1. I. Introduction (30m)
  2. II. Basic Reporting (60m)
  3. III. Basic Storytelling (30m)

Basic Toolkit

Conducting Interviews for a Solutions-Oriented Story?

The traditional news journalist is taught to report on the five Ws: who, what, when, where, why. Obviously these are critical building blocks for any investigation, whether you’re covering a PTA meeting or an airstrike.

But when exploring the impact and potential of responses to social problems, it’s critical that journalists move beyond basic reporting and look at some of the nuances of making change.

Assuming you’ve already done some vetting on the story in order to pitch it (see sections on vetting and pitching) it’s time to interview a wide range of stakeholders, including the people enacting the solution, those directly affected, detractors, funders, academics, and more. As you prep for those interviews, consider some new questions to ask your diverse experts:

Replace, “Whodunnit?” with “Howdunnit?"

In solutions journalism, what matters most is not the quirks and qualities of the main character, but the transferable wisdom found in his or her actions. How did a small organization revolutionize the way a city recycles? What are the slow, systematic steps they took? What are the teachable lessons?

It’s imperative that you drill down into the fine-grain details of the processes people use when turning great ideas into real, measurable successes. Sometimes, this will throw your subjects off — they may not be used to it. Keep drilling! You have to be very deliberate about drawing out the most important information about process or your subject might gloss over truly illuminating details. It’s only by understanding the real nitty gritty of a response that you can explain what makes it work (or doesn’t), and pass on that learning to your readers.

In addition to “What are the results?”, ask “Which measurements matter most and what are they?”

Organizations can throw metrics your way all day, but if they don’t represent the most critical measurement of change, you can get distracted.

In addition to “What do the experts think?”, ask “What do the people directly affected by this model think?”

Whenever possible, have real conversations with folks on the ground in addition to some of the usual suspects (think-tank wonks, professors, thought leaders).

Replace, “Is it working?” with “In what ways is it succeeding and in what ways is it failing?”

Social change is complex. Our reporting should reflect that complexity.


  • Sophie Fung

    Okay, that's when my French side comes in, I taught my (high school) students Who/Where/Where/What/How(long/many/much) before analyzing the why(s).

  • Mary Agoyi

    Policy makers mostly, often skip or tend to forget, or rather, overlook, how people are affected first hand by models created. This really needs to be discussed for a way ahead.

  • Sallu Kamuskay

    Nice, thanks

  • Chidindu Mmadu-Okoli

    Good to know. I love the 5WH interview format, but I am glad to learn that the H is key to obtaining substantial information for a solutions story.


"We identified the issue and have focused our reporting on characters that illustrate not only the problem, but what these children need to overcome the obstacles created when parents are incarcerated. We found our characters within programs that address the needs and worked backwards, identifying hurdles as well as issues/statistics related to the problem."

Jill Tucker
San Francisco Chronicle
Back To Learning Lab
Quiz Yourself

You ask the questions!

Here’s an exercise to test your interviewing skills, thinking about which sources you should approach and what you might ask them. You won’t always have time to be as comprehensive as this exercise imagines. But let’s play out this best case.

Question 1 (of 6)

You’ve received a PR pitch about a nearby city — let’s call it Springfield — that claims to have found a way to cut its recidivism rate by 40 percent in the last five years. This drop is credited to a program to train correctional officers to offer more positive reinforcement, combined with housing credits available for the purpose of helping ex-convicts rebuild their lives.

The city’s unemployment rate for ex-convicts is 35 percent, which is significantly lower than some American cities. This pitch interests you, since the city you live and report in has a serious problem with recidivism. Last year, it was estimated that over 60 percent of former prisoners committed another crime that landed them back in prison.

So: Who should be among the first sources you interview?
There’s no right answer, of course. But we’d want to get to these folks:

Correctional officers in Springfield

Mayor of Springfield

Architects of the prisoner re-entry program in Springfield

Employers of ex-convicts in Springfield

Ex-convicts in Springfield — both employed and unemployed

Academic experts on recidivism

Question 2 (of 6)

OK, now you’ve located the architects of Springfield’s re-entry program.

What might you ask them to quickly understand how their approach works and whether it’s succeeding?
Again, there’s no right question. But we’d want to know…

How does Springfield’s re-entry program work?

What was the motivation to change the program?

What happens to prisoners in Springfield upon release?

How is that different from other places in the United States?

What are the ongoing challenges you face in implementing this program?

What, if anything, can Springfield do to improve its approach?

How much does it cost — and how does that cost compare to other approaches you considered?

Question 3 (of 6)

You decide to start the interview by asking, “How does Springfield’s re-entry program work?” Good question! (How did you think of it?) The program architects respond with a general description of the theory that drove the program design.

What question can you ask to sharpen the focus?

A good way to get to specifics is to ask: “What happens first?” And then, “what happens after that?” And, “What happens after that?” Etc. Etc. Some sources aren’t accustomed to talking about the mechanics of their approach; they’ll need your guidance to get to the real how-to story.

Question 4 (of 6)

So, now you ask: What happens to prisoners in Springfield upon release? (Also an excellent question! You’re on a roll!) The program architects respond: “They are very successful. In fact, the recidivism rate in Springfield has been reduced by 40 percent in five years.” But you knew that already from the press release.

What questions can you ask to make the evidence more concrete?
First, qualify their evidence.

What’s the source of that statistic? Regardless of the improvement, what’s the underlying recidivism rate – and how does that compare to similar communities?

Then, try to establish causality: Can they demonstrate a connection between their program and the reduction in recidivism? Were other things happening in Springfield around the same time that could help explain the improvement?

And also: Can we talk to ex-convicts and their employers to understand how the change in recidivism plays out in individual lives? It’s critical to talk to stakeholders who are affected by a response to see if their experiences jive with the data.

Question 5 (of 6)

Now, let’s find some researchers who have studied prison re-entry approaches across the nation.

What would you want to ask them?
Here are some questions we'd ask:

What, in your experience, are the causes of high recidivism?

What are the primary characteristics of successful programs that fight recidivism?

Who is the leader worldwide in reducing recidivism? Is there a particular town, city or country that has done exceptionally well?

[Describe Springfield’s approach]. How does this fit with what you know to work well with model recidivism programs?

What are the main factors that could lead to Springfield’s long-term success in this realm? What could prevent it from being successful?

What are the alternatives to Springfield’s approach?

Question 6 (of 6)

Finally, you’ll want to talk to actors in your own community – police, corrections officers, community agencies, and prisoners – to understand how Springfield’s approach might work there.

What questions might you ask them?
Here are some questions we'd ask:

Is Springfield’s prison population different in important ways than ours?

Are there contextual factors in this community that make Springfield’s approach impossible to implement?

Are there specific elements of Springfield’s approach that could work here, even if the entire solution isn’t appropriate?

Is the expense of Springfield’s approach something this community can afford?

Good Solutions Stories...