make this into a business. And what I quickly learned was that there was this model that was very pervasive, despite it not being successful 99.9% of the time, in which you try to go big and get scale and achieve what's called a quote-unquote unicorn company, billion dollar valuation, which you can think of Uber, Facebook, all these things that have these giant valuations. But at the end of the day, you can look at their revenue and they might not even be good companies if you're looking at it traditionally in terms of what's coming in and what's going out. So when I was trying to find investors for Hearken, because we're building a technology and that's inherently expensive to do, even if you're offshoring your development. It's something that you can't just necessarily bootstrap unless you're a founder who knows how to code and or you have family wealth or friends and family who can give you some money. And I didn't have any of those things. I wasn't a coder. I didn't come from wealth. I didn't have people I could call and ask for a few hundred thousand dollars on an experiment. And so I needed to try and raise money. And women only get like less than 2% of venture capital that's out there, which is—I could go off on an hour-long screed about why that is and how much different the world would be if just that statistic were changed. But so I already had the odds stacked against me in many different ways. And then I found the odds stacked against me in a values approach in that when I started doing the reporting or diligence on this venture capital model and at the end of the day, I kept asking like to what end, to what end? Like what are people doing this for? And essentially, it's to help make the people, the rich people who gave you money to start with even richer if you exit, which perpetuates a status quo and which more often than not benefits white wealthy males. And so to me, I was like, I'm not building a company to enrich white wealthy males. That's not why I exist. In fact, that's kind of flies in the face of a lot of the things we're trying to do with this organization and distributing power and access and resources and information and all that stuff. And so myself and another entrepreneur, Mara Zepeda, met up at this conference called the SOCAP, Social Capital Conference in San Francisco. And we both had companies that were trying to make the world a better place, that were arguably impact driven companies. And it was very hard to find investors there because in part people might say, “Oh, I want impact. I want things to be different and better.” But they weren't doing things differently. And so we put out kind of a creed in terms of an essay about startup culture and just kind of pointing out what both of us—Mara had been a reporter at Planet Money and WHYY as well as starting her own tech company. We had very similar trajectories. And a lot of people read that essay called “Sex and Startups.” And it kind of started, I don't know if I can say revolution yet, but it started a movement of many people around the world. We have like 6,000, 7,000 people on our online network and 20 some chapters around the world of Zebra's Unite, which are these companies that we say have zebra values. We needed to come up with a different mascot than a unicorn. So zebras are different in that unlike unicorns, they're real, like they exist in the world and they really survive through cooperation and collaboration. So zebras in the wild are called a dazzle when they're in a group and that's how they evade predators. And they're black and white. So they can be for purpose and for profit. It doesn't have to be one or the other. There's lots of other things about zebras that are exciting. And in part, Mara's last name is Zepeda, Z-E. My last name is Brandel, B-R-A. So we're also zebra, both our last names. Lots of fun little tidbits in there. But putting this call to action out there, we started by talking about what we're dissatisfied with. And then it took us about a year of listening to and hearing back from others. We used the Hearken approach and asked other people about their feedback and input and questions. Got 2,000 responses from entrepreneurs saying, I agree, I want a different way. And so we started building it with them. And now we're a multi-stakeholder cooperative as well as a nonprofit. And trying to come up with the capital products that help startups like ours thrive, especially for women and underrepresented or underestimated founders who don't have access to the wealth that are building companies that require technology on some level and don't have the ability to pay for it. So sorry, that was a long-winded answer. That's been happening on nights and weekends since almost since we started Hearken.
Regan-Porter: And for context, for listeners who don't know, the venture capital world, they're looking for 10x returns at a minimum. They want businesses that scale exponentially, which a lot of news and social investments tend not to scale exponentially. They can scale linearly. Did you actually find that expectation of 10x returns also in the social capital world?
