Digital Publishing
5 mins read

Solutions journalism combats news avoidance, and can boost subscriptions by 2x

More people are avoiding news. This year’s Reuters Digital News report had almost a third (32%) of the survey respondents saying that they actively avoided news. The researchers noted that avoidance is up by 6% overall and 11% in the UK. People say they avoid the news because it has a negative effect on their mood (58%) or because they feel powerless to change events.

Source: Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2019

Journalists help “shape the narrative”

The antidote to this trend may lie in solutions journalism. It involves comprehensive coverage of an issue by proposing solutions rather than just focusing on the problem. 

The cardinal rule for solutions journalism is to answer “howdunit.” A lot of times, traditional investigative journalism is about “whodunit.” Who’s behind the city’s corruption, who’s behind pollution. Solutions journalism flips that frame and asks: If corruption or pollution has been reduced, how did that city do that?”

Julia Hotz, Communities Manager for the Solutions Journalism Network

“If you are only reporting on what’s broken, you are not actually giving them all the information they need to respond. [Journalists] are really helping to shape the narrative of how people view the world,” Samantha McCann, VP of Practice Change at the Solutions Journalism Network, told earlier.

“And if you are not giving them that other half, you’re giving them a dark picture of what is happening, which is not accurate. Society needs information to change, just like individuals – if you are constantly getting negative feedback, you are not very motivated to improve yourself.” 

Research has consistently shown that solutions-oriented reporting is more emotionally engaging to readers. Individuals exposed to such stories report stronger intent to learn more about issues compared to those exposed to traditional reporting. 

According to Lindsay Green-Barber, Founder & CEO, Impact Architects, solutions journalism may also contribute to organizational sustainability. She writes, “There has been no academic research (of which we are aware) about the relationship between solutions-oriented reporting and organizational sustainability.

“However, SJN partner organizations have on-the-ground experience that suggests that solutions reporting increases revenue, through sponsorships, membership, subscriptions, and philanthropic support.”

“Credible tool in the armory of the daily news journalist”

Several news publishers, including the BBC (Crossing Divides), and the Guardian (The Upside) have series built around solutions journalism. 

Jonathan Paterson, Editor, Digital Video, BBC News said at Newsrewired earlier this year, “I want to make a case for solutions journalism to become a credible tool in the armoury of the daily news journalist.” 

How do we respond to a tragic situation in a world of the like button, where audiences shy away from negative stories?

Jonathan Paterson, Editor, Digital Video, BBC News

He narrated an example where a clever combination of solutions journalism and social media strategy helped create a very successful story.

This was the BBC News’ video on Norway’s plastic waste solution. The story had rigorous journalism applied to the solutions style. It ended up achieving over 70M views, 50,000 comments and 239,000 shares across all Facebook accounts. The story was among the BBC’s most successful videos in 2018.

Norway's plastic waste solution…

Has Norway found a way to deal with their plastic waste problem..?Join the debate on our BBC Science News – Plastic pollution discussion page

Posted by BBC Science News on Wednesday, February 7, 2018

“Forge a relationship with our community”

French regional publisher Nice-Matin credits the process for saving it from collapse. In 2014, the publisher was at the brink of bankruptcy. Today, it has 10,000 subscribers and employs 180 journalists producing 600 articles a day, across 14 local editions. This happened largely due to a subscription strategy with solutions journalism at its core. 

According to Aurore Malval, Journalist at Nice-Matin, “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.”

The publisher was helped by its readers who supported a crowdfunding campaign that helped the staff take over the publisher as a co-operative. 

Nice-Matin involves readers in its solutions journalism. Every month, it proposes three topics via its newsletters. Subscribers are encouraged to vote for the story which they would like deeper coverage on. The team selects the most voted topic and produces 10-15 articles on that in a month. 

This has helped Nice-Matin strengthen reader engagement. Readers spend an average of six minutes on a solutions article compared to two minutes on other stories. Further, the publisher also reports, 13% conversion to subscriptions from solutions stories compared to 6% from others.

“More than stating a possible solution to a problem”

But just defining a problem and providing solutions is not enough, as a recent research by the Center for Media Engagement at The University of Texas, Austin found out. The researchers, Caroline Murray and Natalie Jomini Stroud comment, “Solutions journalism is about more than stating a possible solution to a problem.” 

They broke down solutions journalism into five core components:

  1. Problem: The causes and symptoms of the issue,
  2. Solution: The replicable ideas tied to solving the problem,
  3. Implementation: The how-to details of putting the solution into action,
  4. Results: The progress, data-based or anecdotal, that has been made in working toward a solution, and
  5. Insights: The teachable, big-picture lessons that can be learned beyond one particular solution or situation.

The key findings of the research was:

Articles that included all the above five components:

  • Improved readers’ perception of article quality.
  • Made readers more likely to “like” a similar article on Facebook.
  • Increased readers’ interest in and knowledge about the issue.
  • Increased intentions to read more articles about the issue.
  • Boosted readers’ positivity.
  • Led readers to believe there were ways to effectively address the issue.

Murray and Stroud write, “When it comes to solutions journalism, the more information you can provide readers, the better. Adding additional components beyond the problem and the solution (i.e. implementation, results, and insights) can bolster positive responses to your work. 

“Readers who are given all five components feel more positive about the issue, rate the article as higher quality, and are more likely to “like” a similar article on Facebook.” 

Reading articles with all five components also inspired heightened interest in the issue and more of a willingness to read future articles about the issue. This could be especially useful for news organizations trying to attract loyal readers to a reporting series.

Caroline Murray and Natalie Jomini Stroud, The Keys to Powerful Solutions Journalism

Here’s a short video of the key findings of the study:

“Why won’t people pay for the news?”

Bornstein told NationSwell over an interview that if newrooms focus on local-level problem solving that really does make a difference in people’s lives, journalism will rebuild trust.

He added, “If the product, over time, gives people information that helps them to be more powerful and creative as citizens, they will buy it. Just like people pay a ton of money to go to college, and a ton of money sometimes to go to conferences.” 

It’s a very strong human impulse to have control over your life and over your community, and, in a way, be able to shape things with your aspirations. If journalists don’t give people news that strengthens their ability to be effective and compassionate citizens, people won’t consume it very much.

David Bornstein, Co-founder and CEO, Solutions Journalism Network (SJN)

“People pay for knowledge when that knowledge is really useful to them. Question is: Why won’t people pay for the news? They’re not considering it useful knowledge at some level where they would pay for it,” Bornstein concluded.

Download WNIP’s comprehensive report—50 Ways to Make Media Pay—an essential read for publishers looking at the multiple revenue opportunities available, whether it’s to reach new audiences or double down on existing super-users. The report is free and can be downloaded here.