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The Power of Solutions Journalism (and Some History)

Reporting on what works is gaining steam. Its Canadian roots are deep.

David Venn 3 Mar 2020Ryerson Review of Journalism

David Venn is a fifth-year journalism student at Ryerson University in Toronto with an interest in solutions reporting. He currently works at the Toronto Star as a breaking news reporter.

[Editor’s note: This article, a version of one that originally appeared in the Ryerson Review of Journalism which is produced by graduate and undergraduate students at Ryerson University, is published here with permission.]

Homelessness has for years been a serious problem in Vancouver. In 2010, Monte Paulsen, then a reporter for the Vancouver-based The Tyee, sought a different approach to telling a cyclical story.

The result was a three-part series pointing towards a potential partial solution. The headlines read:

“Green and Affordable Homes, Out of the Box.”

“Is this Canada’s Most Affordable Green Home?”

And “Homeless Housing For Less.”

The articles explained that since Vancouver is Canada’s busiest port city, more than two million 20-foot-long shipping containers arrived from Asia, with tens of thousands left behind. Paulsen reported on cities from Maquiladora, Mexico to London, England that successfully used these containers as housing units. He then scoured Vancouver, talking to government officials, designers, land developers, and architects, asking the same thing: Hey, is this possible?

The stories created a lot of interest. Then the Tyee helped organize and covered Architecture for Humanity’s “super-challenge” design competition. Stakeholders from government and industries gathered, participated, and conceptualized, eventually proving that yes, erecting a building in Vancouver built from shipping containers was in fact doable.

On Aug. 1, 2013, Atira Women’s Resource Society cut the ribbon on 12 shipping containers, welded into a three-storey, 12-unit social housing complex.

In 2017, Vancouver’s mayor unveiled a 40-unit modular housing unit, prompting him to say, “The numbers work. It’s minimal cost to the city. It’s something that generates enough income to operate with a small subsidy.”

He continued: “This is an example of the kind of creative and innovative ideas that we need more of,” speaking to different ways to solve the problem of lack of housing.

Tyee founding editor David Beers says reporter Paulsen played a distinct role in helping different segments of society cross-pollinate to solve a problem. “He spent weeks and months on this, and wrote brilliantly about it,” Beers says. “Like a honeybee, he moved around society.”

Such stories are increasingly recognized as solutions journalism. The idea is that reporting on responses to problems can provide larger impact, more insight, increased engagement, and examine issues in closer detail by looking at the other side of stories we rarely see.

Simply put, the journalist is encouraged to begin with a single question: How are we doing better?

‘What might go right tomorrow?’

The concept of solutions journalism has been gaining traction over the past decade across the country and around the world. HuffPost Canada has an impact section, the Guardian has the Upside, the New York Times has Fixes.

It’s had different names throughout journalism’s history. Some prefer the term “constructive journalism.” Beers called it future-focused when he first sought to name the emerging genre, admitting that he thought the term solutions was a bit “presumptuous.”

It’s tough to distinguish the exact moment when solutions journalism became a thing. The answers vary among practicing industry professionals and academics who study the subject.

In 1986, Beers wrote for the San Francisco Examiner magazine about suburban sprawl and its implications for the environment and land usage. The piece looked at the seeming inevitability that the economy, and work lives, would shift to sprawling suburbs and their business parks. The piece was called “Tomorrowland.” Peter Calthorpe, at the time, an architect lecturing at University of California, Berkeley, was frustrated by the article and gave Beers a call.

He invited Beers to meet with him to get the other side of the story, explaining over lunch how suburban areas could be made denser, compact, and walkable, which would be better ecologically and improve people’s well-being. A few weeks after that meeting, Beers wrote an article called “Redesigning the Suburbs,” again published by the Examiner magazine. A major developer read it and hired Calthorpe to design a town based on his ideas. Calthorpe went on to become a globally recognized urban designer. In the foreword to his book The Next American Metropolis, the author-architect credited Beers with helping his ideas find traction.