Brandel: Yeah, not 10x, but still an X. Still a significant X, whether it's 3 to 5x, or some other way that they can look at it and make their money back much higher than they would in any other way of investing. And also, there's just so many different flavors that are out there, that are being done by these capital innovators around the country who are doing loan loss reserves or they're pooling funds together to create an enhanced credit facility so people can get loans or low interest lines of credit. There's character-based lending, which has proven to be very effective and much better payback than other forms. So, long story short, there's a lot of innovation bubbling up on the ground, but it hasn't reached kind of critical mass for folks who might have some disposable income who want to invest, all the way up to the giant institutions that are investing and are still waiting for someone else to prove it out before they'll risk doing something different. So, it's also… I see the work of Hearken and Zebras Unite being intimately related, even though probably most people in the journalism world have no idea about that other world that I'm in and vice versa. But I think over time, the Venn diagram will begin to overlap more and more as news organizations need to think about different structures of ownership and governance and control. So, there are some newsrooms experimenting with the co-op model of being multi-stakeholder owned, and I think we'll see more, hopefully, in the next decade or so.
Regan-Porter: Yeah. The reports I've seen, as an industry, we've done a little bit better job on gender diversity on the reporter side, less so, very much less so in terms of ownership and C-suite. Yeah. And terrible, I think, across the board on racial and ethnic diversity. Based on your work with Zebras United and just your work with newsrooms in general, what are some sort of bottom line takeaways you would give to newsrooms, tips you would give to newsrooms who are looking to diversify their newsrooms and news organizations, top to bottom?
But I would challenge people to think more about the problems that are there to be solved, that can be solved by people who have lived experience and who have a point of view that they're bringing and who have talent and genius that have yet to be recognized or given an opportunity, what that world could look like when everyone's able to contribute to the best of their ability.
Brandel: I think I would initially ask people to really be reflective about why diversity matters, because I think there's probably some understanding of, people understand, like, it's not just for people to not have opportunities to be doing these jobs. They get paid more, that have a lot more opportunity to build generational wealth or cache or all those things. I think there's probably a lot of people who understand just on a very basic level that diversity is good because not having it is unjust. But I would challenge people to think more about the problems that are there to be solved, that can be solved by people who have lived experience and who have a point of view that they're bringing and who have talent and genius that have yet to be recognized or given an opportunity, what that world could look like when everyone's able to contribute to the best of their ability. So to me, it's like, I would love a world—won't happen in my lifetime, or maybe ever—but in which everyone has an equal right to imagine and create the future. And right now, we're very far off from that. And so I think a lot of times people will look at DEI work or, you know, representation as like, we have to do this because it's a moral thing, but I don't know how. But I think if you actually see examples of this happening and what things in the world have been made possible when people have been elevated to positions of power and, you know, rightfully earned them, it's just magnificent. It's so cool. It's amazing to see like what's possible. So I don't know, I'd say start off with really interrogating why it's important because I think you'll probably need both a source of energy to do this work for the long haul that is, you know, prophylactic, so to speak. You're protecting yourself from not having a bad future just because you're trying to not have the same continue, but really an aspirational future too of what is possible when these things happen. And really clocking those wins that are happening when people are in power who typically have not gotten into power and what changes are possible to be made.
… engagement is one intermediate step, in that if you don't have a newsroom that adequately reflects the demographics of who you're trying to serve, you can still involve them in the storymaking process, even if they're not on staff, by inviting them into the process of creating your journalism.
And then I think too that like engagement is part of the puzzle. So it's not possible for every newsroom to fire everyone on their staff and rehire completely in a way that will demographically represent who they're trying to serve. Although I would welcome a newsroom to try that. That would be so cool to see. I'd feel bad for the people who lost their jobs, of course, but like, you know, I think that would be a really bold thing to try. But I mean, the class question is going to hang over us for a long time as well as, you know, who's coming in and what class are they in and coming from and their language expertise, etc. Sorry, I lost a little bit of track. Let me go back to engagement. And that engagement is one intermediate step in that if you don't have a newsroom that adequately reflects the demographics of who you're trying to serve, you can still involve them in the storymaking process, even if they're not on staff by inviting them into the process of creating your journalism. So I wrote a piece with Jennifer Kho, who's now at WBEZ/Sun-Times, on that in Neiman Reports. But it really is a way of diversifying as you're working on having your staff and your leadership and your board and your owners or whoever it is, all the way up the chain, start to better reflect the brilliance that is out there that is not currently reflected in those positions.
