Credit: Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

The past 20 months have been full of negative news headlines. Besides the coronavirus pandemic, there have been many concerns around climate change, tech surveillance, affordable housing and the safety of women in public spaces to name just a few.

We know that when the news only focuses on problems, this can have a negative impact on audiences. In 2019, psychologist Jodie Jackson researched this phenomenon and found that consumption of negative news is linked to feelings of helplessness, pessimism and ultimately, news avoidance.

People switch off from the news for a few reasons, but over-exposure to negative stories is a significant factor. Recent research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism shows that when it came to turning off covid-19 news specifically, 56 per cent of people did so because 'it had a bad effect on their mood'.

These findings are echoed by the CoJo Against Covid project led by Dr An Nguyen, Bournemouth University’s associate professor of journalism. Initial research on the project found that two thirds of readers say they at least sometimes switch off from - and even close down - their social media accounts, to avoid feeling negative about covid-19 news. Since launching this year, the project has been training and mentoring 50 journalists across 15 local and regional newsrooms in the UK, mostly working with Newsquest.

The reverse is also true. Jackson’s research highlights how readers can experience reduced anxiety, improved mood levels, higher social cohesion and a sense of empowerment when they read solutions journalism, which can be defined as rigorous reporting on problems the society has. Audiences often prefer it too; the Solutions Journalism Network commissioned a paper showing more than half of Americans would rather read solutions-focused news stories, as opposed to just problem-focused stories (one third), and no preference (17 per cent).

So if it is better and more appealing for the audience to read solutions journalism, why do many newsrooms still struggle to adopt this practice?

Weigh up your priorities

One of the reasons, according to Nguyen speaking at Newsrewired this week, is the mindset in the newsroom. If the editor does not set the tone throughout the organisation, reporters will not buy into this approach.

It is simply a question of editorial and business priorities. The research shows that solutions journalism can improve loyalty amongst readers, it is up to newsroom leaders to afford the time, space and beats to capitalise on it - if that is the metric they care about. The trouble is that clicks still dominate.

"Page views can be futile, it’s not the key metric," he explains. "Most of the people [that represent the] page views are casual readers, and that’s very different to having small page views but loyal readers who spend more time with you, and might even support you and pay for your premium content. What’s more important for your business and journalism?"

Serve a niche audience

But of course, clicks do matter. Next City is a US non-profit news organisation that has been practising solutions journalism for the last 18 years. Their mission is to spread practical ideas from one city to the next through reporting on what solutions do or do not work.

They have a specific audience that is interested, and actively involved in, economic and landscape development. These people want inspirational stories from elsewhere in the country and around the world, to foster new ideas, better understand what obstacles they had to overcome, how projects were rolled out and funded, and what good has come of them so far.

With that model, Next City hits around 2m page views a year. But that is not the only measure of success for them; they also run workshops and conferences as live extensions of their editorial mission. That also provides significant monetisation and commercial opportunities.

"Connect with your communities," said Kelly Regan editorial director of Next City, at Newsrewired. "When you look top-down or outside-in, it looks like there's nothing but problems. But once you get into the community and talk to people struggling, sometimes the solutions manifest themselves because people [decide to take it upon themselves]."

Look for silver linings

One of the mentees of the CoJo Against Covid project is Lori Little, head of content at the Newsquest title The Isle of Wight County Press, who also joined Newsrewired. Since 1884, that newsroom has served local readers on the island. Today, that means quickly covering breaking news as it happens, council and crime, and all the other usual local beats.

This mentorship challenged her to turn around a solutions journalism story every two weeks, and so far she has done eight stories meeting that criteria, including a two-part feature on the island's rental crisis, a major investigation for local residents, which also became a three-page feature in print.

It was a story they were always covering in a classic sense. But by speaking to different sources, like the Citizens Advice Bureau where the angle became more practical and solutions-minded, readers enjoyed this change of pace. Both parts of this story surpassed 8,000 page views and were amongst the top-read articles of the month.

But some other pieces received much less attention with around 300-400 views. For many newsrooms, of course, clicks matter for advertising revenue. Still, the experience showed the journalists that readers were not as hostile to these stories as they normally are.

"As all local journalists know, every story gets lots of negative feedback, it's just how people are online," says Little. "But the solutions journalism stories have been received really well."

This should not be shocking, but it is. For one, it is an amazing example of how local newsrooms accept there is little they can do about negative comments from readers. But for another, it ties in perfectly with Nguyen's call for newsrooms to consider what truly matters.

"Are you trying to build public confidence, loyalty or long-term trust? Solutions journalism is a very rigorous and vital form of quality journalism that could foster a lot of audience values in the long-term and towards the business itself."

Spinning plates

The elephant in the room is that a publication like Next City does not cover breaking news. It covers up to three stories a day and so they have a luxury of time to work on these (often more intensive) stories.

Regan said that when it comes to solutions journalism, a lot of the heavy lifting is done on the front end: the reporting, framing, sourcing data, fitting it into a wider context. Sometimes, it might even mean circling back to a story lead in six months time before it is ready to talk about.

By contrast, such flexibility and freedom are seldom afforded in local newsrooms like the Isle of Wight County Press, which has a weekly print newspaper with strict deadlines, and reporters juggling many stories. Not to mention fewer reporters these days. It is difficult to allocate time for a 2,000-word solutions-heavy investigation, versus what would normally be a quick 400-word type up.

"The difficulty with solutions journalism is just fitting it into the general newsroom practice," Little says. What has helped her is to keep chipping away at these stories in the background, and pushing them to the backburner when high-priority stories come up.

Speeding up solutions journalism

Solutions journalism can be time- and labour intensive, but often that work will yield more than one story. That is at least the experience of Next City.

Senior economics reporter Oscar Perry Abello, for example, found that a story about a community land trust starting up in Colorado led to another story about a food incubator helping to promote minority women in business.

"There are threads that get teased into each story that can then evolve into something else, and it becomes a long narrative arc that goes on and the stories unfold one after the other," explains Regan.

She adds that you can create smaller items that could be simply acknowledging that there is a project being funded and you will keep tabs on it. It could be a six-month pilot that has just finished and you simply provide the findings. Or most powerful of all, circling back to stories you have previously written about and checking in on their progress.

Signalling solutions

Something Isle of Wight County Press is yet, understandably, to do is provide any special labels or sections for its solutions journalism. You will find 'investigation' or 'exclusive' labels, but nothing that draws attention to the fact an article has a solutions focus.

Little reasons that readers may not appreciate what this means, but Nguyen says that many of the leading solutions journalism publishers are doing this, such as the BBC's Crossing Divides series, or The Guardian's The Upside, or The New York Times' Fixes Column.

While local news organisations may not enjoy the dedicated, niche audiences of publishers like Next City, that does not mean they cannot generate this crowd through these special interest sections.

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