Warming up for solutions journalism at the SJN 2018 Summit

Credit: Solutions Journalism Network

Julia Hotz is the community manager for the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN). This article first appeared on SJN's Medium account The Whole Story, and has been republished with the author's permission.

Each quarter, when we survey our 5,000+ journalist member network, we ask them: "what is the main barrier to you doing as much solutions journalism as you’d like?"

Time and time again, we get one common answer: time.

But yet, thousands of journalists produce dozens of stories each year, and some churn out multiple solutions journalism stories on a weekly basis. How is that possible? What are the time-saving hacks they have learned to produce solutions journalism on the regular?

To find out, we talked to seven journalists in our network: Brittany Schock, engagement and solutions editor of Richland Source, Dougal Shaw, video innovation lead of BBC, Oscar Perry Abello senior economics correspondent of Next City, J. Gabriel Ware journalist of ABC News, Roxanne Patel Shepelavy executive editor of Philadelphia Citizen, Monica Humphries staff writer of NationSwell, and Tina Rosenberg — SJN’s co-founder, New York Times columnist, and the most prolific journalist in the Solutions Story Tracker®.

Here are their 14 tips to do solutions journalism in a time-crunch — in their own words:

Complete your pre-flight checklist

Schock: "Ask yourself before you start a story, 'Is there a solutions angle here?' Is there a response to a systematic problem that’s in your story? Is there someone doing it better? Simply by answering a few of these questions in your reporting, you can inject some solutions journalism into a story you were already pursuing, thus providing you a solutions story on a shorter timeframe."

Make sure you know all there is to know about the problem

Ware: The first step to writing solutions stories is researching and understanding social problems, including its roots. This understanding will guide how you evaluate the credibility and effectiveness of possible solutions.

Specialise in an area

Abello: Your beat can be a local area, or it can be an industry, like banking and finance or housing, workers' rights, education or healthcare. Every story always has a unique set of factors and circumstances, but some of those factors and circumstances can cut across stories in multiple locations. Making those connections is important part of reporting that does not get captured enough.

Look for 'what's working' close to home

Rosenberg: "Stay local. If you already cover solutions on your beat, you're on solid ground without spending a lot of time investigating a response far away that's new to you."

But also look outside of your community

Shepelavy: There is almost always a solution out there — it may not be where you are, but look for where someone has solved the problem elsewhere and ask your sources what it would take to implement it in your community. Sometimes the best answers are ones you can bring to the table, as a way to start continue a conversation, or even to ask, 'Why not here?' You would be surprised where that might lead.

Get people talking about the problem AND the solution

Shaw: "It sounds very simple, but when I'm recording an interview with a subject, I often just ask them, can you break this down into two parts, 'what was the problem you found, and what is your solution?' Devastatingly simple, but this is often the part that makes it into the final cut. You should always interview for emotion, and when people talk about these twin issues, their passion shines through."

Use the sources from your problem stories

Schock: "Finding the examples of 'Who’s doing it better' can sometimes be time-consuming, and might be preventing you from writing as many solutions stories as you may want. Go back to the same sources you interviewed about the problem, and ask them who they know in the industry that’s doing inspiring work. They'll be the ones most plugged into who's making advances on the issue you're trying to tackle."

Find sources with "lived experience"

Abello: Lived experience matters. I cannot stress this enough. There might be 'heroes'; heroes often work in teams, and heroes can have sidekicks, but there are no 'saviours' — nothing gets solved purely by someone swooping in from outside a community with some newfangled technology or fancy new dogma to save the day. For every social problem worth solving, assume that there is someone who has lived that problem and now they are trying to do something about it. If you cannot find that someone, you might not be looking hard enough or you might need to define the problem differently.

Keep a running tab on your sources' "solution milestones"

Humphries: "After I've covered a solution, I make sure to plug [their] every event — big or small — in my calendar. When a slower week comes around, I refer to my calendar for potential follow-up stories. For example, if I'm reporting on a scientific study, the day or month the results are scheduled to publish immediately goes into my calendar. As we reach the end of 2019, now is a great time to follow up with sources as they publish annual reports."

Talk to people — in real life and online

Shaw: "Often I'll be chatting to someone when I'm out filming with them and they will casually mention something that will make my ears prick. To them it's obvious — but I'm thinking, it's only obvious in your world, most people will find that fascinating. Get the details for that person or organisation, and that's your lead into your next story.

"Secondly, I always put my Twitter handle or email address under my videos — this is how I crowdsource my stories. When a video resonates with someone, I need them to be able to contact me, because they often want to tell me about another initiative. These are exclusive grassroots stories — no press office involved."

Seek out collaborations

Abello: No one does it alone. Everyone loves to say they collaborate or partner with others, but when it is genuine there is often a fascinating set of conversations that brought those collaborators together. Each collaborator may have their own interesting backstory of how they first came to understand a problem and what inspired them to do something about it. Earlier efforts may have fallen short, but they have taken lessons from that experience into this thing you are writing about now. If there are not at least semi-interesting backstories for various partners on a project, that is at least a yellow flag that someone is trying hard to sell a solution instead of telling a story.

Use the positive deviant approach

Rosenberg: If you are covering what reliable data identifies as the best performer, you do not have to spend time searching for a great solution or justifying your choice. You can skip right to the part about 'How did they do it?'

Recognise that problems can be solved indirectly and report on that, too

Humphries: When I initially started writing solutions stories, I only reported on 'one plus one equals two' solutions. I have since branched out and now understand how things, like building support networks or raising public awareness, are indirect contributors to how a problem will be fixed. For example, I recently reported on a group that brings people with different viewpoints together for civil discussions. Will this solve problems like climate change or gun violence? No. But it does create a platform to take action.

Do not try to save the world

Schock: "I'm guilty of trying to tackle huge world problems in one solutions story or series. If you narrow your focus to a smaller slice of a bigger problem, you'll find much more success in telling an impactful story (and it should take half the time). As Lois Collins from the Deseret News so eloquently put it, 'You’re making a cup of tea, not boiling the ocean.'"

The Whole Story posts fellowship, training and mentorship opportunities within its network, as well as practical advice for performing solutions journalism

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).