Regan-Porter: I just want to give a hearty amen to the engagement piece of that, because a lot of us who've had to hire have dealt with the pipeline problem. And sometimes (use that as) an excuse to not do to do the work to get a diverse pool. But there is a pipeline problem. And I think absolutely part of that answer is also the answer to our self-identity of what news is. And it's not just, it's not broadcast. It's not the expert talking to the masses. It should be a platform for the community to get the news and information that it needs. And the entire community and all of its variety should be participating in a platform way that they, you know, we need to turn over the mic or the different pages to some of the community and let them tell us what they know and what they need to know and engage in the community.
Brandel: Oh, my gosh. Well, on that note, you've got me so excited to read this study on Hearken and our partners that just came out on November 23rd called “Curious Citizens: Whose Voices Are Heard in ‘People-Powered’ Public Media?” And what they found in the abstract—and I need to get the whole piece, I haven't had a chance to read it yet—is that in stories produced by public radio stations using Hearken sources with lived experience exceeded recent patterns of elite versus non-elite sourcing and commercial and public media. So the translation is doing this approach means more people are heard in your reporting that are not the people who are already being heard.
Regan-Porter: Yeah, great. I want to read that myself. So I think I would like to do a part two, maybe closer to, as the primary season starts picking up. But I'd like to end with maybe a couple of questions on election coverage since we're just a month out from the past election, with recounts still going on and a runoff ending tomorrow. And then I want to end with a couple of rapid-fire questions. You know, we're primarily concerned with local news and not how the big TV networks or the national papers have done. But overall, how would you—let me back up. So, what a couple of years ago, you became very animated about election coverage. You and Jay Rosen wrote some pieces together about, it's all horse race (coverage) and we're not we're not following a citizen's agenda. That we're not we're not doing that very thing we've been talking about, which is understanding what the community needs and wants. So you started you started Election SOS. How would you grade the media overall and how they've handled the elections this year?
Brandel: God, that's so, such a good question, a hard question. Because in part I have been so in the weeds working with newsrooms to try and help them get away from horse-race coverage and to do things differently. And we're just starting to get our impact reports. And tomorrow, actually, we have a big gathering for Democracy SOS newsrooms, so a related initiative. Twenty-two newsrooms we worked with to do things differently. And I'm starting to read through them and get very excited as to what they did and how much that impacted their coverage. But, you know, twenty two newsrooms is a drop of a drop in the bucket of all the different news organizations putting out messages, you know, in the last year and reporting around elections. So I don't know that I'm equipped to say overall. But what I can say is that things I was very heartened by—almost silly. Sometimes it's like our success is by what didn't happen versus by what did. But what didn't happen is a lot of newsrooms committed to not doing horse race coverage and doing alternatives. So that's, that's a win. Another thing is that democracy was, quote unquote, on the ballot this year. So that was a big fear and that people didn't understand what was at stake in certain races in terms of candidates who wanted to dismantle the very foundations of what makes democracy possible. And that people overwhelmingly voted against those candidates. And through Election SOS, Democracy SOS, Democracy Day—another initiative me and Hearken were part of—we've helped hundreds of newsrooms around the country report on the stakes and the threats to democracy. So my hope is that that made some difference. And I can't say it made the difference because you never know. And I don't think that could be. But I do think we're edging in the right direction. It's funny. I was staying in an Airbnb this weekend for a friend's baby shower. And on the bedroom of the room I was staying in, there's a timeline of the history of the world. And it had like, you know, all the years back to like the Big Bang and, you know, dinosaurs and different empires and whatnot. And it really is remarkable. You know, when I think to myself, God, the news industry is not changing fast enough. Like, you know, all these sorts of things that I get really impatient about is like, it is—a lot has changed in the last few years. Do I wish it were faster? Do I think it could be faster? Absolutely. But like, you know, what do I expect? Human beings have only been around for a hot minute in the grand scheme of things. And, you know, we have a lot of pressures on our lives besides trying to figure out new ways to do our work among the other demands. So I think that there's reason to hope, but there's also a lot of threat in the next few years, specifically into losing the start of this experiment, losing a lot of ground on the start of this experiment we call American democracy. If newsrooms and journalists aren't careful.
