By seeking to tell stories about ‘who’s doing it better and how,’ The Journal is building on the foundation of a movement with deep roots in Kansas.
When I first started reading a daily newspaper, I was small enough that it made sense to sit on my knees in a chair, leaning over our family’s dining room table to read and turn the pages.
The paper before me was The Wichita Eagle, and the sports page and the comics tended to be what most captured my attention. But clearly something else stuck with me too.
The Eagle of the late 1980s and 1990s, led by Editor Davis “Buzz” Merritt, was at the forefront of the public journalism movement, which stressed the interdependence of journalism and democracy. It challenged the traditional ideal that the role of journalists was to simply report what policymakers were doing. Instead, they would cover issues in ways that help citizens and communities make progress on the problems they face.
When he looked at how campaigns were being covered, Merritt saw a discourse that lacked seriousness and focused on photo-ops and soundbites. His remedy was to tilt press coverage away from politicians and toward voters themselves, by finding out what they care about, providing information about those issues and giving them an understanding of where candidates stood on them.
And it wasn’t something that journalists should do just during elections. Every issue facing the community could be covered this way.
Even at a young age, I found this to be an interesting and provocative idea. And it didn’t hurt that my hometown paper was leading the charge.
Not everybody was keen on the idea. Traditionalists often saw a gimmick that put journalists in position to make the news rather than report it. Where was the line between reporting on solutions and becoming an advocate for those solutions? Rather than reform, they saw mission creep.
For a time, public journalism was a big deal, especially among academics and journalistic reformers. In 1997, the journalist James Fallows published a book called, “Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, which crystalised the argument against the status quo. (He’s now writing an email newsletter under that title.)
‘Who’s doing it better and how’
Public journalism soon faded from the limelight. The rise of the internet diminished the gatekeeping ability of traditional outlets and everybody became a content producer. But the ideas of Merritt and Jay Rosen, a New York University professor and another prominent reform advocate, stuck with me. So much so that I found myself writing papers about the promise and peril of public journalism, also sometimes called civic journalism, while a senior in college.
Even as the initial fad died out, the ideas found new life. During a couple of recent election cycles, The Journal surveyed its audience and built stories about campaign issues based on what they wanted to see covered, an approach called “The Citizen’s Agenda” to election coverage. It’s an approach that Rosen has helped shape and which harkens back to the public journalism movement of the ‘90s.
But you can also see the influence of public journalism in The Journal’s embrace of solutions journalism as a core approach to how our publication covers civic issues and leadership. The anchor for solutions-centric coverage is the Solutions Journalism Network, based in New York City, which has worked with more than 500 news organizations and 20,000 journalists throughout the world on integrating the approach. The crux of solutions journalism is to look at “who is doing it better and how.”
Solutions journalism has developed in a way that addresses concerns of some journalists that anything other than hard-hitting (and usually bad) news is fluffy or insubstantial. First off, a good solutions story is rigorous. It focuses on the response to a social problem, and examines why the response has worked or why it hasn’t. It looks for evidence, both data as well as qualitative results, that show how effective or ineffective the effort has been. It also tries to show the limitations of a response by showing what hasn’t worked or what might keep it from working elsewhere. A good solutions story also offers insight that helps others understand how the response might be relevant to their context.
Instead of just learning about a problem, which can increasingly be a turn-off in an environment where the news can feel overwhelming, solutions journalism creates the opportunity for audiences to understand how a problem might be addressed, giving them the “whole story,” in the words of the organization.
The Solutions Journalism Network emerged from the “Fixes” column being written by David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg in The New York Times, which started in 2010. The pair joined Courtney Martin to found SJN in February 2013. The network has helped solutions journalism reach a scale far beyond what public journalism was able to achieve. The organization’s story tracker database includes more than 13,800 stories from 6,000 journalists and 1,800 news outlets from 187 different countries.
Not every story that The Journal publishes is a solutions story. However, since 2021, The Journal has placed at least a dozen stories in that database on topics ranging from mental health to vaccinations to civic engagement.
It always feels like a significant accomplishment when one gets included. We have had a couple of our submissions rejected for the database because they didn’t adhere to solutions journalism closely enough. It didn’t mean they weren’t good stories, only that they didn’t fit the model. But every rejection comes with an explanation from a reviewer that helps us learn where we fell short so that we continue to improve our solutions storytelling skills.
As The Journal’s investment in solutions journalism has grown, so has our relationships with its practitioners. I’ve also worked with the Solutions Journalism Network through the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, which it helped launch, attended one of their summits and became a fellow in SJN’s first Complicating the Narratives cohort. Nearly all of our Journal contributors have received formal training in the practice.
In my view, solutions journalism is fulfilling the promise that public journalism made decades ago to help journalism become more constructive and bolster democracy rather than weaken it. Highlighting solutions helps us see that problems, however different, are not intractable. Progress can be made, and we can learn something from the place where change is occurring.
At first, I struggled with the term solutions journalism. Especially since the Kansas Leadership Center trains its participants to work on adaptive challenges, which tend to resist quick fixes or any single solution imposed by authority. Even some advocates of solutions journalism concede the name can be problematic, but it’s been hard to find a better term. (Interestingly enough, an organization in Germany has chosen to use the term “constructive journalism.”)
However, as my understanding of solutions journalism has grown, I’ve come to see deep connections between it and KLC’s leadership framework. One of the purposes of KLC’s approach is to help make the risks of leading more manageable by helping us focus on the challenge at hand and share the load with others. Solutions journalism informs our leadership by helping us understand what worked and didn’t work elsewhere and what we can learn from it, allowing us to diagnose situations and start our own leadership on civic challenges from a more informed and hopeful perspective.
The ultimate impact KLC seeks to achieve is to help shape a Kansas civic culture that is healthy and productive and well-positioned to make measurable progress on the daunting challenges that serve as barriers to a stronger, healthier and more prosperous state. That goal fits hands-in-glove with The Journal’s solutions-oriented approach to storytelling, which shows us how progress toward a healthier civic culture can occur one intervention at a time.
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