Shifting your editorial priorities to start producing solutions journalism will probably require some adjustments. To help your newsroom develop new habits, here are things other newsrooms have tried.
Make solutions journalism a visible priority. Have someone ask in every story meeting: Is there a possible solutions angle here? Urge reporters to ask themselves: Is there a possible solutions angle here?
Designate one editor as the expert on solutions stories, responsible for identifying possible enterprise and solutions stories in editorial meetings and working with reporters to make them happen.
Focus scarce resources on high-value stories. It’s not hard to do solutions journalism or other enterprise stories. What’s hard is letting go of other coverage to free up resources to do these stories. Newsrooms need to make the choice to drop some stories in favour of giving the audience journalism they can’t get anywhere else.
Stay organised. When working on longer-term enterprise projects, keep a detailed master to-do list of your day-to-day work. Keep track of documents to review, sources to contact, data to locate and questions to answer to make it as easy as possible to pick the work up again.
Plan ahead. Yes, solutions journalism happens when editors give reporters time to work on those stories. Once you’ve got the go-ahead, help your editor by mapping out a plan to cover while you’re working on a solutions story. Write boilerplate copy for co-workers who may cover breaking news on your beat while you’re gone. Plan interviews on the ground ahead of time, but leave flex time in your schedule for interviews that arise spontaneously while you’re traveling.
Collaborate to pull all this off. Pairing with another news outlet, a local library, or research or academic institution can bring new resources to help you tackle big projects.
From How to let your reporter out of the newsroom for a day or two. Or three… by Leah Todd Lin. (The Whole Story)
Producing short form solutions stories
You have one reporting day and 500 words. Or you have three hours to put together a 60-second television piece. How can you tell a solutions story?
Gold standard solutions journalism is long and time-intensive. But there are ways to bring a solutions focus into pieces when you do not have the luxuries of time and space.
Short solutions pieces work particularly well when a problem is widely known. Consider bedbugs, which a few years ago were pervasive in New York City. This story in the International Business Times spends one sentence on the problem, and was able to jump directly to the news: bedbugs were declining, thanks largely to the city’s multi-pronged effort to eradicate them. In 576 words, the author hit all four pillars of a solutions story.
1. Inspiration from Our Solutions Database
SJN’s Solutions Story Tracker has a number of UK focused stories that are under 800 words or under 3 minutes. While the vast majority are not from local newspapers, it’s easy to think of ways most of these stories could be written with a local hook.
Remember, it’s not because a solution does not currently exist in the local community that you can’t write a local story about it. Finding a city or county with similar characteristics that has seen success in addressing certain issues is a good start. Partnering up with local journalists can help lighten the reporting load.
2. Sourcing solutions stories
While social media buzz can be a source for story leads, you’ll likely find relatively shallow stories about individual do-gooders. Solutions journalism digs deeper into the structures and processes in place to address issues in a more systemic manner. Finding initiatives and evidence to buttress the notion that someone is doing good work will require a little more digging. But let’s also recognize that there might not always be a solutions angle.
Developing a habit to regularly consult documents as well as people will help find a groove for finding responses to social problems.
Below are some of the sources we encourage you to refer to:
Following from Lane Anderson’s advice above, here are some story recipes to get started:
Recipe 1: The Positive Deviant
Did someone release an interesting database? Find somewhere that’s unexpectedly doing well, and create a story around that place. Your job is to find out WHY and HOW they’re succeeding. But it can be done with little time and few words because you don’t have to do a lot to show it’s a success — the data shows you that.
Recipe 2: The academic study.
Don’t just report on a new study. Treat it like the new data set in Recipe 1. What did the study find about success? Report what the study said — and do some research on your own to learn more about why success happened.
Recipe 3: The local.
You cover crime, or schools, or health care. Ask people for success stories happening right nearby. You can do a short beat story about success, just like you could about failure.
Recipe 4. Ask an expert.
Call a local charity, advocacy organization or academic who studies a problem. Ask them to name a small problem they’re concerned with. Now ask who’s had success with that? (And don’t take “We do! We do!” for an answer — it’s got to be someone else.) The key here is to really find a small slice. Not who’s lowered youth crime, but who’s keeping young people busy after school?
Here are some examples of short, uncomplicated, solutions stories:
How the Isle of Arran became Scotland’s first plastic-free community (The Herald, Scotland)
3. Lining up your questions
Before you do anything, make sure your mind is set on asking the kind of questions that will help you produce a solutions story.
