The non-profit organisation Solutions Journalism Network advocates for the practice of solutions journalism internationally, but how does this type of reporting work? We spoke to their Online Engagement Manager Allen Arthur (@LissomeLight) to find out more about journalists who are training a “new muscle” by investigating “good ideas that are showing promise”.
Allen, who is based in New York, is also a freelance journalist. Since 2016 he has worked with people who are or have been incarcerated.
How did you get involved with the network?
So, I went to the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY in New York City, and I was in the second cohort ever of their engagement journalism programme. Which is a very unique programme … it’s fully built on community listening and really trying to challenge the assumption of the story as the fundamental product of a journalist … you should be listening to what people need. Maybe they don't need a story, or maybe they need a story and something else. They need a newsletter, or they need a WhatsApp group or they need an event, whatever it might be. In that programme we were equipped with a lot of skills which was wonderful.
We weren't writing the most stories - the other reporter kids were all cranking out stories and had to come in with tonnes of pitches. I think they thought we were a bunch of ‘hippie cheerleaders’ and we thought they were ‘vultures’ - that's being a bit facetious, but we thought, well, how do you go into a community and tell a story? You don't know anything about that community. How is that possible? And I think they were sceptical that we were trying to maybe innovate on something that didn't need innovation.
I left with some storytelling skills and some writing skills, but I also left with some social media skills. I was working with the school still after I left, but also freelancing … and working with a startup news organisation here called Documented, which covers ... issues relevant to the immigrant populations here. It was great and I was working with them doing audience development.
After a while of working all three of those jobs … I found that Solutions Journalism Network had the opening.
Has your understanding of solutions journalism changed since you started?
Oh my gosh, yeah, I mean I would say it was better than average because I had been exposed to it at school, but … it is now exponentially deeper and more robust. I've led workshops in it here and just being able to read hundreds of stories now at this point and learning from so many people in the network who are bringing not just their own personal sensibility to it, but cultural things: here's how they're approaching it in Nigeria, here's how they're approaching it in the Philippines, here's the lesson that this person learned from reporting on community banks in Massachusetts. It's vastly deeper now than when I started.
“… you have to expand the definition of newsworthiness”
Do you come across misconceptions?
Yeah, for sure and I think they're all understandable … this is brand new to a lot of people. I think the main ones are that it's advocacy, that we're rooting for these solutions, or that it's PR. You know that we want to cover these things very nicely and talk about how great they are – there’s the idea that it’s “good news” ... I mean there are ones that make you feel good, but most stories are not that cut and dry at all.
The other [misconception] is that it's harder than it is ... doing [solutions journalism] is not particularly hard, it's just a new muscle. I don't find it to be any harder than any other type of reporting, but the hard part is just busting out of the habit of looking for problems, of seeing failure and brokenness and going ‘oh that looks like a story’. You don't have to get rid of that, we still need lots of that, solutions journalism couldn't exist without that reporting, so that people know that there are problems.
But then you'll also have to sort of train your brain to look for the newsworthy things in other places - you have to expand that definition of newsworthiness to include [success] … that part is hard, just training yourself to do that. Although once you do it, it's like you can't turn it off. It becomes like a driving force after that.
Do solutions stories tend towards the long term as opposed to the short term?
It's almost impossible to do one for breaking news or something like that ... although we just saw a news organisation that wanted to commission a solutions story [about the floods in Kentucky] … about how other people in the region previously have rebuilt and how they got resources to people at Mutual Aid and things like that. So you can't really do it for breaking stuff, but you can come in a few days later.
I mean, I have a story about to come out that's about a group that's been working for like 20 years and nobody has ever written about them … I even asked them ‘how has nobody written about you?’ and they said journalists don't care about the things that work.
“Journalists are not hanging around 10 years later or five years later or after the story breaks … you can come in later and pretty much have the place to yourself when you’re reporting”
I think there are some things that you just can't determine whether they are successful or not, you can't evaluate the extent to which they've had an impact [for] five years. You know, we just had a Twitter Spaces last week where we talked about solutions, journalism and climate reporting and places where it can come up short if you're not careful. And one of the guests said there's this tightening of emission standards in India, which is great, but we're probably not going to see any results for 10 years.
On one hand, you could say well I don't want to wait for 10 years … I have to report on stuff now.
Journalists are not hanging around 10 years later or five years later or after the story breaks. So you can come in later and pretty much have the place to yourself when you're reporting … you're not competing with anybody for a story, and you have something that's fresh and that is novel because you're taking this whole other angle.
Typically it requires some distance between the breaking thing that happened, or the problem really getting bad and somebody trying to figure it out and being able to measure that.
“The good part of it for a freelancer is you're typically working on something else that nobody knows anything about.”
Could freelancers have an advantage here, returning to an old news story with a solutions angle?
It's a great place for freelancers. Well, it's a hard place for freelancers to work because not every editor wants solution pieces and not every outlet sees that as part of their job. Which is fine. It's a lot more now than a few years ago, but some outlets … they don't love that idea … or it's a very small fraction of what they do. The good part of it for a freelancer is you're typically working on something else that nobody knows anything about.
I work on criminal justice kind of issues, there's always these reports …. I think every industry has some nonprofit [that] puts out a 60-page report about how terrible everything is … on page 60, there's [three paragraphs about] a group that's doing something that is not awful … I always look for that thing.
I'm interested in the people who are doing things differently and seeing results from it.
It's nice to have that kind of space to work where you're not fighting for a byline with anybody you know covering the same thing that everybody else is covering.
“… journalism shows people a model of the world that is just irreparably broken. What does it mean to people to see just brokenness every day?”
With local and regional outlets having closed all over the place, does that have an especially big impact on solutions journalism or these kinds of positive local stories?
