by Bridget Thoreson
Editor’s Note: Though Curious City is not the newest example of engagement work out there, it is one of the most influential. Several other newsrooms launched their own Curious projects as a result of its success, and Jennifer Brandel would go on to co-found Hearken. It’s included in our Case Study listings because of its foundational value.
Jennifer Brandel wanted to know: what would happen if the public was brought in to the editorial process? As an independent producer and reporter at WBEZ in Chicago, the question had weighed on her, and in 2012 she founded Curious City through an initiative with the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR). The one-year experiment solicited questions from the public, which were curated and voted on. The people who asked the questions that were chosen for stories then joined journalists during the reporting process. At the end of the year, WBEZ decided to continue Curious City, and its success led Brandel to start Hearken in 2015.
Project Goals: Brandel wanted to understand a) how early the public could be included in the editorial process and b) what would happen if members of the public accompanied professional reporters as they worked on stories. “The outcome that I wanted was just to prove to the newsroom that the public deserves to be involved in decision-making, and their presence can improve the stories created” Brandel said.
Tools and Technology: Curious City now uses Hearken.
- Curious City produced quality stories. The stories generated by the audience-driven model were well-received, winning awards and making up a disproportionately large portion of the station’s most popular stories, including its highest-performing story to date.
- It gave the newsroom a fresh way of reporting. The questions submitted and voted on by the public gave the station the ability to pursue stories it would not have been able to otherwise, and differentiated their content from competitors. Having the public come along on reporting forced reporters to question what they knew and also allowed sources to drop the jargon and speak in a more accessible way.
- It engaged the audience in a new way. The program generated thousands of votes, questions and email addresses from listeners. Some participated in unexpected ways, such as a man who wrote a song about the story they were working on, which they then incorporated into the radio story.
Organization Background: WBEZ is a National Public Radio affiliate serving the Chicago metropolitan area, with nearly 85,000 member listeners. Its annual budget was $25.5 million as of 2017, with just over half of revenue coming from membership contributions.”
Project Resources: For its first year, Curious City was supported by $100,000 from AIR, which covered Brandel, two events at $2,000 each, a paid intern and supplies. The project also had a station editor halftime, workspaces at WBEZ, and the contributions of several station employees.
Here’s how it happened
Brandel, who did not have a journalism background, was jarred by the power she suddenly had to select and shape stories upon making her way into the newsroom as a member of the editorial team. “I never quite got over that power, and never felt like I could or should make the best decisions on behalf of so many people whose lives are unlike mine,” she said. Curious City was one of several ideas she had for the AIR initiative. She discussed her ideas with Torey Malatia, then GM at WBEZ, who encouraged her to flesh out the Curious City proposal.
The potential for Curious City to scale into something larger was a major reason Brandel chose to pursue it. “I always thought if it worked in Chicago, then it could work elsewhere.”
After the first year was up, WBEZ decided to continue Curious City, and hired Brandel full-time, plus a full-time editor and multimedia producer.
Here’s what worked
1. Start with the public, not the newsroom, and include them throughout the journalistic process.
Asking citizens for their questions opened up the news gathering process. The questions also broke outside of established beats, crossing categories of hard and soft news. Not only did the public contribute great questions to explore, but Brandel found involving them in the reporting improved the process.
While bringing the person who asked the question along on reporting made it more complicated, it also helped loosen sources up, Brandel said. Instead of stiffly answering a reporter’s questions with jargon-heavy responses, people used to dealing with the media would become more real when talking to a non-journalist. It also meant that reporters did not have to be the ones asking and justifying potentially uncomfortable questions.
2. Time to reflect.
The Curious City team set aside time every week to reflect on, and learn from, their work.
3. Taking an experimental attitude toward everything they did.
For its first year, the goal of Curious City was simply to figure out what worked. There was no greater metric that the group was attempting to meet.
“The genius design of Localore (the initiative Curious City was part of thanks to AIR) was they gave people protection for a year to experiment and fail without killing the project or assigning me to something else. We had time to learn and improve,” Brandel said. She intentionally referred to Curious City as an experiment, and was then free to test out different approaches.
Here’s what could work better
1. Finding support in the newsroom.
“There was just a feeling of excitement where the audience really responded to it and loved it, the board members loved it, but some of the staff had mixed feelings,” Brandel said. Some of that response was due to the way this audience-based approach upended the traditional way news has been produced.
“News has been optimized over decades for production, for doing things in a certain way, and when you change the rules of the game, it can upset people,” Brandel said. Instead of looking at the number of stories they had to produce, Curious City required the journalists to produce stories differently. She found the best way to get people involved was to look for those were interested and excited about the work and invite them in.
2. Asking for more when applying for grants.
Once it was time to apply for grants after the first year was over, Brandel found everything takes longer and is more expensive than you expect. She pointed out it’s just as hard to ask for $50,000 as $25,000 – so ask for $50,000.
“We all need to get a little more bold with asking for more,” she said. “Swing for the fences and if you get a little less, that’s fine.”
Here’s what else you should know
- The right environment: An organization trying a project like Curious City needs to be truly excited about the idea of involving the public. “I feel like people only change out of inspiration or desperation,” Brandel said. It works best at the places that have inspiration, where the person doing the work is interested in it and has the support of management to try something different.
- Direct interaction: While metrics tell about what people did in the past, Brandel thinks engaging with people one-on-one can be more valuable. “You get to learn a lot more when you’re working with people face-to-face,” she said. “I favor the kind of engagement that is the direct experience versus the kind where you just have a trail that someone did something, but you don’t know why.”
- One piece of advice: If Brandel could travel back to tell herself something as she was starting Curious City, it would be this: “Keep going.”
Get in touch with Jennier Brandel on Twitter to learn more about the project. Also be sure to check out this podcast from Current’s The Pub (skip ahead to the 20 minute mark) and this article from Fast Company.