3 Things I Learned About Solutions Journalism

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(HINT: That’s a real thing)

By Joy Portella


I’ve never been a journalist, and I have definite Fourth Estate envy. I’ve been oddly flattered the dozen or so times in my career when someone’s asked me: You used to be a journalist, right?


That’s why I was almost giddy to spend a gorgeous mid-July day locked in a room in Portland, OR with several dozen real-life journalists. And these weren’t just any journalists. They were writers, documentarians, and storytellers engaged in a discipline called Solutions Journalism, which does rigorous reporting on how people respond to social problems. In short, these were my people.


I first had a glimpse of Solutions Journalism years ago when I was leading communications at the global humanitarian organization Mercy Corps. We had pitched Tina Rosenberg and the New York Times’ “Fixes” team on a story about a social enterprise in Indonesia that tackled the problem of child malnutrition in urban slums. The resulting columns were great but took tremendous effort. Tina and her team had a seemingly endless stream of questions about how the social enterprise worked, if our early impact data proved it was effective, and what we planned to improve as it evolved.


This experience was both refreshing and challenging. NGO communicators are used to dealing with two types of reporters: those who want to talk about how unmitigatedly great your organization is, and those who want to tear down your work and say it’s terrible. But this “Fixes” team was different; they were insatiably curious and doggedly diligent in their reporting. They were impressed with Mercy Corps’ intervention but wanted to get at exactly if and how it worked.


I came out of the experience thinking: What was that?


It winds up “that” was a nascent form of reporting called Solutions Journalism. “Fixes” was its original laboratory, and Tina and her colleague David Bornstein are pioneers in the field. The Solutions Journalism Network – funded by a collection of high-profile philanthropists like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Emerson Collective – partners with newsrooms and individual journalists across the country to report on responses to problems ranging from homelessness to healthcare access to mass incarceration. Their longest-running partnership supports my hometown Seattle Times’ coverage of education solutions.


To a communicator who works with organizations that spend every waking hour responding to problems, Solutions Journalism has a lot of appeal. So when I had the opportunity to attend the Network’s gathering of West Coast journalists and communicators last month, I jumped at the chance. The day was spent learning more about the Solutions Journalism approach, how it’s different from other forms of reporting, and how it can be applied to challenges facing Washington, Oregon, California, and beyond.


What did I learn?


First of all, I gained a better understanding of what Solutions Journalism is. This form of reporting examines a response to a problem and how that response was formulated. It points out the limitations or weaknesses of the response and provides insights that could help others combat the same problem. And here’s the key differentiator from other similar reporting: Solutions Journalism provides evidence of impact; it assesses an intervention’s effectiveness, not just its intentions.


Second, I learned what Solutions Journalism is not. It’s not a worshipful story of a single person or organization that’s doing amazing work, or a celebration of simple, silver-bullet solutions. Problems, and solutions, are complicated, and even the best interventions have limitations or hit obstacles.


This lesson may be a particularly tough one for nonprofits, foundations, and social enterprises that are tempted to only talk about their work in glowing terms to secure funding and trust. A trained Solutions Journalist will see through that kind of narrative in short order and call it what it is: marketing and PR. To truly engage in this kind of reporting, our sector needs to get more real about telling its own stories.


Finally, I learned about why Solutions Journalism exists in the first place. It is a reaction to the doom, gloom, and disaster that too often dominate headlines and too rarely lead to any kind of sustained action. What’s missing from these headlines about big problems is how people are responding. Climate change is threatening the planet? Let’s talk about how communities are creating ground-up mitigation strategies. Rising inequality is fueling a deepening housing crisis? Let’s highlight how innovative street outreach is slowly but steadily helping the homeless gain stability and services.


In short, let’s roll up our sleeves, get to work, and talk honestly about how we’re doing it. That’s something Minerva and all our clients can get behind.


If you want to learn more about Solutions Journalism, sign up here to receive The Response, a weekly sampling of Solutions Journalism stories on specific topics. I highly recommend.


About The Author

Minerva Strategies

Minerva Strategies

The Minerva team has decades of experience working with nonprofits, foundations, and values-driven companies. Minerva also partners with experts—trusted designers, web developers, global communications professionals, and others—who share our excitement for creating positive social change. Through these partnerships, we can build a team that is tailored to your needs. Learn more about who we are or what we do.