4. Ruona’s 800 & 500 words story formats:
They’ve done it before
Doing solutions journalism as a beat reporter with daily deadlines can seem daunting. But you can actually frame and write solutions stories quickly. Here are some tips from New York-based freelancer Lane Anderson to get soultions-focussed journalism into your regular, 800-word-or-less reporting.
1. A good study—especially if it’s longitudinal [tracking something over time] and has solid, over-time “solutions” findings, can give you the basis for a quick, credible story.
“The beauty of studies, especially when they are published and peer-reviewed, is that the vetting has been done for you by professionals. Researchers are usually very happy to get the word out about their findings and relatively easy to reach and interview, and they are bad at getting the word out to the public themselves. Interviewing other researchers in the same space, or who have published different findings, can round out the story. Reporting on reputable studies, like this one, can be a win for all parties—including the reading public who doesn’t regularly crack open issues of JAMA [the Journal of the American Medical Association].”
2. Nonprofits are in the business of solutions, but reporting on them can feel too fluffy, or like PR.
“It doesn’t have to. A story built around the work of a couple nonprofits can be the basis of a solutions story as long as you tell the pros and cons, and talk not only to the providers of a service but to those purportedly benefitting as well. Do your research to be on the lookout for downsides to any solutions–keep in mind that solutions aren’t flawless.
“For example, this story and this story report on nonprofit programs that help low-income people buy modular caravan homes as a form of affordable housing. But they also discuss the problems and potential downsides of this approach—that caravan ownership can also be exploitative in some situations. Simply including both sides puts the response in context and avoids overclaiming or reading like a puff piece.”
3. It’s okay if a story only tells part of a solution.
“Most really big problems don’t have any big, easy solution; that’s what makes big problems difficult. It’s easy to feel like you have to find a perfect or complete solution—but those rarely come along. Instead, free yourself to write about partial solutions by acknowledging that their reach is limited and that there is still work to be done and progress can be incremental. For example, take this story on “momobile” post-natal care that goes to moms so they don’t have to take time off work to travel to their doctor visits in Camden, New Jersey. Would it work the same everywhere, and does it solve the problem for all moms in the area? No. Is it helping a lot of people with a small but smart innovation? Yes.”
4. Don’t be afraid to cover steps in a story when you’re covering a beat.
“You will learn more about best practices and solutions as you develop your beat or area of emphasis. It’s okay to do shorter stories on pieces of a solution to a big problem—you could even think of it as a small series. For example, sex trafficking is a big problem with many approaches. This story explores law enforcement solutions to sex trafficking. The story that followed it explores intervention and housing solutions for sex trafficking. It’s okay to let the solutions evolve and take your readers along as you go—you don’t have to get it all right in one, be-all, end-all story.”
How to do solutions journalism remotely during COVID-19
Traveling to another city to write about a response there can take a lot of time and money. But is that the only way to do it? With COVID-19, journalists are finding good alternatives. It’s best to actually go and report on the ground, of course. But if you can’t, a good solutions story is still possible.
Here are some ideas:
Plan your trip — then don’t go.
You would never travel for a story without first figuring out whether it’s worth the expense. Before you go anywhere, you need to find data and other evidence demonstrating the story’s value. You need to know if the particular place also offers the right narrative focus. And you need to plan your trip: identifying what you want to see and who you want to interview.
That’s all research you do from your desk. So do all that pre-work.
And then don’t go. There are ways to do the rest of the story from your desk as well.
Outsource your eyes
If you can’t be on the ground yourself, make a video call, ask someone who is there to take a video, or ask people who were there to describe the scene in a visual way.
Use some of the time you would have spent traveling to interview more deeply and widely
One thing you can only get by traveling is the unexpected. To create the best chance of learning something surprising, talk to a wide variety of people, and spend long enough in these phone or video meetings so they can relax and tell stories.
Triangulate evidence of the idea’s effectiveness
Even when you’re reporting in person, it’s crucial to verify what’s being said by checking with a wide variety of people as well as researching qualitative and quantitative data. It’s even more crucial from a distance.
Broaden the picture
If you’re not traveling to one place, you can travel virtually to several places!
Look at the program in a variety of contexts, learning what makes it work — or not work — in each one.
For more see: How to report solutions journalism from your house — five tips from two veteran journalists (The Whole Story)
Annotation of Story Examples
These two stories below reflect the potential that exists for producing short, simple solutions stories. They have been annotated to identify the four pillars of solutions journalism and as a way to illustrate how journalists could have these criteria in mind in their day to day work.