Americans can’t take any more bad news. A recent report from the Reuters Institute found that 42% of Americans “sometimes or often actively avoid the news,” with many feeling overwhelmed by sheer volume, and others unable to trust what’s reported.
To respond to this increasingly “divided, dispirited and distrustful” public, some media outlets have begun exploring ways to reform their traditional news products. In a Washington Post op-ed in July, Amanda Ripley said that output was “not designed for humans” who reached an incapacity to handle 24-hour news cycles of despair.
“If so many of us feel poisoned by our products, might there be something wrong with them?” Ripley asked.
Vox Publisher Melissa Bell is one newsroom leader rethinking what coverage should look like. “I think that we aren’t building a service for our audiences. We’re not actually helping them navigate the world around them,” she told CNN “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter. “Now, we’re thinking more and more not just about how to help people understand, but what to do with the next step: When they have that information, what can they do with that information?”
Bell and Ripley are pointing to solutions journalism — which the Solutions Journalism Network defines as “rigorous, compelling coverage of responses to social problems” — as a promising pivot away from the incessant grind of breaking news. While solutions journalism has been around since the 1990s, it is growing. According to SJN’s Solutions Stories Tracker, 1,638 newsrooms have produced solutions stories since 2016, and 231 have published more than 10 such stories.
Solutions stories typically follow four essential pillars: response, insight, evidence and limitations. It’s formulaic, but not necessarily prescriptive. “If you think of solutions more as an overall kind of tone and atmosphere — an approach rather than a specific prescription for something — I think that can be helpful because solutions show up in all sorts of ways,” said Amelia Newcomb, managing editor of The Christian Science Monitor, which describes its aim as helping people “see news events as starting points for constructive conversations.”
Newcomb pointed me to two stories as examples of how her newspaper approaches news: One is on the number of groups forming in Williamson County, Tennessee, where there is strong opposition to teaching kids about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ruby Bridges, to have constructive (and, hopefully, healing) discussions on race. Another explores the unique, visceral and shared experience among Ukrainians in reforging their national identity in real time, through a teacher in Bucha who is helping his students tell their stories.
Solutions journalism isn’t a one-note answer to an issue. “A solution can be getting people to listen to each other, right?” said Newcomb. “Because that doesn’t lead to a prescribed outcome.”
What solutions journalism is and isn’t
The word “solutions” in “solutions journalism” is a bit of a misnomer that has created some branding issues. One of the most prevalent misconceptions about solutions journalism is that it’s only “positive journalism,” conjuring that cringeworthy viral clip of a British meteorologist warning of fatalities due to this summer’s heat waves, then being told by the news anchor to cheer up because she wanted everyone to “be happy about the weather.”
It’s what made Brittany Schock reluctant about joining Richland Source, an online news outlet serving north-central Ohio, when she was first approached by the president and publisher to join the team in 2014, a year after its founding.
“He described Richland Source as wanting to do journalism in a different way, and he kept using the word ‘positive,’” said Schock. “I kind of shied away from it at first because it sounded like PR to me. I don’t want to only write positive things.” After being assured that the Source engages in rigorous reporting but diverges from legacy journalism by also highlighting what’s actually working for the community, Schock signed on as a reporter. It would be two more years before the organization learned about the term “solutions journalism.”
Schock is now the Source’s engagement and solutions editor, working with the team to incorporate a solutions-oriented practice in its everyday storytelling. She said their work has resonated so much with the community that they’ve been able to fund their mission through partners like the Ashland County Community Foundation. Some recent stories include how a “100-day challenge” to end homelessness could help get houseless Knox County residents into stable housing, and how the promise of an in-home child-care model could assist working parents in the county.
Over the last year, parent company Source Media Properties saw an average of 346,000 users across its three sites — Richland Source, Ashland Source and Knox Pages — and an increase on time spent on a page by 72%. The Source has produced an annual impact report for the last three years and recently added an impact survey at the end of their stories to collect anecdotal feedback, posing questions to readers such as whether they learned something or took action after reading the story.
Impact is perhaps the highest aspiration of solutions journalism — when readers make use of the information presented to them. It can take on many forms, including action, accountability, mood changing or even just hope.
Being seen as “positive news” isn’t always a detriment to creating impact. In Asia, where journalists experience no dearth of hostilities — including assault, arrest, imprisonment and even assassination — solutions journalism’s misplaced branding actually affords journalists deeper access into an issue, said Kavita Chandran, a Singapore-based journalism trainer who has designed solutions journalism courses for the Thomson Reuters Foundation and others. “In countries where there are authoritarian governments who make it difficult to do issue stories, I think journalists realize that it’s easier to do a solutions story because people perceive it as having a positive to it.”