Research suggests that people are not that excited about the sort of nationalising of everything … there's no staff, so they're picking up AP stories or other wire services.
Our cofounder David Bornstein talks about it all the time, which is that journalism shows people a model of the world that is just irreparably broken. What does it mean to people to see just brokenness every day? Best case scenario is it doesn't line up with your what you actually see in your community, because Donald Trump is a mess or the federal government is a mess … but [in] your day-to-day life … you may see people working in your community to do a lot of wonderful things, or maybe craving the knowledge, ‘please tell me about what is working’.
On one side you get distrust, which is that this does not match up with my reality really, and two, you get just powerlessness, this sense of there's nothing I can do. Nothing we do matters or nothing is going to work anyway, so what's the point? And all of that stuff is magnified at the local level because I think people’s attachment to their hometowns, or where they live... I don’t want to say it’s stronger than their attachment to their country because patriotism or nationalism is very strong, but I think there's a sense of community that gets lost when that's the picture. People get either no picture of their community or one that's constantly broken, or one and then the other. I think that's tough, and we see newsrooms wanting to do solutions journalism locally, and they’re like ‘look, we have three people’.
They want to tell those stories, but it's just impossible to get off the treadmill and do a kind of enterprise story when that's all you have.
For the journalists who want to learn more, what does Solutions Journalism Network offer?
Well, we have a lot of stuff … we have a train the trainers programme where we're training people to teach solutions journalism all over the world and that is built on wanting to be less of the place where people end up, and more of a facilitator of people learning solutions journalism wherever they are.
We offer a once-a-month introductory webinar that anybody can come to that just lays out the basics, why we think it's important, the structure of it, what it isn't … how they can get started right away.
We have a blog that's loaded up with resources, we have a learning lab online that's filled with reporting guides, so solutions reporting for lots of different subjects.
We do newsroom trainings - one-on-one or sometimes more than one-on one, where it’s 10 newsrooms getting together. We have various reporting initiatives … sometimes it's cohorts of individual reporters all covering an issue. Or sometimes it's bigger newsroom projects that tend to be fewer newsrooms but more money, more time for the project.
“... what we've seen so far is it giving people an improved sense of agency that there's a belief that these problems are solvable.”
What do you think the long-term benefits would be if all news consumers had access to solutions journalism?
Man, we talk about this a lot. There's still a lot of research going on, so it's hard to say for sure what would happen, but you know what we've seen so far is it giving people an improved sense of agency that there's a belief that these problems are solvable. We've seen approval of solution stories cross partisan lines.
We've also seen it used as a pretty strong tool for accountability. Governments love to say ‘we can't do anything else, we're doing everything we can, actually this thing is going just fine’, and when you can point to other places doing better, and say ‘well, it doesn't have to be this way, you're not telling the truth’, so we've seen it wielded in that way a number of times.
And ideally, we’d also just see good ideas spreading. A lot of times there's just simply not awareness of that you can do better. We've seen places report on an approach to a problem that they have that somebody else used, and then that infusing the policy discussion, ‘can we do this here?’ and sometimes actually happening.
“A lot of times there's just simply not awareness of that you can do better.”
I think … these good ideas would hopefully spread more and hopefully they would improve. One thing I see in my reporting is that people are quite candid about what's not working in their project or their initiative … when you frame it as ‘talk to me like I'm somebody who could start this across the country or across the world. I don't know anything about this, but I'm also interested in working with people leaving prison and your programme works and my programme is stuck. What would you want to teach me about yours and what makes it successful, or what I should watch out for, or mistakes that you made that you learn from or things I'm going to come up against?’.
Because they want people to take their work and improve on it. They would love somebody to do better than they're doing, because it will only help the people they're trying to serve … they want these ideas to spread, and they don't want a cheerleader.
“... they want these ideas to spread, and they don't want a cheerleader.”
Hopefully there will be more of that, of not just sharing awareness of all the failures, which is very high in many cases, but also sharing awareness of ‘hey, there are people making dents in this and we can learn from it and improve on that’. That possibility is very exciting to me, that by spreading the ideas more they would get better and better. And I wonder how much we lose in terms of innovation and progress. [Solutions journalism] is sharing ... good ideas that are showing promise.
And that's where the network comes in.
Ideally, yeah, I mean that's what it's about. You know, there's a great reporter named Oscar Perry Abello at an outlet called Next City and he has a wonderful thread on Twitter that I just love and go back to all the time. He reports a lot on … grassroots economic systems, basically. So like community banks and schemes to help people start small businesses and marginalised communities. He says in this thread, look this is not going to take down Bank of America or JP Morgan. It's not about that. It's that this community – that is normally painted as struggling – is figuring out a way to address this problem. It's totally imperfect. It is also very successful in some ways, and people deserve to know about it … everyone deserves to know that this is happening, so that they can make a decision based on the best available information. And if you only believe there are two possibilities, then you're not fully informed.
“We tend to approach it from a place of agency and decision-making and informing people and just telling a richer story.”
I've always loved that idea. We have two million plus people in prison, in jail in the US - nothing is going to get rid of that as a whole. But there are 10,000 things happening that are taking a little piece off and the fact that people don't know about them is part of the reason we say ‘oh we can't do any better than this’. So that's where the network comes in. There's always debate, like some [say] ‘we want to make people more hopeful’. That's not usually our line of communication. We tend to approach it from a place of agency and decision-making and informing people and just telling a richer story. But some places are fully on board for ‘we want to give people hope’ that you can stop climate change, things like that. Some people say it's about accountability … everybody brings their own thing to it … but for various reasons, people need to know about these ideas, whatever their outlet or personal sensibilities are.
“... if you only believe there are two possibilities, then you're not fully informed.”
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