Editor’s note: The Daily Nebraskan’s editor-in-chief Karissa Schmidt had no part in the reporting, writing or editing of this story.
As part of our initiative called Curious Cornhuskers, an anonymous reader asked The Daily Nebraskan, “How did Curious Cornhuskers get started?”
Curious Cornhuskers is the platform in which readers submit questions to The Daily Nebraskan and reporters answer them with a story. It’s a relatively new platform and is only in its second year of use.
The initiative started in the spring of 2018, when Ben Buchnat, former engagement editor at The DN, was notified of an innovation grant. The grant was for a program called Hearken, which is the service that runs Curious Cornhuskers.
“I was always kind of looking to increase our engagement and increase our viewership and continue to make our concepts more relevant through the student body,” Buchnat said. “I thought the grant was intriguing. I did the application, and we got the funding. That was really surprising because we were the only independent student newspaper [to receive the grant].”
Although he said he’s not certain where the “Curious Cornhuskers” name came from, Buchnat said he takes credit.
Former general manager Dan Shattil said The DN spent the summer of 2018 and the beginning of the 2018-19 school year learning about the software. The service was fully implemented at the end of October 2018.
“It took us a little bit to get it up and running and to get people to know about it,” Shattil said.
According to current editor-in-chief Karissa Schmidt, Hearken gives The Daily Nebraskan a unique opportunity to form a connection with readers.
“Hearken is unique because it's our way to actually hear from our readers,” she said. “We could be writing stories all day. That's no use if our readers don't actually care about what we're talking about.”
Hearken is an important tool because it increases readership, according to Schmidt. She said some of the Curious Cornhuskers stories have outperformed general assignments in terms of page views.
The increase in engagement has come through vigorous promotion of Curious Cornhuskers. Last summer, Schmidt had a video chat with a Hearken representative who pitched ideas to promote Curious Cornhuskers. Those methods included booths, campaigns and word-of-mouth to spread the concept.
Schmidt said she believes promotion is the most important part of the initiative.
“If we have Hearken, but no one knows about it, what's the point?” she said. “The point is to get more people to notice and to know what Hearken is, even if it's just explaining ‘This is Curious Cornhuskers.’”
According to Schmidt, the initiative has been beneficial for both sides.
“If we answer [readers’] questions, they’ll share it and they’ll say ‘Hey, The Daily Nebraskan answered my question.’ That makes it rewarding for both us and also for the reader,” Schmidt said.
Although Buchnat graduated, he said he’s happy Curious Cornhuskers is successful and thinks a tool such as Hearken is great for any type of media outlet.
“Any tool that gives your audience a chance to connect with your content and express what they think is relevant is going to be instrumental for a news organization,” Buchnat said. “The Daily Nebraskan is relevant to students. Having a tool to actually go and ask students or have students come to you with things they want to know about — it's really useful.”