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

Basic Toolkit / Vetting a Solutions-Oriented Story

Good Solutions Stories...

....Focus more on what’s going on than who’s doing it.

Good solutions journalism stories have characters, just like any story. But the work is usually the main character.

...Answer lots of “how” questions.

In addition to the five W’s (who, what, when, where, why), ask how. They get into the nitty gritty of how change happens. David Bornstein, SJN’s co-founder, explains: “When I was interviewing people for my book The Price of A Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank, I had a list of 60 ‘how’ questions. How did you finance this idea? How did you realize people would pay back their loans? How did you decide to make groups have five members? How did you respond when mullahs intimidated the borrowers?"

...Don’t shy away from detail.

When Peg Tyre wrote “The Writing Revolution,” which explored how a writing-based curriculum led to dramatic test score improvements in a Staten Island high school, her editors at The Atlantic were initially worried that the specificity she wanted to include was too wonky and would turn readers away. “Not at all,” Peg responded. “It’s just like ‘House,’ the television show. The details are what bring the story alive.” We’ve seen in solutions-oriented stories that details can often add interest and credibility.

...Put characters in scenes.

Solutions-oriented stories tend to focus less on a character’s intrinsic qualities (e.g., altruism or courage), and more on the character’s work. Show a character trying to solve a problem, and failing or succeeding. Show the results they’re getting, and how this differs from what others do. Show what can be learned from it. This has the added benefit of giving you dynamic scenes and a strong narrative.

...Keep the reader hooked through tension.

Every good story needs tension, but it doesn’t have to come from the clash of two sides, as is so often the default in today’s media. In a solutions-oriented story, the tension is also rarely in, “Will they succeed?” That’s often implied in the headline or in the lede. Rather, the tension is in answering the questions, “How will they solve this problem that has stumped so many others? How do they overcome the obstacles in their way?”


  • Sophie Fung

    In other words: a good solution story shows a data-backed process and results, illustrated by unbiased testimony. (?) The Diplomat is also a well-written show focused on problem-solving BTW.

  • Mary Agoyi

    The power of detail...

  • Chidindu Mmadu-Okoli


  • Steph Newman

    Love the comparison to House! If you think about it, House is an example of a "solutions-focused" TV show as opposed to focusing solely on character conflicts.


“I don’t think that there’s one way to do a solutions story in terms of the writing. I do think that the 'howdunnit' approach is a really helpful place to start. Not who done it, but how done it. Exactly how did this person or team or community or whatever grapple with a problem and break it down and surmount it? Exactly how? I think that [structure] may be more interesting than a lot of reporters might immediately assume.”

Claudia Rowe
The Seattle Times
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Quiz Yourself

Should you chase this story?

Here are summaries of public relations pitches for potential stories. You decide: Is this a good solutions story worth pursuing? Not a good solutions story? Or do you need more information?

Pitch 1 (of 3)

The Pawnee, Indiana, Department of Parks and Recreation has revealed a new initiative to prevent children’s injuries on the town’s playground equipment. The plan includes new signs on all equipment with clear instructions for use and warnings of potentials dangers, as well as a broad public information campaign on safe playground activities. (No sliding head-first!)

Deputy director Lesley Knope said the new approach is based on existing playground safety strategies in 120 other Indiana communities, some of which have demonstrated reductions of up to 35% of injuries related to see-saws, swings, and jungle-gyms.

Worth pursuing.

The press release indicates a thoughtful plan with clear how-tos that is anchored in relevant comparisons from other communities – and easily accessible evidence to show that the approach works.

Pitch 2 (of 3)

The town of Mayberry, North Carolina, has been recognized for having the lowest crime rate in the United States. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which developed the national crime survey, cited Mayberry for its persistent efforts to curb burglaries, out-of-town con-men, and jaywalking.

Mayberry deputy sheriff Barney Fife said, “We don't go in for fancy technical equipment here. We're just plain, simple men fighting organized crime with raw courage.”

You need more information.

First of all, is it meaningful to compare crime rates in a small rural community to those of larger cities? Beyond that, what are Mayberry’s crime-fighting approaches? Are they distinctive? How do they work? And the reference to Fife sounds a lot like hero-worship; you’ll need to get past that to see if there’s really a story backed by evidence.

Pitch 3 (of 3)

At a news conference this afternoon, Dillon High School principal Tami Taylor announced the installation of a new “Jumbotron” digital scoreboard at the school’s football field. Remarking that the new scoreboard “brings Panther football into the 21st century!” Taylor said the addition would create new recruiting and sponsorship opportunities for the school. Construction is set to begin this fall.

Taylor also thanked Panther Booster Club president Buddy Garrity for hosting a fundraiser that will support construction of a new library at the school.

This is not a solutions story at all.

While of interest to Panther football fans, the scoreboard doesn’t actually solve a problem. It’s just a scoreboard – and a solutions story has to identify and explain an urgent social problem that demands a response.


Conducting Interviews for a Solutions-Oriented Story?