Her students, she said, often begin her courses with a similar reticence. “They tend to be a little cynical. They tend to come in thinking, ‘OK, this is going to be propaganda. She’s going to tell us about how to promote people or whatever,’” she said. But once they learn that solutions journalism reports on issues through the lens of how people respond to those issues, they’re far more receptive.
For the foundation, Chandran has incorporated solutions journalism modules for training in different parts of Asia. Journalists can use the modules to cover issues such as climate change and modern slavery. Many of her former students, she said, have gone on to pitch solutions-based stories when they apply for grants. Recently, more than 150 students enrolled in her two-day workshop on solutions journalism in India.
There are plenty of offerings for solutions training in the U.S. as well. Universities like the Newmark J-School, The New School, the University of Oregon, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln already offer solutions journalism courses. Recently, Stony Brook University, the University of Georgia, Northwestern University and Arizona State University announced that they will become inaugural solutions journalism “hubs,” working in collaboration with SJN to champion solutions journalism in their regions and collaborate with peer institutions.
While solutions journalism can feel like a fresh approach to the historic “if it bleeds, it leads” news model, practitioners must remember, that stories don’t have to offer a definitive solution to a problem — or an upside at all costs. As a reporter working on a series (in collaboration with SJN) exploring solutions to racial gerrymandering for Prism, a nonprofit newsroom serving communities of color, I also worried about the word “solution” carrying an imperialist or patronizing tone. I winced at the thought of having to impose solutions onto communities marginalized and underserved — even ones I belong to.
I only found a way through my discomfort by framing my approach as interrogating the proposed solutions to this issue — like the efficacy of litigation as a means to protect communities of color targeted by gerrymandered maps — which is an integral part of solutions journalism.
“None of us know what the right solution is for another group of people,” said Newcomb.
Nor is that the true goal of solutions journalism. “The goal is: why are we not sharing knowledge about how these problems might be solved?” said Allen Arthur, SJN’s online engagement manager. “We’re never going to get anywhere as long as people’s deficiencies and failures are news but their successes aren’t.”
The limitations of solutions journalism
As with any journalistic medium, solutions journalism is not without its own limitations. Access has certainly been an issue. This is especially the case for reaching new audiences who have been historically underserved by the news media, particularly low-income communities, said Sarah Alvarez, founder and editor in chief of Outlier Media, a Detroit-based service journalism organization.
“That’s the problem that I think we need to solve for more urgently. And I don’t think solutions journalism focuses sufficiently on that group of people,” she said. “Before they need solutions to intractable problems that have been figured out in some other place, they need access to information that they can use to hold people accountable in ways that they see fit.”
To bridge these information gaps, Outlier’s signature product is a text message system that offers Detroit residents certain services based on surveys and public data analysis. The issues found in this data also become the organization’s reporting needs, Alvarez said. For example, in a city rife with housing issues, Outlier created a lookup system where renters can enter their address and find out how much back taxes the property owes, or who its real owner is. “If they found out that the landlord that they were paying rent to doesn’t own the house, I trust the people in our audience to figure out what to do with that information,” said Alvarez. “It is a solution for them to not pay rent to someone they don’t owe it to.”
There’s no existing mechanism that measures how solutions stories are being collectively received — and by whom — but Arthur says SJN is now shifting its focus to supporting news organizations that are bringing solutions journalism to the people facing the problems. The goal isn’t to have prestigious outlets doing solutions work “to legitimize the practice for other journalists, but to also think through who has access to the stories, and are they realistically getting into the hands of people who need them?” said Arthur.
It’s important, then, to moderate our expectations of which issues plaguing news media we want solutions journalism to remedy, and which issues require larger reform from our industry. Solutions journalism “can do a lot of things,” said Alvarez. “It might increase civic engagement. It might depolarize public discourse. It might build trust. All those things are important and matter, but I care about advancing equity. The way to advance equity in journalism is to serve the actual broader public with information that they have asked for and need. If we’re not doing that in news, then I don’t see the point.”
The crisis facing journalism today is manifold, and solutions journalism isn’t trying to be the definitive “solution,” nor should it be. But it may be poised to meet the moment as news media lose more and more readers. It may also be a starting point for young journalists who want to explore a different approach to reporting — and a different outlook on what’s newsworthy — in an industry that some say is woefully ill-equipped to meet the challenges of our troubled democracy.
“The problems feel less solvable than ever because we’re just spinning our wheels reporting on them over and over again,” said Arthur. “It’s burned-out journalists who feel miserable on their beats, who feel that they’re not creative and that they don’t have anything new to add to the conversation but to get louder, more frequent, and more graphic,” he said. “Something has got to give; either the system is going to give or the industry is going to change.”