That’s impact, notes Beers, adding, “Most journalism asks, ‘What went wrong yesterday and who’s to blame?’ Solutions journalism asks: ‘What might go right tomorrow and who’s showing the way?’”

He applied that thinking again in 1991, when he was assigned by Vogue magazine to travel to Europe and report on ideas about harm reduction for drug abusers. His stories drew on scientific studies, expert sources and interviews with drug users to describe the early results of prescribing drugs to addicted persons, providing clean needles and safe injection sites, and other “strange ideas that no one in North American had much thought about.”

Vogue killed the story before it could be published, deeming it too pro-drug. But Beers continued researching and reporting in Los Angeles. The result of that effort was finally published in Mother Jones magazine under the headline “Just Say Woah.”

Beers was at the forefront of a hot topic. America’s war on drugs and “aggressive drug enforcement policy,” lasted half a century and cost American taxpayers over one trillion dollars, according to Glen Olives Thompson’s 2014 book Slowly Learning the Hard Way: US America’s War on Drugs and Implications for Mexico. A few years after Beers moved to Vancouver in 1991, that city happened to begin trying some methods of harm reduction, including needle exchanges and the safe injection site.

‘What are people doing that is working?’

Canadian David Bornstein is co-founder and CEO of the Solutions Journalism Network, based in New York City and in service of “rigorous reporting on responses to social problems.”

In 1996, Bornstein published his first book, The Price of a Dream, which was a story about Grameen Bank’s anti-poverty approach used in their innovative micro-financing model, based in Bangladesh. That story inspired him to ask: “What are people doing that is working?”

In 2010, journalist Tina Rosenberg shared with Bornstein her idea for a new column in the New York Times called Fixes. It became a joint platform for the two journalists who believe, as Bornstein puts it, “You can only really hold people accountable for performance if you can show that better performance is possible.”

Three years later, out of Fixes grew the Solutions Journalism Network. Its goal is to bring solutions journalism to every newsroom, worldwide, by offering teaching and resources for journalists, academics, students, or professionals. The response has been heady.

At the Seattle Times, Education Lab, a partnership project by SJN, began a series of stories that exposed how Black and Latino students were more susceptible to school discipline than their white counterparts, and the damage that expulsions and suspensions were doing to the students’ futures.

The articles also focused on solutions — what methods of school discipline worked best. The team at Education Lab laid out alternatives in compelling articles backed with verified research. For example, ending suspensions for students who are chronically late or truant, as well as limiting “exclusionary discipline for students who do not behave in threatening ways,” and prohibiting “all expulsions for kindergarten to fourth-grade students,” according to the Seattle Times reporter Neal Morton.

Such changes were written into law in 2016, affecting the lives of thousands of students. Linda Shaw, editor of Education Lab at the time the series was published, says “It was clear the first year that audiences were hungry for this kind of reporting because anecdotally, we just got so much good feedback about the stories.”

In 2014 Erin Millar joined with two former writers for The Tyee, Christine McLaren and Colleen Kimmett, to form the Discourse in Vancouver. The digital start-up’s mission has evolved to filling gaps left by a deteriorating local media.

One example of how the Discourse has practiced solutions journalism is through its work in Scarborough, Ontario. Reporter Aparita Bhandari’s article “More than an eyesore, Scarborough strip malls celebrate community” portrays the value and opportunity ethnic stores bring to marginalized communities and minorities.

Discourse recently discontinued its reporting on Scarborough, shifting its resources to covering the Cowichan Valley in B.C.

The Discourse team’s story decisions start with asking, “Does it reveal complexity, new perspectives, or solutions about systemic issues?” explains Anita Li, director of communities, who notes this approach attracts funders, donors, and audiences. All belong to “a community of like-minded people who want to affect change in the world and want to brainstorm and discuss solutions to systemic issues.”

“The best way of attracting an audience and ultimately creating revenue and making money is by creating good journalism,” says Li. “And solutions journalism is fantastic.”

