(New Brunswick at night. Photo by razordu30/Flickr)
(New Brunswick, New Jersey at night. Photo by razordu30/Flickr)

Earlier this year, during a New Jersey summer that saw a particularly nasty heat wave, readers of a local news site in New Brunswick had a question: Why couldn't they find any public swimming pools in their community?

Under normal circumstances, that question might have fallen by the wayside, filed away with other timeless story ideas on some interminable to-do list. But staffers at New Brunswick Today are now considering answering that question thanks to Hearken, a platform for reader engagement that helps newsrooms interact with their communities.

New Brunswick Today is one of three news organizations in New Jersey that have received funding from a group of nonprofits to incorporate Hearken into their newsrooms. The Dodge Foundation, the Knight Foundation, the Rita Allen Foundation and the Wyncote Foundation have teamed up to cover the costs of the platform and are paying for staffers to run it over the next two years. In piloting the program, New Brunswick Today is joined by Brick City Live, a local news site covering Newark, and NJTV News, a Newark-based public television station.

Since New Brunswick Today began using Hearken, staffers there have found stories hidden in plain sight that were overlooked because they didn't have a timely news hook. The ideas just didn't seem as urgent to staffers who are busy meeting daily deadlines.

"A lot of times the big questions are the ones that are easy to ignore, because they’ve been asked a lot of times but never been reported,” said Charlie Kratovil, the editor of New Brunswick Today.

Hearken is the brainchild of Jennifer Brandel, a former WBEZ reporter who began soliciting story ideas from Chicagoans for "Curious City." The program, which revolved around answering listener queries, inspired Brandel to expand the concept to newsrooms beyond WBEZ. The startup debuted in earnest earlier this year, and Brandel thinks it has the potential to help journalists break out of their silos and shift the power dynamic in newsrooms towards readers.

"It’s nice that we’re in this moment now that audience engagement isn’t a freak show on the side," Brandel said.

Hearken combines a variety of different functions to give audiences a voice in the storytelling process. Readers and listeners can submit questions to the news organizations that employ the service and vote on which stories are the best candidates for further reporting. Depending on the type and size of their operations, newsrooms pay an annual fee to use Hearken that starts at $5,000. So far, the service has attracted 20 customers and drawn interest from between 80 and 90 additional clients.

As staffers at New Brunswick Today began experimenting with Hearken, they realized the questions from readers are a good barometer for issues the community cares about, Kratovil said. Current questions up for consideration include the casually worded: "Why is alternate side street parking a thing?" and a reader service-type question: "What are the public transit routes in New Brunswick and how affordable are they?"

Although answers to the questions might not be immediately apparent, they have the potential to be revelatory. The story behind the swimming pool query, for example, is a complicated one with deep roots in the city's history. Kratovil says the owner of a large public swimming pool on a New Brunswick thoroughfare sold the attraction long ago rather than integrate his property — a supermarket now stands in its place. There's also a dearth of pools in the city's parks, a curiosity the staff might investigate if the question gets enough traction.

"When you put it in the context, it would really be a fantastic question," Kratovil said.

New Jersey is in some ways an ideal region for experimenting with Hearken, said Josh Stearns, the director of journalism and sustainability at the Dodge Foundation. The contraction of media in New Jersey has prompted new outlets to fill the vacuum left behind in the wake of the state's larger players. The erasure of long-established coverage boundaries means that readers and listeners are empowered to determine which news organizations succeed, and what they should cover.

"No matter what platform we’re on, it’s the community that connects us," Stearns said.