Credit: Ole Bader for DIS2019

Information overload can be the bane of a journalist's existence, but so too it can drive audiences to news avoidance.

In recent times, some startups have paid attention to this and have tried to slow down the news cycle to give news audiences a breather, notes Jennifer Brandel, co-founder and CEO, Hearken, speaking at Digital Innovators' Summit today (25 March).

"As human beings, we do not want technology to be in our face all the time," said Brandel. "One of the best-read articles on The New York Times is about how people get rid of their devices."

As tempting as it is to reach for the next gadget, she reasons that the online spaces has become a land-grab for attention where content creators have the upper-hand on news organisations, who continue to be compounded by 'megatrends': low media trust, limited access to media and the economic collapse of the ad model.

"This is what we are up against as an industry," said Brandel. "Instead of being about more, faster and everywhere, news needs to change to be better, more relevant and more representative."

This also presents an opportunity. Brandel called for a process change to affect how audiences engage with the news to rebuild trust, improve access to media and construct new revenue models.

She pointed to two prominent examples in particular who have shown this to be possible: Tortoise and The Correspondent. Both organisations prioritise audience engagement and create dialogue with their readers, as a means to open up and inform their editorial strategy, which in turn drives their business model.

"News is optimised for speed and efficiency. We are thinking about the containers we need to fill and beasts we need to feed, whether that’s a smartphone, smart speakers, news columns or nightly news," she said.

"This means the audience can’t be part of that decision-making process because it wouldn’t control the optimisation for speed. We have treated the public as a consumer instead of a partner."

Hearken works with more than 150 newsrooms to offer a new operating system which is geared towards listening and responding to readers, including the BBC.

"To be relevant, you have to involve the public with the question: ‘what can we help the public understand?'" she asks.

"Traditional journalism is elevated from the public, it’s looking at them as a collection of data and dollar signs. It talks to them as if it’s their parent: ‘we know what’s good for you’."

By flipping this model she said you can serve the needs of the reader better, but it is not just a nice idea - it is good business. Audience-engaged content is 11 to 15 times more viewed by readers and has a higher subscription conversion by 56 per cent, according to Brandel.

"What we have learned is when you prioritise the relationship with the reader, value follows you everywhere," she said.

"They see themselves reflected in the coverage, they know they are being listened to. Advertisers will pay a premium to be seen alongside this content, to have their name and their brand in the spaces where the public is being served, sometimes up to $200,000.

"The best part is when you involve the public and they have taken part in your story, they will become the best marketers you could ever imagine. They’ll tell all of their friends if they’re referenced in a story and bridge you to new networks."

From helping to break news stories to simply making journalists feel more self-fulfilled, engaged journalism has many benefits. But if it is so good, why is every newsroom not doing it?

"It’s just the fact old habits die hard and when we’re constantly caught in a cycle and trying to do get pieces out quickly, it’s really hard for us to put our feet up and look at what we’re doing.

"We did a study on 100 practitioners of engaged journalism and we found the biggest barrier to making this change was internal politics and newsroom culture."

Among other barriers are costs, disruption to workflow and leadership concerns around introducing non-expertise. But Brandel looks at the bigger picture.

"What's at stake if we don’t do this? Those are all formidable problems and barriers but we are all seeing the consequences of not doing it now.

"Not only lack of trust, our relevance and support going down, we’re wasting time and precious money, we’re disempowering communities when we only cover them when there is something wrong."

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).