The juicy questions that got me curious

For nearly a decade, I’ve been reporting for public media. And for the past few years, some juicy questions about journalism, democracy and the potential role of “the people formerly known as the audience” have been dogging me. To get less annoyingly abstract, these are a few of the questions I’ve been marinating in the brain:

  • What if newsrooms could know what stories their audiences want before they’ve assigned and devoted their reporting resources?
  • What if newsrooms shared their power to assign stories with the public so there weren’t only a handful of brains determining the information that thousands of people, sometimes millions, received?
  • What if newsrooms actually invited the public along for the reporting (yes, physically) and got to learn from the audience in place, during the reporting process?
  • What if newsrooms were willing to expose what they were working on, pre-publication and allow the public to additionally shape and contribute to reporting?

These questions (and more) are what my intrepid colleagues and I have devoted our time to experiment in answering at WBEZ (Chicago Public Media) via the series I started there called Curious City. Thanks to the Association of Independents in Radio (aka AIR) and their ground-breaking Localore initiative, I was given a year’s time and funding to battle deep, implicit newsroom norms, attempting to twist and improve upon the relationship and dynamics between media outlets and their consumers, experts and laypeople, authorities and everyone else. WBEZ proved a tremendously supportive station to incubate these ideas, and with an amazing editor (Shawn Allee) and hyper-versatile multimedia producer (Logan Jaffe), I’m happy and relieved to report our rogue band got traction.

Curious City was one of 10 experiments launched within public media from AIR’s Localore initiative.

Three of many learnings

We’ve learned a lot these past few years, and I could spend hours on the intricacies of each insight. But for the sake of brevity and your attention span here are a quick top three:

  • Our audience has amazing story ideas. You might be led to believe with the popularity of cat videos and celebrity baby pics, that if you asked the audience to pitch you what they wanted to see, it’d be facile, lowest-common-denominator stuff. Not so. We learned this by simply inviting the public to tell us what they want reported. We chose to accept these story pitches in the form of questions because curiosity is a more neutral stance from which to start a story, and it’s a contagious force that naturally compels humans to lean in … and get curious. Plus — you can imagine how differently this experiment would go if we just said “send us your story ideas.”
A voting round comprised of audience questions for WBEZ’s Curious City.
A very popular story for WBEZ’s Curious City answered a question about the urban physics of “bus bunching” — when multiple buses arrive at the same stop at once even though they're supposed to run on schedules.
  • Working with our audience directly leads to positive outcomes during and after reporting. Understandably, some people thought I was nuts to suggest that the people who asked winning questions physically accompanied reporters. What if they compromised a source? What if they were nuts? What if … ahhh there’s so much that could go wrong! Well, our trust in the fundamental goodness of human beings has been rewarded many times over. Yes, scheduling is more complicated and stories take a little longer on average to produce, but the benefits are varied and deep. Not only does inviting another brain along on a reporting trip yield more, and often better, questions for sources, it also creates a direct point of connection for reporters. They suddenly aren’t reporting a story into a void — they’re reporting for Jerome or Andrea or Jaemey. That difference is hard to overstate. I see (and personally feel when reporting) a new vitality and purpose within my pieces. I craft the reporting and final story for a real person, and I’m invested in making sure it satisfies their curiosity.

And for those who get the chance to ask a question and get their story answered, they’re thrilled! Journalists have a superpower that’s all too easy to forget when you’ve been in the industry a while: we get to ask questions of anyone and everyone and get answers without any further justification than “I’m a reporter.” We get to do things like crawl around in old theater basements looking for tunnels that gangsters, maybe even Al Capone, used because we’re “the media.” The awesomeness of this privilege cannot be overstated, and I believe, it deserves to be shared. There’s so much more I could say about the benefits of involving audience: like how when you involve outsiders they become authentic advocates for your story and your news outlet — and use their social media and social capital to spread the word about the fact you care about what they think, and that you served them well (a marketer’s dream!). And how, sometimes, having them start the story you report changes their life. And how when you bump into them in the grocery store, months after having met them, they give you a bear hug.

