By now, we’ve learned that solutions stories tend to have common elements. The Basic Toolkit has some good tips for reporters pursuing solutions stories. This section is geared specifically for editors who are thinking more strategically about integrating solutions coverage into the rhythms of a newsroom.
We often say that problems scream while solutions whisper. Many problem-oriented stories—plane crashes, police shootings, disease epidemics, even a water main break—are “in your face”; they demand immediate coverage. Solutions-oriented stories, on the other hand, are rarely breaking news events. As with much enterprise reporting, newsworthy responses are likely to go undiscovered unless reporters deliberately surface and investigate them.
The question is when to invest scarce newsroom resources on these stories. For editors, it means reckoning with the questions: What are the most relevant, most valuable stories we can bring to our audience? What’s missing from the public conversation? And what stories are we doing just because we’ve always done them?
In practical terms, this may mean rethinking core assumptions about coverage needs, and asking questions like: Do we have to cover the school board meeting (again)—or is our reporter’s time better spent examining how schools are changing their approach to discipline? Do we need to do yet another variation of the high-crime-rates story—or should we send our reporter to a nearby city that has an approach to reducing gun violence that seems to be working?
It helps to have some actionable and relevant story ideas in mind when you’re introducing solutions journalism to the newsroom. Ideally, these ideas should illuminate the potential for solutions journalism to build on, or round out, priority coverage areas. Discuss with reporters how solutions journalism can fill gaps in overall coverage. However, simply encouraging journalists to pitch solutions-oriented stories may not be enough – you may need to be the catalyst.
As the editor, you might want to propose a story or series to get the ball rolling. Pick something that a broad audience will find interesting - a meaty topic featuring big ideas that could work in more than one place. The solutions approach works best when the issue is pervasive and widely acknowledged and can touch on a lot of interest areas. Gun violence and childhood obesity are two examples. If the problem is widely acknowledged, it’s likely that many people are trying to solve it, and some of those responses will be newsworthy.
We’re the first to acknowledge that the solutions approach isn’t appropriate for every story. It is a tool that should be used when there is a significant gap in the public consciousness about what is being done to address a problem. If you’re uncovering a new problem, the solutions angle will likely be premature. The outrage that your investigation prompts can itself be a powerful social catalyst. But witnessing wrongdoing and eliciting strong emotions—or empathy—is only one of many ways that journalism helps society self-correct. Too often, news organizations continue to stay with the watchdog role long after it has prompted considerable awareness about an injustice. This can backfire, causing people to tune out. Instead, news organizations can productively evolve their coverage to explore how people are trying to solve the problem—and what society can learn from them.
Solutions stories - or solutions series - can be big projects that extend over many months and pull resources from across the newsroom. If you aim to be ambitious with your solutions coverage, it behooves you to define the scope and activities of the project early on (even if you don’t have all the questions or solutions uncovered yet). For the series “Our Children: Searching for Solutions” on the impact of urban violence on children in communities, the Detroit Free Press decided to invest in a series of focus groups and a poll of Detroit residents to capture feedback and define the key questions and issues for reporters to cover. Articulating this vision from the beginning, and having it steeped in community engagement and feedback, helped to clarify objectives for the staff. The reporters got on board and were ultimately very enthusiastic about the final package (19 stories in total) because it aligned with the original vision of the project.
Solutions stories can be hefty. Rather than feel overwhelmed by the pressure to present everything into one piece, you could instead think about the story as something to be built over time through incremental reporting and narrative exposition.
When The Seattle Times launched Ed Lab in 2013, it confronted the challenge of figuring out what solutions journalism looked like in the context of a daily newsroom. Most examples of solutions journalism at the time were long-form articles, and the team grappled with how to write stories that would excite the audience. Initially there was a pressure to make sure each story fulfilled all guidelines of a solutions story, which felt like a lot to squeeze in: the problem, the solution, historical background, research, data, caveats, characters, and so on.
Squeezing all elements into one story at times felt like short-circuiting some parts; “we were flying by the problem!” former education editor Linda Shaw recalls. So, the team changed its approach. Instead of trying to accomplish everything in one story, it began spreading out the solutions coverage out across stories. A series might launch with a scene-setter story that laid out the scope of the problem and why the audience should care, before even touching on the solutions aspect. The initial stories could also introduce central characters who returned in future stories.
Aside from helping to pace the stories better, an additional benefit to this approach is spreading out the impact of the stories over time. The audience can be brought along for the journey. "One story is easy to forget. When you spread it out over time, you keep on going back to readers about the issue, reminding them and keeping them interested," says Shaw.
It’s been said that the only bias in solutions journalism should be toward evidence, and the facts should speak for themselves like in any other news story. Is it a really big problem? Is there a system, person, or policy causing this problem that could potentially be changed? Use data to confirm that.
In presenting a solution, you need to find evidence that it works (or doesn’t work). Be honest about what the data shows and what it doesn't. Data will inoculate reporters against charges they’re giving favorable coverage to a group or an idea. Seek opportunities for your reporters to gain capacity in data journalism (online learning platforms like Lynda.com are good resources for learning Excel and data visualization tools), or find ways to share data journalism capacity with other newsrooms. The Ohio Valley ReSource has a dedicated data reporter who works across the collaborative to benefit all partner stations. She develops data visualizations, produces interactive elements like maps, and in some cases helps reporters find story ideas by interrogating data sets around a certain issue.
“From a reader’s perspective, areas like education, child rearing, stress, safety, health...appeal in particular to American news audiences because the impact on them is direct. They are actively looking for ways to solve the problems that arise with them and their families in these areas. They naturally care most about the wellbeing of themselves and those around them.”
“You have to go deeper in the initial brainstorm/planning process. You have to take it beyond the basics and determine what are the possible solutions, what’s the best way to report those and are we covering all of our bases. It’s more work, but it also can lead to greater impact.”
“We look for programs that have managed to create change in long standing problems and those become the focus of our assignment—why did this work, what did it take, how is it different from other approaches that haven’t worked?”
Tips for doing solutions journalism as short-form stories