by Ben DeJarnette
In 2014, Michigan Radio launched MI Curious, a public-powered news initiative that invites community members to help choose what stories get assigned (and even lets them participate in the reporting). Modeled after WBEZ’s Curious City, MI Curious uses Hearken to a) collect people’s burning questions about Michigan culture, sports, history, and other topics, and b) put the best submissions up for a vote online. The person whose question wins the voting round is then invited to work with a Michigan Radio reporter to track down the answer and share the results with listeners.
Project Goals: Mark Brush, digital media director for Michigan Radio, says the main goal for the project was to increase collaboration between the station’s digital and radio teams. “I was looking for a concrete way to bring radio and digital together on a consistent basis,” he said. “It seemed like a perfect fit for us.” The newsroom didn’t launch MI Curious with specific impact goals in mind, Brush added. “We wanted to do it more as experimentation.”
Tools & Technology: MI Curious is powered by Hearken, an “audience-driven tech platform and editorial framework that enables journalists to partner with the public throughout the reporting process.”
- MI Curious improved the station’s audience metrics: In 2015, the average Michigan Radio web story received 500 to 1,000 unique page views. MI Curious stories published during that time averaged 12,000 unique page views—and audiences engaged with the content for more than twice as long.
- MI Curious involved community members in the newsgathering process: Since the project’s launch, about six community members have actually tagged along with a newsroom reporter to help answer the question they submitted through MI Curious. “It’s not a lot—more often they just do an interview with us about why they asked the question,” Brush said. “But when they do come out it’s really cool. It makes for a really unique experience.”
- MI Curious improved Michigan Radio’s reach: Brush estimates that about half of the people who submit a question or participate in a voting round are engaging with Michigan Radio for the first time—and some of those people go on to subscribe to a newsletter or make donations.
Organization Background: Michigan Radio is an NPR member station. Its signal reaches about 80 percent of Michigan’s 10 million residents. According to Brush, the organization had total revenues of $8.3 million in 2016, 60 percent of which came from member donations.
Project Resources: MI Curious is supported by Michigan Radio’s general fund. The project doesn’t have any full-time staffers, but Brush says that he and several colleagues in the newsroom are committed to sustaining its momentum.
Here’s How it Happened
After learning about Curious City and its success in Chicago, Brush proposed downloading WBEZ’s open-source software from GitHub and launching a similar program at Michigan Radio. “My program director said, ‘Yeah, it’s a great idea, go for it,” Brush said. “So I had to carve out time in my schedule for it and try to get other reporters involved.” The project has experienced occasional interruptions, like in late 2015, when reporters were stretched thin covering the Flint water crisis. But Brush says he’s tried to maintain a once-per-month rhythm for MI Curious voting rounds.
Here’s What Worked
1. Bringing listeners along for the ride—literally
Most people who submit winning questions are happy to let the reporters do the reporting, but Mark Brush says that about 20 percent accept the invitation to tag along, either by physically accompanying the journalist on the reporting trail or by hopping on phone interviews remotely. In both cases, Brush says it’s important to get pre-approval from interviewees and to pre-screen collaborators. “You have to make sure the person you’re bringing along doesn’t have an axe to grind,” he said. Brush added that while most Michigan Radio reporters embrace the chance to co-report stories with community members, others feel squeamish about relinquishing control of an interview. Ultimately, it’s the reporter who decides how much participation to allow—and whether they want to get involved with MI Curious at all. “When it comes time to report a story, we open it up and let reporters volunteer,” Brush said.
2. Telling the story behind the question
Even when question-askers don’t participate in the reporting, Michigan Radio reporters will interview them about what inspired their question — and then include that back story in the published web and radio pieces. “I think that’s really crucial,” Brush said. “The people who are asking the questions often have an interesting story to tell themselves.” One of MI Curious’s first investigations, for example, began when a Detroit-area firefighter asked why there was such a large Arab American community in southeast Michigan. “He’d go out on calls and not be able to communicate with some of the people he was trying to help,” Brush said. “He was just curious.” As it turned out, his curiosity was no exception. The resulting web story received 13,000 page views online, and audience members spent an average of 10 minutes engaging with the story.
3. Outsourcing the back-end management
Michigan Radio built MI Curious using WBEZ’s open-source software on GitHub — but the launch wasn’t without some headaches. “We needed someone who knew Ruby on Rails, and nobody here did,” Brush said. “We found an ex-boyfriend of one of our interns who knew it, and he helped us get it online.” The in-house solution worked well enough, Brush says, but when Hearken offered to host MI Curious on its new engagement management system, switching over to the paid service was an easy call. “It’s definitely an efficiency improvement,” Brush said. “And Hearken offers more robust ways for people to interact with the tool.”
Here’s What Could Have Worked Better
1. Staffing the project with full-time editors
Unlike WBEZ’s Curious City, which has its own full-time staff, MI Curious is managed by various editors across the newsroom. And when those editors get busy with other work, MI Curious can get lost in the shuffle. “I’d love to be doing it more, but everybody here has a lot of other tasks to tackle,” Brush said. “It can be a challenge to keep the consistency going.”
Here’s What Else You Should Know
- Trivia night – In addition to promoting MI Curious on the radio and through social media, Michigan Radio has hosted trivia nights to plug the project and engage with audiences.
- Team bonding – MI Curious succeeded in its goal to facilitate collaboration between the digital and radio teams, Brush said. “It brought the two teams together pretty well for us. That was a nice benefit.”
- Curious surprises – Most MI Curious investigations, including one about the origins of the state’s infamous “Michigan Left” traffic pattern, are stories that wouldn’t otherwise get told. “I don’t think anyone in the newsroom would have pitched the Michigan Left idea to the news director,” Brush said. “Someone was just curious about it.”
Correction: A previous version of this case study mistakenly stated that MI Curious received a $50,000 launch grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It also misstated Michigan Radio’s 2016 revenue figures. Apologies for these mistakes!