WBEZ reporter Odette Yousef reporting in the field with a source about Chicago’s original Chinatown locaion.

OK so now what?

Curious City has been successful for WBEZ by pretty much every measure (hedging here because we don’t know what we don’t know). And over the past few years I’ve received umpteen inquiries by other newsrooms and freelancers who grasp the power and possibility of this model, and want to apply it to their work. Well — up until January of 2015, I was spending my days producing WBEZ’s Curious City podcast and broadcast while trying to figure out how to scale the model.

I’m thrillfied (thrilled, yet also terrified) to say I’ve taken the leap of faith into entrepreneurship and have launched my own company, Curious Nation, to try to take these tools and learning beyond WBEZ to other media outlets. Already we have some great partners testing the model within the public media system, and they’re having similarly great success as WBEZ has had. (HT to AIR for funding help from the New Enterprise Grant for StoryMakers)

Team Curious Nation from left to right: Founder & CEO Jennifer Brandel, CEO Corey Haines, Lead Developer Sam Withrow.

And we’ve got a terrific team in place to build the next level of the company. I’m joined by CTO Corey Haines and Lead Developer Sam Withrow. Combined these two huge-brained and huge-hearted technologists have nearly 40 years of web development experience.

The makings of a curiosity manifesto

While at this fetal stage of the company, we’re still figuring a lot out, we’re confident there’s an appetite for this model and the stories it creates.

What you can hold us to, and look forward to — is a tool, platform and philosophy that believes in the following bullet points down the core (and probably many more I haven’t thought to write down, yet).

Curious Nation believes:

  • curiosity is a unique neutral stance in which to gain insight knowledge
  • asking questions is a powerful tool for human connection
  • everyone has interesting questions (aka story ideas) worth investigating, no matter their age, race, class, gender, profession or any other means of division
  • journalism is a public service
  • journalists can do a better and more direct job in serving the public
  • the power of the press and the access that comes with it should be shared
  • every newsroom should have a place at the editorial table for the public’s preferences
  • traditional, enterprise and investigative reporting as well as beat structures remain critical for our democracy, and there’s also room in the newsroom to have this bottom-up model, too
  • reporters have unique skills to synthesize information and their work is a craft and should be valued
  • stories don’t need to contain conflict to be interesting or valuable or newsworthy
  • journalists co-reporting with the public unlocks new storytelling techniques and insights
  • people value being represented in their news environment
  • journalism involves an aspect of customer service, let’s not pretend it shouldn’t
  • institutions are most powerful when they align their resources with the public interest
  • sharing what you’re reporting on as you’re reporting allows others to shape work and offer insights
  • public access to those who get to dictate the narrative of our societies is critical
  • local news is and will always be very important
  • local journalism can be more original, less of an echo chamber
  • original reporting is what will help news organizations survive and thrive, not being fastest at putting up a story that everyone else is doing, too
  • journalism has immense potential to unite but doesn’t take advantage of it
  • collaboration is the key to a healthy journalism ecosystem
  • technology should be used to facilitate more human interaction of higher quality, not to remove the need for human interaction
  • journalists / news outlets should celebrate and actively elevate the contributions of audiences
  • stories that originate through genuine wonder vs as an assignment carry a different energy
  • the news industry often inspires sadness and anger rather than curiosity
  • curiosity is the antidote for apathy
  • curiosity is contagious

Building this company, and dare I say — this movement, to create a more democratic process for newsmaking, is going to be an ever-evolving process and we hope you’ll be interested in collaborating with us at some point when the time is right. To learn what we’re up to — here’s a quick, handy form to help us keep you in the know. And of course, we Tweet, too. Here’s hoping we cross paths in the growing countryside of Curious Nation. I can report with certainty, it’s beautiful here.