Credit: Jack Binder, reporter for Grady Newsource, courtesy of Mask Making for Athens Area Healthcare Workers.

Sara Catania is director of journalism school partnerships for the Solutions Journalism Network and teaches journalism at USC Annenberg. This story first appeared on The Solutions Journalism Network's Medium account on 12 March 2020 and has been republished and lightly edited with the author's permission.

When Anna Pogarcic first heard about solutions journalism, the editor-in-chief of the independent, student-run Daily Tar Heel liked the idea, but was not sure how feasible it would be to incorporate it into the newsroom at the University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill.

She quickly discovered that it was not only possible, but essential.

"It's been a major motivating factor in a mindset change our newsroom has made in thinking about how we can best serve our readers," said Pogarcic, also a senior journalism and history student at UNC.

"While reporting on problems is necessary, eventually we need to find new angles, and our solutions coverage has served that need," she said. "We consistently see high engagement for those stories among our readers, and these kinds of stories also excite our reporters and editors."

The Tar Heel is among a growing number of student news outlets publishing more solutions journalism than ever before. Of the nearly 250 stories tagged as student journalism in the Solutions Journalism Network’s Story Tracker, a curated repository of rigorous reporting on responses to societal problems, half have been published since January of 2020.

Those stories appeared in 28 professional news outlets, from the New York Times to The National, and in 19 student news outlets, including the Tar Heel.

Under the leadership of Pogarcic and Sonia Rao, a second-year UNC journalism and economics student who is the Tar Heel’s city and state desk editor, and with the help of a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network, the paper has published five solutions journalism stories since October 2020 that were accepted into the Tracker.

The stories focus on issues from securing votes and educating voters in the November election to support for black students in computer science to literacy efforts on behalf of incarcerated people.

"It benefits readers and it also makes us better storytellers," Pogarcic said. "Especially in today's journalism industry that is rapidly evolving, it helps to show that you're quick on your feet as a reporter and are constantly looking for better ways to report and tell these types of stories."

Making solutions journalism a priority

Cronkite News at Arizona State University has published more than 50 solutions journalism stories, the most among student news outlets.

In contrast with The Daily Tar Heel, which is student-led and operates independently with a faculty adviser, Cronkite News is incorporated into the teaching model at ASU’s Cronkite School of Journalism, under the direction of executive editor Christina Leonard.

All Cronkite journalism students are introduced to solutions journalism in one of their first journalism courses, and nearly everyone on the Cronkite News team of some 16 full-time faculty editors, known as directors, has undergone at least one intensive training for educators in how to teach solutions journalism.

"We have so many focus topics that lend themselves to solutions journalism — health, sustainability, social justice issues," Leonard said. The directors do not require students to pursue solutions journalism stories. Instead, they let students know they are interested in pursuing those stories and that they will work with them to ensure a strong solutions journalism outcome through the editing.

The students "work their beats and identify good story ideas," Leonard said. "Since their faculty directors may naturally identify solutions journalism opportunities because of their training, they make it happen together. Most of the solutions journalism stories have come from that process."

Student journalism submitted for Story Tracker consideration undergoes the same review as professional stories. When a student story is accepted, it is an affirmation that the work is not only professional-quality journalism, but also meets the additional standard of the solutions journalism criteria.

A recent Cronkite story accepted into the Tracker, about cross-fostering to boost the genetic mix of the Mexican wolf population, was celebrated as a "staff pick" by Kyle Plantz, one of the specialists at the Solutions Journalism Network who reviews submissions.

"It was such an interesting story and the authors literally answered every question that I had about the response from 'what does this cost?' to 'why should I care about this particular wolf?'" Plantz wrote in his assessment of the piece.

"They also included anecdotal and quantitative evidence, and thoroughly dove into the limitations," he wrote. "It was a great piece of journalism. I’m always amazed at the work these students are doing."

A solutions journalism capstone course

At the University of Georgia’s Grady School of Journalism, professor Amanda Bright has incorporated solutions journalism both into her course offerings and Grady Newsource, the student news outlet where she serves as managing editor, and which has 20 stories in the Tracker.

This semester, she is teaching a capstone course that is entirely solutions journalism focused. "Solutions journalism has become part of the DNA of Grady," said Bright, who participated in the 2019 Solutions Journalism Educator Academy.

"We are seeing our students — particularly those who are weary and disillusioned in our current media environment — reenergized by the chance to rigorously report on responses to problems in the communities we cover," Bright said. "Our journalists are finding sources willing to engage with reporters again, and at the same time, our students are sharpening their ability to deepen their storytelling."

Investigative solutions journalism at the University of Oregon

That engagement carries from student outlets to professional newsrooms, said Nicole Dahmen, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon, which has been offering solutions journalism courses and practicums for five years, with a special focus on investigative reporting.

Student journalism produced with the support of the university program, as well as grant funding from the Solutions Journalism Network, has been published in the Eugene Weekly, as well as the Daily Emerald and OR Magazine student publications.

"Students feel more favourably about journalism and their role as journalists following learning this reporting approach and they believe that solutions journalism can make a positive impact on society," Dahmen said. "Equally important, we are seeing our students land prestigious jobs and internships largely because they have published clips and they know how to bring new sets of skills and practice to newsrooms."

Among those former students are Kenny Jacoby, now an investigative reporter at USA Today, and Asia Alvarez Zeller, who covers education for several news outlets in the Pamlin Media Group.

A student solutions journalism project in Europe

What may be most noteworthy about student-generated solutions journalism, in the years since the University of Oregon was among the first to formally introduce the approach in a college classroom, is the myriad forms in which it is now being offered.

In 2020, several editors at The Local, a Stockholm-based network of news outlets across Europe, opted to include a student component in a larger project on migration. The decision was both pragmatic and hopeful.

Student journalists were an integral part of a larger project covering migration at The Local.

Experienced journalists can be "set in their ways and sort of cynical," said Jessica Phelan, a reporter with The Local Italy and one of the leaders of the project. She and her colleagues figured that students were more likely to be available to complete stories on a tight timeline, and more likely to be receptive to the solutions journalism approach.

Phelan and her colleagues were also drawn to the idea that the project might have a lasting impact. "Students are not yet fully decided on what kind of reporter they want to be, what kind of work they want to do," she said. "If you intercept them early that's something that will continue to influence them over time."

It was an ambitious idea. Phelan, along with Catherine Edwards, The Local's Europe editor, and a third editor co-leading the project had to fit it in around a raft of other work demands. They did not have much experience teaching, and among the cohort of 60 student journalists admitted to the project — conducted entirely in English — native English speakers were in the minority.

Yet beginning in October last year, they convened a series of online seminars and workshops for the group and then worked with them individually to hone their reporting and edit their stories. They began publishing the work in November of 2020, and by early January of 2021, the project was done, and ten of the published student stories were approved for inclusion in the Story Tracker, nine of them on The Local.

Edwards, who was herself an intern at The Local in 2013, was gratified by the students' energy and enthusiasm, and by the finished product, especially "strong stories about countries we don't normally cover."

Edwards and Phelan both highlighted stories from Greece as among the most impressive student work, including an evidence-driven piece on support for migrant job-seekers and a photo essay chronicling the resilience of residents of a refugee camp in Lesvos.

For Pogarcic at The Daily Tar Heel, the investment in learning solutions journalism is well worth it.

"I was surprised by the low barrier to entry," she said. "You don’t necessarily need years of experience or a fancy set of skills — just a desire to ask the questions of 'who is doing this right?'"

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).