Several of our partners emphasize the importance of having a strong leader who can set the tone, inspire the troops, gain buy-in from staff, cultivate enthusiasm, and maintain focus on solutions reporting amidst the crush of daily deadlines. “Identify the person who is going to lead it [the solutions journalism project],” says Jeff Harris of WEWS News 5 Cleveland. Others emphasize the interdependence of newsroom culture and leadership: “Culture comes from the top down. Culture comes from leadership,” says Marty Kaiser, former editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Beyond your own role, identify other editors or writers who can encourage colleagues to systematically ask, “Is there a solutions angle to this story? Who’s doing it better?” Find people who feel strongly about bringing solutions journalism into the newsroom. Ask them to keep the momentum going amidst the crush of daily deadlines. If possible, designate champions at different desks. We’ve found that, over time, as reporters gain experience with solutions journalism, this reflex starts to set in organically. Reporters begin to instinctively ask questions that they hadn’t before, and they naturally become thought partners, or mentors, for others.
Editors play a critical role in helping reporters form new habits. Having a newsroom leader or manager who can keep a focus on solutions journalism in mind, in spite of the demands of breaking news, is critical. “Have a couple of people who are really tuning in to story pitches and figuring out that fit with solutions journalism,” says Harris.
This routine of constantly looking for openings will begin to build new patterns. As news breaks, as reporters come to you with ideas, and as coverage plans unfold in daily meetings, be mindful of opportunities to bring the solutions lens into coverage. The simple question, “Is there a solutions angle here?” can quickly turn an editorial conversation toward a richer and more productive news strategy. The idea is to move the discussion from the hypothetical to the operational—from “Should we do solutions journalism?” to “How about this story?”
Similarly, editors can cultivate a sustained focus on community engagement across the newsroom by finding ways to make it everyone’s job. For example, you can task each reporter with devoting time to engaging different groups through social media or in-person through events. Re-adjust the newsroom schedule to allow staff paid time for engagement activities. Find someone in your newsroom who can take ownership of advocating for community engagement. Try to institute small changes across the newsroom to cultivate the shift, all the way down to the way each reporter structures their day and their week.
Make it your job as well to engage in the dialogue with the community and talk about your solutions journalism. "Back in the 1990's, 2000's, you would write an editor's column from the mountaintop. Now, it's about getting into the trenches, getting into the Facebook groups, being active on social media. Explain what you do, share stories there, engage with the audience when they call you out, respond to them. It becomes more real on an individual one-on-one basis. To me, that's the modern engagement of the editor," says Bro Krift, editor of the Montgomery Advertiser.
As an editor, the easiest way to integrate solutions into your coverage is to ask reporters to do it. Be explicit about what you’d like to see. Maybe it’s at least one solutions-oriented story a month, or maybe it’s that reporters are systematically asking the question ‘Who’s doing it better?’ in investigations or as part of ongoing news coverage. Establish a separation of basic/breaking news from the solutions and enterprise stories and set distinct goals for the latter.
In the course of our newsroom workshops, reporters and editors quickly come to see the potential to highlight important (usually under-reported) ideas or models that could positively impact society. Editors can further support the practice by rewarding reporters who produce quality solutions journalism. Rewards can be as simple as congratulations for a job well done, front-page billing, or recognition within the newsroom for journalists who help others see creative ways to break free of old reporting habits.
Another tactic to catalyze cultural adoption of solutions journalism is to explicitly highlight the change, both internally in the newsroom and externally to the audience. Talking about your newsroom as one that is engaged in solutions reporting – and explaining what that means – feeds the self-perceptions of your staff, as well – ensuring that solutions are not just bounded to a specific story or series, but can become a natural and consistent part of how you practice journalism throughout the newsroom.
"Back in the 1990's, 2000's, you would write an editor's column from the mountaintop,” says Bro Krift, editor of the Montgomery Advertiser. “Now, it's about getting into the trenches, getting into the Facebook groups, being active on social media. Explain what you do, share stories there, engage with the audience when they call you out, respond to them. It becomes more real on an individual one-on-one basis. To me, that's the modern engagement of the editor."
Some editors choose to be very clear that they are practicing “solutions journalism” by labeling solutions stories. For example, the Montgomery Advertiser has a hashtag (#sojomgm) and a landing page for solutions stories. You may also choose to use more subtle signals that train your readers to expect and consume solutions reporting. For example, you could introduce a visual element to make solutions stories look distinctive (e.g. bullet points that read: "This is how it is done elsewhere," "This is how it can be solved," or "Three pieces of advice"), or put constructive, solutions-oriented stories in a consistent section of the paper. This is a very clear way to show the audience that you are doing something new, which could result in an increase in subscriptions, trust and satisfaction. You can turn these signals into goals for your reporters; for example, each desk may be given a target for how many “bullets” to reach each week.
It can also be valuable to communicate a shift towards solutions journalism to advertisers, who may see new possibilities in supporting solutions-oriented coverage. The Minneapolis Star Tribune publishes a section in their paper called “Inspired” where readers can expect to find solutions-oriented stories – and advertisers have taken special interest. This is consistent with the experience of other partners, like The Seattle Times, who have found that solutions-oriented content offers new possibilities for fundraising and corporate support.
“Everyday, you ask, what story do you do? When you’re investigating solutions, it puts more stories on the table… Go out of your way to be frequent.”
“Don’t leave the reporter on an island through the reporting and writing. Be a collaborator, a sounding board, as he or she works through this different way of telling stories.”