Solutions journalism has been seen as the antidote to the dominance of negativity in our news cycles.
But can positive and solutions-focused reporting help newsrooms' cash flow and pay the bills?
One regional news publisher based in the south of France shows that it can.
Speaking at Newsrewired (6 March), Aurore Malval, journalist of Nice-Matin, explains that after the publisher was saved from the brink of bankruptcy in 2014 by local readers, it started producing solutions stories with a small, dedicated team and this became the 'keystone' of their subscription strategy.
"We had this idea to forge a relationship with our community and to find solutions to local issues. It was a gamble for what type of content is our reader ready to pay for, and our answer was solutions," said Malval.
"We are featuring humans, not heroes. Obstacles and difficulties should be clearly presented. We work on the field, not just at the desk."
Readers backed a crowdfunding campaign to salvage jobs and help staff take over the publisher as a co-operative, surpassing their €300,000 target.
It was thanks to a €600,000 Google News Initiative grant in 2015 that they were able to launch their digital subscription platform '#monjournal' (my newspaper) with a new team built from scratch.
Initially, solutions journalism was not on their minds. It was not until after they had seen the response from the local community, they reconsidered how they could be giving back to their readers and how solutions could be at the heart of the offer.
"We saw the community had an attachment. Nice-Matin was more than a newspaper, it was a symbol, a piece of everyday life," she explained.
"We had something to give these readers because they were there when we needed them the most."
To give its crowdfunding campaign a practical sense, the publisher launched an ‘adopt a duck campaign’ - 'duck' (le canard) is a colloquial word for newspaper in French - to pre-sell the subscription offer with various exclusive perks to early adopters, including access to VIP events, behind-the-scenes reporting and pitching topics for the team to cover.
What a difference three years make. Now, with 180 journalists, 14 local editions, 600 daily articles, and 10,000 subscribers to #monjournal, Nice-Matin got a new lease of life.
Every month, the publisher proposes three topics in its newsletter. Subscribers can then vote for the investigation they would like deeper coverage of and the team then produce 10-15 articles a month on that chosen topic.
As a result, not only are Nice-Matin readers more engaged with solutions articles - an average reading time is six minutes on a solutions article, compared to around two minutes on other stories - they are more willing to support the newspaper. The publisher sees 13 per cent conversion to subscription from solutions stories, against six per cent on other stories.
However, the solutions style was met with some editorial pushback.
"It’s really important not to be confused with advertorial content and ‘feel good’ news, which is not solutions journalism," said Malval.
"We have received a lot of criticism because the idea was not well understood at the beginning. Solutions are demanding to find, they don’t fall from the sky.”
Some steep learning curves have given them pause for thought and shown solutions journalism has its time and place, as demonstrated with their coverage of the 2016 Nice terrorist attacks.
Malval, who had covered the event as it broke, went on to consider how solutions journalism could tell the story differently but it did not go according to plan.
"Fifteen days after the attacks, I was thinking maybe I want to write stories from a solutions perspective. I wanted to focus on the mental geographic and how the terror attack changed the mentality of different locations where the attack happened. How we can rebuild a city after such trauma?" she explained.
"I went on the field with this idea but I didn’t succeed at all because it was way too soon to do such an investigation.”
Free daily newsletter
- The role and the risks of solutions journalism for climate reporting
- How Black Ballad raised £335,000 in equity
- What will be the lasting legacy of the pandemic on the digital media world?
- Perugia highlight: what is next for the business of news?
- Headlines Network provides GNI-funded mental health resources in partnership with Mind