Regan-Porter: And just to tease the conversation I hope we have later, it used to be, the saying was all politics is local, but politics has increasingly become nationalized. Even journalists who are in the trenches think about political coverage, we think about, you know, the big national newspapers, Politico. We think of the national races. But if anything has been reinforced over the past few years, it's that school board, county election officials, all of those things matter. And so this isn't just the responsibility of those who are covering presidential and senatorial and congressional races, that we need to think about. How do we get a set of agenda for the school board, for the city council, county commission, etc.?
… you asked me what Hearken does…. We want to help democratize systems and get more people participating in them so that more voices are heard and more informed decisions and solutions can be created.
Brandel: Absolutely. Absolutely. And if anyone listening has a grant or a founda— No, but I completely agree with you that it is—at the end of the day—I mean, you asked me what Hearken does. And, you know, depending on the audience, I'll say different versions of it. But we want to help democratize systems and get more people participating in them so that more voices are heard and more like informed decisions and solutions can be created. And so I think all of this work that we've done over the many years comes down to participatory processes, which is what a democracy promises, but has yet to deliver in full. So I would be excited to have that conversation as we come up to the primaries and have a ton of data about what newsrooms did in 2022 for the midterms and hopefully some lessons for 2024 that won't be too hard to put into play before that very consequential election.
Regan-Porter: All right. So let me ask you some rapid fire questions. And your answers don't have to necessarily be short, but the questions will be will be quick.
Brandel: I'll try and be short. I've been very long-winded.
Regan-Porter: And apologies to the many, many podcasts I'm stealing these from.
Brandel: Oh, great. No credit to, not apologies.
Regan-Porter: Yeah. Compared to a year ago, are you more or less optimistic about the state or the future of local news?
Brandel: Hmm. In the short term, less optimistic. In the long term, more.
Regan-Porter: Oh, yeah, I do. I do want to hear a little expansion of that.
Brandel: Well, I think we're going to continue to see a lot of the economic pressures, especially if we're entering a recession, like it looks like we might be. That there might be more, well, there's likely to be many more jobs to be cut, maybe newsrooms to be shuttered in the short term. But I also think there is a bigger galvanizing wave that will take a while to mature and hopefully many waves of funding support, policy change that can really help fortify a foundation for local news and maybe even revive it and have a renaissance of it. But I don't think that's in the short term.
Regan-Porter: What is one thing you believe that most people you know don't, that akes you very much an outlier?
Regan-Porter: Doesn't have to be about journalism.
Brandel: OK, all right, good. That celery is bitter. No, a real one would be that. I mean, ultimately, that I think the best politicians are the best listeners, not the best talkers.
Regan-Porter: Do you have a favorite failure of yours, one that you put you on a different trajectory or something like that?
Brandel: Oh, my gosh, so many. Oh, man. I mean, it's so tough because you're always taught like a failure is just an opportunity to change. I feel like I've overwritten the word failure in my mind to be, like, learning, experience. Yeah, but I think. You know, probably my failure to go into a newsroom and just try and trying to kick ass at the current game they were playing led me to create a different game to play. Because I just, I wasn't, I don't think I was going to be good at the way that it was set up in part because I disagreed with the values. So I was not good at being a traditional journalist.
Regan-Porter: What's the best piece of advice you've been given, career advice or life advice?
David Cohn … talked about a company not needing to be a business at the end of the day, but it can be more like an art project and a critique of the status quo. And that even just starting a company as an art project as a way of saying, “Here's how the world could be different.”
