David Fahrenthold never did find much evidence of Donald Trump’s charitable efforts, but he got a Pulitzer Prize for his trouble. Fahrenthold’s reporting, which he tracked via pen and paper and which relied on input from readers, “created a model for transparent journalism in political campaign coverage while casting doubt on Donald Trump’s assertions of generosity toward charities,” according to the Pulitzer Prize board.
Hearken thinks that that model of transparency in reporting is one that more news organizations should emulate. The company is testing Open Notebook, a new feature designed to give news organizations a way to do their reporting in public, giving readers a chance to follow along and potentially contribute. Julia Haslanger, an engagement consultant at Hearken, said that the idea, inspired by the updates that Kickstarter projects send their backers, is a cross between “a mini-newsletter, a live blog, and a place to store files in public.”
“Our entire mission is built around the idea of making sure that the audience has a seat at the editorial table ahead of publication,” Haslanger said. While Hearken has pushed news organizations to include readers in the reporting process, the company didn’t provide the tools to make that process easy. “Open Notebook,” she said, “is filling in that gap.”
Hearken is modeling the idea on the efforts of organizations like ProPublica and The New York Times, which recently have made efforts to both publicly verify breaking news stories in real-time and involve readers in the reporting process.
Here’s Haslanger introducing Open Notebook in February at MisinfoCon:
The tool so far has only been opened up to a handful of organizations, which are still in the testing phase. But the organizations say they’re enticed by the tool, which offers new ways to report stories and keep readers involved. At Inside Energy, Open Notebook gave readers a behind-the-scenes look at how the makers of the documentary “Beyond Standing Rock” created maps and graphics that were handed out at screenings. Vermont Public Radio, another early Open Notebook user, made audience engagement core to Brave Little State, a podcast built around fielding questions about the state. In March, the podcast introduced the Open Notebook functionality with its reporting on a reader question about the high number of dilapidated barns in Vermont. “Our working motto is that we want to make journalism more transparent and inclusive and more fun,” said Angelia Evancie digital editor for news at Vermont Public Radio and the host of Brave Little State. “Open Notebook is interesting because it’s a continuation of the show’s model.”
With Open Notebook, Hearken hopes increased audience engagement will help reverse the declining trust in mainstream media among Americans. A 2016 Gallup poll found that Americans’ trust in news organizations “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” dropped to an all-time low: Just 32 percent of Americans said that they have a “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the media — an eight percent decline from the year before. Pew found similar numbers in its own polling last year. Just 18 percent of American said they trust the news they get from national organizations “a lot,” and 22 percent said the same for local organizations.
Hearken’s Haslanger said that this is a crisis that radical transparency in reporting can help to solve. “Journalists continually need to earn trust,” she said. “I don’t think earning trust is something you do once and just bank on for a long time.”
Beyond engagement, Hearken’s pitch is built around the idea that, by building an engaged audience that has an active hand in producing the reporting it’s interested in, news organizations can turn more of that audience into paying customers. “People won’t give you money unless you’re serving them, and this is a way to make sure you’re actually doing so,” Haslanger said. Public media organizations, which make up a significant portion of Hearken’s user base, have been particularly enthusiastic with their embrace of the approach, said Haslanger.
The approach does have some hitches. The work of journalism has traditionally operated behind closed doors, with stories carefully assembled and fact-checked before being offered to the public. This is true particularly for sensitive in-depth investigations, but it extends to lighter stories as well, even in the digital era. Evancie, for example, said that Vermont Public Radio wasn’t immediately sure which kinds of stories would work best with the Open Notebook approach. That’s why the organization felt that Brave Little State, which was “already aligned with with the transparency idea,” was a natural fit. She said she was less sure about the process would work with stories that had more sensitive sourcing.
Haslanger said that this has has been a common concern among the early users of Open Notebook, and her response has been unequivocal. “If you’re doing a very secretive investigation that relies on no one else knowing, this is not the tool for you,” she said.