Solutions Storytelling

How much of the problem should I put in?

There’s no rule; it depends. 

Every solutions story includes some information about the problem. If the problem is new, then you might want to do some problem coverage before you do a solutions story.  Or you can do a story with both: problem first, solution later.  

But if the problem is already widely known, you don’t always have to include a lot about it. Though even with well-known problems, it helps to remind readers of the depth and breath of the problem, and why they should care. In general, lead with the freshest and most interesting material (problem or solution), to involve audiences in the story. You should make it clear, high up in the story, why the response you’re highlighting is important to your audience.

Are there different kinds of solutions stories?

Yes.  Here are some common structures and formats for solutions stories. 

Positive deviant

We’ve seen that Positive Deviant stories use data to find places that are doing better – or making more progress – than others with the same resources.  This story about Leeds becoming the first UK city to lower the child obesity rate uses a standard structure.  

It starts with Leeds’ achievement, quoting experts on how remarkable it is. 

Then it presents the data on Leeds, and compares Leeds’ achievement with the rest of England.  

Then it says what could be behind the drop:  “Jebb, a former government adviser, says they cannot be sure what has turned the tide in Leeds – but it could involve a programme called ‘Henry that the city introduced as the core of its obesity strategy in 2009, focusing particularly on the youngest children and poorest families. Henry (Health, Exercise, Nutrition for the Really Young) supports parents in setting boundaries for their children and taking a firm stance on issues from healthy eating to bedtimes.”

Then the story shows what the Henry program is, providing quotes from experts and anecdotes from parents.  It ends with a quote from the Public Health Minister about the importance of Leeds’ example. 

For more on Positive Deviant stories see  Journalism’s Power Couple Is Engaged! (The Whole Story) 

Big new idea

It doesn’t get much bigger than this: a farm on Scotland’s west coast is growing vegetables in seawater, and a project in the Netherlands is identifying grains and vegetables that can take irrigation with a mix of sea and fresh water, according to Euronews. 

Photo credit:  Salt Farm Foundation

These are small projects with no evidence they can scale — and in fact, the idea is so counterintuitive that it has proven to be a hard sell, the project directors say.  But this story is so innovative and important that it’s a good one even without evidence. A good solutions journalist also will come back to write a follow up story when we know more.

Experiment in progress

Sometimes, reporters have an opportunity to cover an ongoing program that has clear pros and cons. This is the case in Can Hip Hop Heal Trauma? which appeared in Apolitical in August 2019. The author, Megan Clement, introduces a new style of intervention to help people process trauma. The experiment is still underway, and although further studies are needed to prove the effectiveness of this approach, social workers and clinical psychologists are implementing it on a small scale with promising results.

The key to writing about responses with limited evidence is to not over-claim, and to clearly say what we know and what we don’t know yet about what they might be able to accomplish

Location transformation

A location transformation story looks at progress — how a response has made a big difference over time. 

In August 2020, The Economist published “Five years after arrival, Germany’s refugees are integrating,” which explains how Germany has been somewhat successful in integrating 1.2 million refugees in the five years after the initial influx in 2015. Many local municipalities quickly adapted to the influx, providing language courses and housing services even without direction from the federal government. Rates of employment for refugees have been over 40 percent. The author goes on to explain how the transformation worked, the lessons it can offer, and its limitations.


A comparison story looks at two similar places facing the same problem. Often a reporter compares his own city’s failure with another’s success. This BBC report on how York and the Dutch town of Nijmegen handled a flood is a great example. The story doesn’t just expose York’s (entirely predictable) failure, it strengthens the accountability factor by showing how a city that could be York’s twin succeeded, and what Nijmegen did differently. 

Instructive failure

By now, we hope it’s clear that a solutions story can be about a failed response.  These stories can be interesting and useful — especially if they debunk a “solution” commonly held to be a success. This HuffPost story shows the many different ways governments (including the UK government) and businesses fail at planting trees as a response to climate change, often doing more harm than good. 

“Say to yourself, ‘Alright, I want to write about a really interesting and creative attempt at solving a problem.’ Once you talk about it as being a creative attempt, then you don’t feel trapped into having to find only good news. Because then you say to yourself the virtue of what I’m going to do is show people ‘here is somebody who’s tried to solve a problem in a really intriguing way and I’m going to tell you what is working and what’s not working.’ Then you feel more open to learning about the project for real, warts and all, successes and failures.”

Meg Kissinger, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel