We all worry about trust in journalism and how to promote it and increase it. But I wonder if we think enough about the building blocks to gaining or reestablishing trust with readers.
We know that exhaustion from a constant diet of “bad news” erodes trust, engagement, and subscriptions. It’s bad for business as well as for our souls.
That’s where the concept of “solutions journalism” can be a useful tool to rethink the way newsrooms address complex and sometimes overwhelming stories such as climate change, social issues like abortion or trans rights, or just daily crime or political reporting.
This week I talk with Kyuwon Lee, who is based in Southeast Asia for the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), probably the best-known of the groups devoted to the principle of journalism that provides answers and allows readers to take action on stories, not just be overwhelmed.
There’s also my recommended follow and a few must-reads that struck me this week.
Solutions journalism is one answer to the trust conundrum for newsrooms
You don’t have to join the Solutions Journalism Network to employ some of the principles of the concept of solutions journalism, which I will take a chance to describe as elements of reporting that can give readers a chance to take action, use their agency, to act on a news subject.
The idea of solutions journalism and giving readers stepping-off points to take action on something they’ve read about — from climate change to local politics — sometimes rubs up against questions of impartiality. Generally, I believe that is a failure of imagination. Surely we can come up with descriptions, as many sites do with mental health or suicide stories, for example, that allow us to offer readers pathways to take action.
Kyuwon Lee is driving the idea of solutions journalism in Asia in a new role for the SJN. Here’s an edited question and answer session with him plus some links for further reading.
INMA: How do you define the concept of solutions journalism as opposed to the SJ Network?
Kyuwon Lee: We define it as rigorous and evidence-based reporting on responses to social problems instead of what most of us journalists have been doing over the decades: reporting on problems repeatedly over and over again [and] we tend to make it even more negative… . There are people out there doing something to address these problems.
INMA: Is it valid to think of it as allowing readers to not feel helpless about big problems?
Kyuwon Lee: If you do the whole story and show that things could be better or problems coped with … then your readers might feel empowered, might feel more hopeful.
INMA: Climate change is a good example of that, correct?
Kyuwon Lee: The SJN has just launched a climate change focus initiative … and in Southeast Asia there are newsrooms that are doing solutions journalism-oriented stories on climate change. For example, Mongabay in India has been doing some solutions journalism stories around climate change.
INMA: What’s your own role in helping newsrooms adopt this style of reporting?
Kyuwon Lee: Whenever there’s a need and interest in solutions journalism, whatever the type or size of newsroom, I go and help them out. For example, here in Korea, one of the biggest broadcast newsrooms approached us, asking us to do a social journalism training. But also one of the smallest newsrooms in the country, with three full-time staff reporters, has done it, too. We don’t differentiate newsrooms based on their size or their profit model.
INMA: What makes them come to you? What’s their motivation to try to offer solutions?
Kyuwon Lee: Sometimes it’s buy-in from leadership when there’s a CEO, editor, publisher director who knows about the idea and feels that this is the way to go. Then the entire organisation can be invested in it when the when they feel like their audience and readers are drifting away from their subscription because of the recurring negative coverage.
INMA: News exhaustion looks like a real business issue for publishers.
Kyuwon Lee: Worldwide. It’s coming up repeatedly in why people are avoiding news. When people are reading the news, they are saying more and more that they’re not informed or engaged with social issues. They feel negative, they feel hopeless.
That exactly connects to their revenue model, especially for newsrooms depending on audience and reader subscriptions. If readers don’t like the product because of recurring negativity, they’re going to drop out, which is going to have a direct impact on revenue.
INMA: To some extent you are also reinforcing the mission of journalism, of journalists?
Kyuwon Lee: Journalists come to this world with some kind of integrity … so revenue and subscriptions — all these things aside — at some point they realise that they have been doing something wrong and they have to fix it in some way. I believe that’s actually the most important reason why the newsroom leaders and journalists come to us … to do this business differently.
We have multiple pieces of research, anecdotal examples, and case studies from around the world about how social journalism has an impact on user retention — people’s time on pages — compared to problem-driven journalism. People are telling us they’re more inspired, they’re more likely to revisit the page.
For more on the potential impact on engagement of a solutions journalism approach, here’s some further reading Kyuwon shared with me:
- Lab Test: Solutions Journalism Beats Brand X, on Medium from SJN.
- The Top 10 Takeaways from the Newest Solutions Journalism Research, on Medium from SJN.
- Forging a path from solutions journalism to reader revenue, on Medium from SJN.
Illia Ponomarenko @iaponomarenko is the defense correspondent of The Kyiv Independent. He’s clearly committed to front line coverage of the invasion of Ukraine, sharing lucid and insightful reports and intelligence on the progress and impact of the war.
A reminder that you may also find my own Twitter list of sources on the Ukraine conflict useful.
- Nearly 1,000 news industry jobs cut in UK, US and Ireland since June rather speaks for itself from the UK Press Gazette. Here’s an older analysis from the Columbia Journalism Review on layoffs during the pandemic.
- Journalists are failing our fragile democracy, a media insider says is a review in her own former newspaper, The Washington Post, of Margaret Sullivan’s new book: Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) from an Ink-Stained Life.
Tell me what you want to read and what you like or don’t like in this newsletter, please. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. I also plan a Slack group. Interested?
About this newsletter
Today’s newsletter is written by Peter Bale, based in New Zealand and the U.K. and lead for the INMA Newsletter Initiative. Peter will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global newsrooms.
This newsletter is a public face of the Newsroom Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Peter at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org with thoughts, suggestions, and questions.