How solutions journalism can engage an overwhelmed audience

By JoAnna Haugen

INMA

Kyiv, Ukraine

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From the climate crisis to polarising politics, it’s hard to read the news today without feeling a bit overwhelmed and helpless. These feelings are having a real impact on news consumption: 29% of people surveyed worldwide in 2017 said they often or sometimes avoid the news. By 2019, this number jumped to 32% worldwide. Why? Fifty-seven percent of Americans said reading the news has a negative effect on their mood. A September 2019 paper specifically examining the emotional experience of consuming political news in the age of President Trump also indicated people felt overwhelmed, angry, and depressed. 

So, what is the solution? One option is going beyond “traditional” news coverage and incorporating just that: a solution. 

32% of people surveyed worldwide say they often or sometimes avoid the news.
32% of people surveyed worldwide say they often or sometimes avoid the news.

Traditional journalism details a systemic problem but often stops there. Solutions journalism goes a step beyond by introducing and explaining idea(s) used to solve the problem. This data-driven information explains how these solutions have succeeded or failed, thus providing a more complete and more accurate story about a situation. It also increases reader engagement and can have a meaningful impact as people more constructively engage in conversations and look for models of change in a world that is increasingly crowded with news that leaves people feeling helpless and hopeless. 

At the recent Solutions Journalism Summit, hosted by the Solutions Journalism Network, 90 solutions journalism advocates met to discuss opportunities and obstacles for implementing this model into their newsrooms, journalism classes, and daily work. As an attendee, these are a few of the highlights I took away from the two-day event. 

Not everything is a solutions story — but if there’s an opportunity, take it! 

In an age of quick coverage, it’s easy to report on what is happening without taking time to dig further. But going a step further to find out who is doing something to address a specific situation — and who is doing it better — adds a layer of complexity and consideration that elicits meaningful reaction from readers. 

Solutions journalism helps surface effective strategies for communities, delegitimizes excuses for inaction, reimagines a status quo, and can change a community’s conversation and official policy. For newsrooms interested in building reader engagement and loyalty, there’s a particularly compelling reason to adopt solutions journalism: Readers of solutions stories spend more time on page and have lower bounce rates

However, as a human being living in our complicated world, it’s the fact that solutions stories restore a sense of hope and replace a sense of helplessness with a feeling that problems can be solved that hits home. As a writer, this motivates me to take that extra step to learn about and report on solutions. 

Research shows readers of solutions stories spend more time on page and have lower bounce rates.
Research shows readers of solutions stories spend more time on page and have lower bounce rates.

Solutions journalism can — and should — be a practice, not a project. 

It’s a natural fit to incorporate a solutions angle into large-scale or investigative news projects, but incorporating solutions journalism only in this way is exhausting.

Don’t think of solutions journalism in a silo — applying it to a single article at a time — but rather a new way to approach the work your newsroom is already doing. With this in mind, it’s a lot easier to move beyond what an issue is and includes an explanation of how the issue is being addressed: How are people/organisations responding to a particular issue? What responses are or are not working?

Solutions journalism can even be applied to shorter pieces. If a problem is well known by readers, add a brief summary, then skip right to how the problem is being addressed. Use data to prove a solution works so you don’t have to make a case for the solution. And keep in mind some solutions are simple; don’t overcomplicate anything that’s straightforward. 

Even small newsrooms can find ways to incorporate solutions.

With shrinking newsrooms and increasingly smaller news budgets, I understand why media companies might find solutions journalism to be a step beyond what they’re capable of handling. But keeping in mind this should be a practice and not a project, even small newsrooms can proactively incorporate this approach into their workflow.

By asking what the most relevant and valuable stories are to an audience and what is missing from the public conversation, newsrooms can hone in on those topics that are of interest to the community. This is also an ideal way to reevaluate whether some coverage exists simply because it’s always been done (I’m looking at you, school board coverage) and whether time and energy would be better off placed elsewhere. 

Unconferences allow for deeper, more meaningful conversations. 

The news media industry is changing faster than anyone can keep up with it. Even though lots of companies have found success moving through these transformations, no one has all the answers. 

Many conferences I attend feature a pre-set agenda with talking heads who share their insight with minimal two-way discussion. The Solutions Journalism Summit followed an “unconference” model, which allowed dozens of relevant topics to surface and encouraged thoughtful conversation based on subjects attendees wanted to discuss. For each of the four main sessions, attendees offered to facilitate round-table talks on topics they either felt particularly qualified to lead or about which they were genuinely interested in learning more. Over the course of two days, there were approximately 50 round-table conversations — some on topics that arose out of other discussions people had with each other during the Summit. 

When it comes to the media industry, we don’t know what we don’t know. This includes people around the world working in newsrooms and operations, in traditional media and those experimenting with new media. Yes, it even includes you.

Instead of competing with each other — for readers, pageviews, the bottom line — people working in this industry have an opportunity to work together to chart a mutually beneficial way forward. Embracing the unconference style, which welcomes a variety of voices and ideas, can be empowering and beneficial for an industry that often seems to struggle with how to get ahead.

About JoAnna Haugen