Brandel: One that I love, there's, it's hard to say best because there's so many that just come out of the blue all the time. But David Cohn, who started a lot of different awesome new startups and has been a mentor of mine over the years, talked about a company not needing to be a business at the end of the day, but it can be more like an art project and like a critique of the status quo. And that even just, you know, starting a company as an art project as a way of saying, here's how the world could be different. And in showing it in that way has been a way that I've kept going after many difficult and nearly existential threats to Hearken. And saying, you know what, at the end of the day, if we did an art project that changed the conversation, that's cool. That was worthwhile. So I don't know. I like him rewriting the stakes to making this be a social commentary rather than like the goal is to become a highly profitable business. Because like at the end of the day, I don't care about that. I care about practices and behaviors changing.
Regan-Porter: I love that. Are there any routine pieces of advice you hear that you think of as bad advice?
I feel like I hear that over and over again, “our job is to give voice to the voiceless.” No, your job is to actually shut the hell up and listen and let those people tell their own stories.
Brandel: Hmm. That's a great question. I'm sure, I'm sure there are. I always hate it when people say give voice to the voiceless because it's like, people have always had a voice. It's just you're not listening. So I feel like I hear that over and over again. Like our job is to give voice to the voiceless. Like, no, your job is to actually shut the hell up and listen and let those people tell their own stories. Those people is in everyone else outside of, you know, your news org that you feel like you're being a savior to. Yeah. So it's not a piece of advice, but more like a thing I hear in the industry that makes me want to pull my hair out.
Regan-Porter: Yeah, no, that's good. One of the things I've become increasingly worried about for our industry is mental health. It's always tough being a journalist and tough being a startup founder, as you well know. But in an era of “media is the enemy” and then add on top of that, the economic pressures, w here even a sports photographer in Texas not that many years ago was accosted, someone calling him the enemy because of political perceptions. So, what do you do for self care? What's your favorite go-to?
Brandel: Oh, well, I think one of my favorite go-tos, and this is a new one for me, because I am a new mother, but an elderly mother, according to the medical establishment, is to be fully in the world and to be away from screens and away from input that is not material in my hands. So playing with my daughter, coloring, doing things that are just like really bodily, like tangible in the world has been really, really good for me. But on that note, I think also doing inner work, whenever possible, or practical, around you know reflection, asking myself why I'm doing something because oftentimes the answer will change or I'll be like, “No, it doesn't make sense anymore. I should change something.” So I think doing occasional like self-audits as to what my goals are, what my risk tolerance is, and kind of where my energy is at and just being really honest. So those are two things going in and going very much outside of screens.
Regan-Porter: Yeah. Well, for what it's worth as someone who had his first kid at 43, I don't have the energy I would have had if I'd had my daughter younger. But I think I am so much more emotionally prepared to be a father. And I think I'm a better father because of that. So I'm actually kind of a fan of late parenthood for that reason.
Brandel: That's great to hear. So far, I've been just absolutely delighted and don't know if and how I could have done it earlier. So I’m glad for the timing.
Regan-Porter: Just a couple more. Are there creative measures of success you've used with people you've managed?
Brandel: Yeah, I think I have. I mean, part of it has been, you know, in different one on ones or different iterations of Hearken, we've had some practices around asking people like what their internal battery is, is like and kind of what's charging it. So trying to understand to what degree people feeling excited by, challenged by, and it's still like still fulfilled by the job description, as we wrote it, and then also asking people, what are the things you're curious to learn about that could like charge your battery? You know, it might not be less effort, but it's a different kind of effort because it's fun or interesting or new. And trying to help people be a combination of the job we needed and the person they are and how they can help use this opportunity to further their self actualization, even if it's not part of their day-to-day job. And then I think the relationship measure, this is something like it hasn't been formali zed, but I just talked to a former employee out of our Danish office. And he was telling me that he's had like, you know, he and other Hearkeners have had little get togethers and folks who used to be on the team getting together, supporting each other, checking in, giving each other references and, you know, a lot of our former staffers work at the same company together. So I feel like a measure of success I'm proud of is that a lot of the people who have come through Hearken over the years and, you know, advanced in their careers and gone different directions, have wanted to stay in touch and have found their colleagues to be like really wonderful people that they want to have as part of their life. So to me, I don't know, I have a no assholes rule, you know, that I've tried, tried over the years to always be mindful of, you know, you don't always catch them all the beginning. But, you know, I think overall, I've just been really blessed to be surrounded by really caring, thoughtful people. And to me, it's a measure of success that the people who have worked together want to continue to be in one another's lives.