Li adds that although the Discourse’s money comes from private investors, partnerships, grants and readers, those who run the operation retain editorial independence. 

Countering ‘helplessness driven by the media’

If solutions journalism can attract financial support, how does it do with audiences? In France, the Nice-Matin was in the red before adopting a solutions-based content model. According to the SJN, the publication’s subscriptions rose 70 per cent and gained 300 per cent more page visits on solutions articles.

The Seattle Times Education Lab also reported stellar numbers for engagement. Over 60 per cent of the Seattle Times readers agreed with the statement, “The [solutions-based] story changed the way I think about this topic.” The project found solutions journalism stories received more than twice the page views for other pieces, and readers spent nearly twice as long reading them. And solutions stories received over 230 per cent more social shares, according to Education Lab.

Researcher Delphine Ruaro notes that a sizeable amount of public criticism of media is the industry’s focus on conflict. This has resulted in a loss of confidence. “These criticisms are justified,” she writes in her journal article “Engaging Audiences through Solutions Journalism: Effects on Mood, Behaviour and Attitude Toward the Newspaper,” published by the London School of Economics and Political Science. “Newspapers have been evidenced to be negatively biased, and to have a negative effect on readers [causing anxiety and fatigue].” 

Ruaro’s paper suggests it is unclear whether solutions journalism can bring about a positive psychological reaction in audiences. However, it posits that an article that has “mobilizing information could counter the helplessness driven by the media by explaining how readers can individually contribute to solving the issue.”

Critics have asked if this edges too close to advocacy. “One of the top misconceptions about solutions journalism is that it advocates for a specific solution or proposes a solution that doesn’t yet exist,” writes Samantha McCann, SJN’s director of communities. She distinguishes reported solutions articles from “stories that advocate for a specific solution” which “are usually found in the opinion section of the paper. Authors take a stand and argue why a specific program is the best choice.”

Yet urban designer Peter Calthorpe uses the word advocacy with approval. In the foreword to his book, the exact quote is: “Finally, I must acknowledge David Beers, who through a rare act of advocacy journalism, first published these ideas and thereby catalyzed much of what has come to pass.”

Beers is comfortable with the way Calthorpe described his approach. “When journalists transmit the ideas and visions of experts, they are [in part] advocating for one vision of the world or another. We should be rigorous, skeptical and fair-minded on behalf of the reader. But we shouldn’t consider it a sin to facilitate discussions that could lead to positive change.”

Bornstein rejects the notion that solutions journalism is the same as advocacy. “Basically, you’re just reporting on a response to a social problem, the results that it’s getting, and what could be learned from it,” he says.

“You only have good evidence about the past and only conclusive evidence about the distant past,” says Bornstein. “To protect yourself, the main thing that journalists need to do is not to over-claim.” Every problem has its limitations and, in turn, so does the solution. These need to be clearly stated.

The Tyee has from its outset in 2003 published hundreds of solutions journalism articles, giving them their own category on the site (see sidebar). Beers, who still works there as an editor, offers three methods of solutions-focused storytelling.

The first is living an attempt at the solution and writing about it. An example of this, he says, would be The 100-Mile Diet, a global phenomenon launched on The Tyee by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon to raise awareness about the benefits of producing and consuming food locally.

The second is finding a small-scale experiment in one’s midst that has already collected viable data, and then reporting on it. These stories ask: This experiment seems to be working. Why and can it be scaled up? Why wouldn’t this work in this town or city? An example of this might be reporting on safe injection sites in Vancouver.

The last method of solutions reporting asks: Is our future happening somewhere else right now? Recall that Monte Paulsen found the seeds of his shipping container housing story across the Atlantic, far from home.

Solutions. Future-focused. Constructive. Call it what you will. The methods and imagination behind such reporting are what matter.

“I think that ultimately, the term ‘solutions’ will just go away. It won’t be needed,” says Bornstein. “You won’t have to say there’s a special kind of journalism that asked you to go look at how people are trying to solve problems. It’ll just be obvious.”  [Tyee]

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