Curious City Founder, Hearken CEO visits DePaul Journalism Class

Hearken CEO Jennifer Brandel
Image Credit: Andrew Collings.
One of the hardest decisions Jennifer Brandel said she ever had to make was quitting her dream job.
Brandel used to work at WBEZ in Chicago and started “Curious City,” a widely popular program that involves solving questions that come up from the community.

Then, she left to take a risk and start  Hearken, a software service technology company that works with other media organizations to engage with what fuels journalism — its audience.

“It’s been really hard, but really good,” Brandel said. “Journalists have the same skills a lot of entrepreneurs do — you have to find information quickly, you have to find out how reliable it is. You have to be comfortable with cold calling people.

“Overall, it was white knuckle for the first couple months. I asked myself, ‘Did I just quit the best job I was ever going to have?’”

Brandel visited the College of Communication’s Entrepreneurial Journalism class May 24 to discuss with student journalists her journey and the ways they can apply engaging with their readers. She spoke for nearly an hour, giving advice and taking questions, one of 10 entrepreneurs and digital media innovators who met with the class during spring quarter.

Brandel, one of the country’s most prominent journalism technology CEOs, recently won a competitive bootstrap award at South by Southwest Interactive and received a $700,000 venture capital funding round from private investors. She also was a featured speaker at the Poynter Institute/Online News Association Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media in May.

During her visit to DePaul, Brandel advised for journalists to invest in the long term, to further understand themselves and be comfortable with what they’re doing. However, Brandel also said that much of journalism now understands what the audience wants as well.

“The word Hearken stands for to listen attentively,” she said. “That’s what we’re trying to do and help newsrooms for whoever their audience is … We think it’s in your public interest to listen to what your public is interested in. These often result in stories that are original because no one else is looking into them.”

Brandel said bringing in the audience first creates a better long-term atmosphere. Normally, news outlets would hear from their audience in the comments section, but she said that comments aren’t productive in engaging the reader. Instead, letting them ask questions before the reporting is done, gives them a different perspective.

Brandel also said that as resources start to shrink at newsrooms, asking the public for questions is a more diverse and reflective way that can represent the community.

“You have extreme powers as journalists to shape the public narrative,” Brandel told the class. “If you share that power with the public you’re serving, you’ll get new powers in return. It’s not about a zero sum game, it’s about amplifying the work that you’re doing.”

The effort to bring Brandel to DePaul began more than a year ago for Journalism Professor Jason Martin. Brandel, who travels often for her work with a variety of national news organizations, was unable to visit the class last year, and this year planned to be Chicago for only five days all spring quarter.

Since starting her own business, Brandel said the work and sharing her journey with groups like DePaul students has been rewarding.

“There’s just these huge learning curves you go on,” she said. “You climb the top of the mountain and say ‘yeah, I climbed the mountain. I feel so good.’ And then you look around and there’s so many more mountains.’ “I feel like this opportunity has rewarded me on how the world works and how business works, that if I go back to journalism to do full time reporting, I’ll be much more qualified.”