Regan-Porter: Yeah, that's great. And then finally, I meant to send you this question in advance. So my apologies for not but I'm riffing on Ezra Klein's final question on his podcast and instead of three books, instead of just books, media. So, podcasts, newsletters, movies, whatever you want. So three to five pieces of media that you would recommend.
Brandel: Oh, I love this. Okay, well, I'll start with a book. I've been reading and really excited by Anand Giridharadas's new book called The Persuaders. And that's a really excellent book about how people are doing bridge building work, you know, in an age in which people like to call you out for not being purist enough, but to make real change happen, bridge building. I am obsessed with there's only three episodes of it. I hope there's many more of this new podcast from Ian Chilog and Mike Danforth who are two of the minds behind we don't tell me. Okay, let me find the name of it. Make sure I get this website or this new podcast that they have the title right. It's called “In the Scenes Behind Plain Sight.” And it's a series from PRX. That is basically a satire of two people who had a TV show back in the day doing a rewatch podcast, but they don't actually have had a TV show. Anyway, it's hysterical. It's getting me through this last part of the year. Man. I'm trying to think of other films and I mean I'm a huge documentary fan. As my husband works in documentary film, I'm trying to think of anything I've seen recently. Oh, Fire of Love is a really beautiful documentary movie about two volcanologists and Miranda July narrates it. It's just really lovely and meaningful. Alright, I'm gonna see if there's one more. Amanda Ripley's article that went around the Washington Post a while ago, let me find it. Where she basically asked, am I the problem or is the media the problem? “I stopped reading the news. Is the problem me?” That's what it's called, from July 8. I keep returning back to that great article and the many conversations that it's encouraged. Yeah. Those are a handful.
And I'll just throw in for people needing a palate cleanser after the election, the documentary your husband worked on about Mr. Rogers would be highly recommended. What's the name of that documentary?
Brandel: Won't You Be My Neighbor? Yeah, that one I should return to again. It centers the heart.
Regan-Porter: Yes, absolutely. Well, thank you very much.
Brandel: Yeah, thanks so much. And sorry, I have a hard time being brief, even having worked in the media. So I don't envy your editing.
Regan-Porter: Well, my favorite thing about podcasts is when people aren't brief. Brandel: Right?
Regan-Porter: After 2016, I was so OD'd at just refreshing news sites, FiveThirtyEight and all the others. I started to feel empathy with my parents who had fallen into the Fox News hole during the Obama years. I’m like, “Oh, this is what they're feeling like.” They just want some reinforcement that the whole world hasn't gone crazy, that they're not alone. And that's how I felt
Regan-Porter: on the other side. So I shut down my daily news consumption and went to podcasts and books.
Brandel:Yes, totally. I'm doing more of that myself. If you do need a funny, totally non-news-related podcast, check out In the Scenes Behind Plain Sight.
Regan-Porter: I'll have to do that. Do you know Eve Perlman, Spaceship Media? Brandel: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Regan-Porter: She's got a podcast. She's not hosting it.
Brandel: Totally. It's on my list to listen to. So yeah, I really look forward to listening to that.
Regan-Porter: Yeah, it's pretty fascinating. I'm gonna be talking to her and the reporter soon.
Brandel: Oh, awesome. Oh, good. That's great. Right on.
Brandel: Well, thanks so much, Tim.
Fact check by Bay Edwards and Rachel Pickarski (no transcript)
Tim Regan-Porter: Thank you for listening to the Local News Matters Podcast. And, Jennifer, thank you for a great conversation and for all that you do for your clients, the news ecosystem and communities around the world.
The next full episode will feature Eve Pearlman and Erica Anderson of Spaceship Media. We talk about their fascinating new 6-part podcast, The Wedge (which was teased a minute ago) and the work they do to use journalism to bridge divides.
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