positive news
Credit: Image courtesy of positive news

Psychologists have a predictably cold, scientific term for that fuzzy feeling of witnessing an act of virtue or compassion – moral elevation.

Oxytocin, the so-called 'love hormone', floods the veins from the hypothalamus and organs in the chest, including the heart (yes, really). Many experience feelings of altruism and a desire to copy that behaviour, to be better people.

The not-for-profit news organisation Positive News has been spreading goodwill for over 20 years with a quarterly print run of 30,000 copies, many of which are distributed by readers and volunteers. It's fair to say the good vibes are infectious.

"Readers say things like 'the publication is a lifeline' to them, that it affects their world view and how they feel," says editor-in-chief Seán Dagan Wood, "and how they feel about the world. It energises and motivates them. So I thought this is an amazing thing and how do we really value that and build on it."

Last week he and his modest team opened the organisation up to its readers, launching a crowdfunding campaign to become a co-operative.

When you give people that way to buy into what you're doing more closely and create community around it, it's a very compelling propositionSean Dagan Wood, editor-in-chief, Postive News
"The structure matches the approach of the content that enables us to walk our talk and create a constructive lens on the world," he told Journalism.co.uk.

"Then at the same time we're showing how as a media company we can contribute to that vision that our readers want to connect to as a more flourishing society. And we're playing our part in that story."

In the week since the launch, the campaign has raised almost £90,000 of its £200,000 target, with contributions coming in from as far afield as Mexico, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates – a solid start by any measure, especially when there's three weeks left to go.

Members of the co-operative will get a vote on any important matters put to them by the board. Operating principles and editorial values will be enshrined in a Positive News charter and the board – elected by members – will hold Wood and his colleagues to account in keeping with the principles laid out.

The central premise of the initiative is in creating a "secure, robust structure for the organisation" to move forward, said Wood, but more than that will be an emphasis on community.

There is already a strong direct relationship with readers and Positive News journalist Danielle Batist, for one, is hoping to bring this into the editorial proposition as part of the digital relaunch funded by the co-operative.

"We're definitely looking at how we can do more than a comment below the piece," she said. "Can we get them involved in taking the story forward? Can we have an open ended question at the end of a story saying 'who in our membership can help us move on'? Have we got any ideas as to where we go with this? What's missing from the piece? What are the questions that you have?

"And if someone comments on a piece about education because they are an educator then obviously they have an expertise that I as a journalist don't necessarily have."

This last point holds similarities with Dutch organisation De Correspondent, which treats its paid subscribers as contributors, recognising their knowledge and using it to drive stories forward.

positive news launch
The Positive News team at the launch of the campaign. Image courtesy of Positive News

More broadly, the focus on putting relationships at the core of online publications is a growing trend among forward-thinking media organisations as the interactivity and levels of engagement offered by digital productions and social media become inescapable.

According to Wood, Positive News's own social following has increased by over 500 per cent in the last 18 months with "very little marketing resources" and the co-operative model will, hopefully, offer more opportunities to strengthen and explore that supporter base.

"When you give people that way to buy into what you're doing more closely and create community around it, it's a very compelling proposition," he said. "And for us, because people value our journalistic approach so much, that relationship is really important where you feel that it's not just something being dictated to them.

"They want to connect around that shared sense of seeing the world through a positive, constructive lens, where they can feel empowered to respond to the challenges of the world and not be left feeling cynical."

Harnessing that drive for change through events, training and a widening "ecosystem" of positive news stories will be a challenge but no more so than it has been for other outlets. The Guardian and Financial Times are perhaps the best examples of news organisations building real-life relationships with their readers in the UK and the practice is growing as advertising and print revenues drop off in many markets.

If we can start tracing the impact of our content it would be a really wonderful way to show the effect it's having, but also to inspire the communityDanielle Batist, journalist and trainer, Positive News
Wood and Batist already have training experience in the form of the Constructive Journalism Project, launched last year, a scheme they will expand in line with Positive News. A committed readership is often the first step though, the foundation on which to build, and Wood is optimistic about the possibilities digital media affords, not just for the business but for the organisation on the whole.

"How can we start getting all the people and investors from around the world interacting as a community in real time, giving us instant feedback, letting us know what they want. And tailoring what they do to suit that. It's a really organic, evolving thing and, from the digital side, that's a really exciting thing."

An even hotter topic in industry circles, beyond fostering communities, is the questions of metrics – how should news organisations and journalists measure their success when old models based on "views" can be so easily exploited by clickbait?

Concepts of reader time and engagement have been floated as possible alternatives, but the impact of journalism, positive or otherwise, has always been a fact of the media, if not one that is often measured.

Open-source project NewsLynx launched this week from two fellows of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, designed to explore exactly that, and Batist is excited to explore how this might be possible at Positive News.

"We've been looking for a long time to see how we can, in an interactive way, show [impact]," she said. "If only [for] certain case studies rather than every story, but have a call to action that is beyond the clicktivism thing, where there is tangible stuff that people can now do as a result."

"I personally have a very strong belief in the power of the narrative the news media creates," said Wood, "and how that affects our perceptions and our behaviour and how it empowers or disempowers people individually or in society.

"So if we can start tracing the impact of our content it would be a really wonderful way to show the effect it's having, but also to inspire the community."

And Positive News's readership is certainly inspired. At the campaign launch, readers who had contributed were already talking in terms of ownership and "we can do this", said Batist, already mentally and financially committed to taking the organisation forward.

If the rest of the industry can stir that fuzzy feeling to half the extent Positive News seem able to, it might just find a way to inspire readers back into the habit of paying for journalism on a regular basis.

"The value that we can add by not just having readers – not subscribers and not even members, but taking that step further and having owners on a global scale – it's really exciting," said Wood. "Even just as an experiment. It's exciting to see what it can do for media."

Update: This article has been updated to Sean Wood's name and that the Constructive Journalism Project launched last year

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).