You may have come across the term “solutions journalism” on The Land’s website — in a note at the bottom of a story from the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative (like this one), or even in our mission statement. “Through in-depth solutions journalism, we aim to foster accountability, inform the community, and inspire people to take action,” our mission reads.
But what is solutions journalism? And why is it important to our work at The Land?
The Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) defines solutions journalism as “rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.” Rather than only telling stories about problems in the community, solutions journalism involves telling stories about how people are responding to problems and whether or not their efforts are working.
Why solutions journalism matters
News stories often focus on problems, and in many cases, journalists will report on the same issues over and over again. But if we only cover problems without reporting on how community members, organizations, and leaders are responding to those problems, we’re not telling the full story.
The need for solutions journalism goes beyond telling stories more comprehensively. Constant coverage of problems and everything that’s going wrong can make people feel powerless rather than informed. It can lead to people avoiding the news rather than engaging with it. Even some journalists, whose job it is to report the news, have opted to quit watching and reading the news.
The three ingredients too often missing from today’s news coverage are hope, agency, and dignity, one such journalist, Amanda Ripley, wrote in an opinion piece for The Washington Post titled “I stopped reading the news. Is the problem me — or the product?” She quotes SJN co-founder David Bornstein and his calls for journalism that helps people understand both problems and potential solutions.
Ripley is not the only one who has called for journalism to adopt a theory of change that does more than point out problems. In an article for the Columbia Journalism Review titled “Journalism is a public good. Let the public make it,” Darryl Holliday, the co-founder of the civic media lab City Bureau, asks questions about who journalism is for and what role it plays. Aside from exposing corruption and holding those with power accountable, Holliday writes, journalism can strengthen democracy by equipping people to take action and improve their communities.
“The number of times a user landed on an online news report isn’t enough; a free press framed as a public good should be measured by the ability of people to engage in the ongoing processes for positive change in their communities,” Holliday writes.
News stories that are about the people affected by an issue, but not for them, portray people as victims and charity cases who lack agency, Holliday writes. But by telling stories about how the community is responding to problems, solutions journalism challenges these narratives.
Solutions stories can be stories of hope, showing the progress that a community has made in solving a problem. They can be stories of agency that show people taking action to make their community better. And they can be stories of dignity, representing people who are affected by an issue with empathy and care.
“Done well, solutions stories provide valuable insights that help communities with the difficult work of tackling problems like homelessness or climate change, skyrocketing housing prices or low voter turnout,” an SJN blog post titled “Solutions Journalism: What is it and why should I care?” reads.
Solutions journalism is also about accountability. A crucial part of solutions journalism is finding evidence that shows whether or not a response to a problem is working, and where it’s falling short. Solutions stories can also focus on how communities in other places are responding to a problem, which takes away the ability of those in power to make excuses for their lack of action.
Solutions journalism and The Land
The Land’s tagline is “community-powered journalism for a better Cleveland.” Community is at the core of what we do, and we care about our city and want to make it stronger. We’re often reminded that Cleveland is one of the poorest big cities. But Clevelanders and their experiences, challenges, and triumphs are not just statistics. At The Land, we do in-depth reporting not just on the problems that our city faces, but on the ways community members, leaders, and organizations are responding to these problems.
The goal is for our in-depth reporting to equip community members with thorough, accurate, and accessible information that helps them understand problems and possible solutions so that they can take action. To foster accountability, we examine the effectiveness of responses to solutions and how they are impacting the lives of Clevelanders.
What does this look like in practice? The Land is a member of the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative (NEO SoJo), a group of 18+ news outlets in the region that produce and share solutions stories. The Land’s stories span a variety of topics, including health equity, community and economic development, city government, and sustainability. As The Land’s Report for America corps member, I cover jobs and economic development, including solutions stories within these topics. The Land also has a network of freelancers who often write solutions stories, and our community journalism program trains Cleveland residents to report stories about their neighborhoods.
Not every story published in The Land is a solutions story, but each story we publish focuses on issues that affect Cleveland residents. This includes the steps Clevelanders are taking to make their communities stronger, such as a community hub carrying on the legacy of Black-owned bookstores in Glenville, a church gifting its property to a growing community center, and a nonprofit incubator transforming a farm-to-jar company into a way to support urban farmers and entrepreneurs in East Cleveland. (Read more about how we choose which stories to cover here.)
By focusing our reporting on solutions rather than just problems, The Land strives to tell the whole story in our efforts to inform the community. Through reporting that helps readers understand complex problems and responses to them, we aim to hold those in power accountable and equip people with the resources they need to take action, rather than portraying community members as lacking agency and making readers feel powerless.
The elements of solutions journalism
Solutions journalism has four key elements, according to SJN:
First, solutions stories focus on a response to a problem. Community members, organizations, and leaders, or a combination of all of these, may be the ones leading the response. A solutions story covers how they’re responding to a problem and if it’s working.
When working on a solutions story, reporters talk to the people leading the response to a problem, and those who are affected by the problem. They then identify the most important and relevant lessons that the audience can learn from the response and communicate these lessons in an accessible way.
Solutions stories report on evidence showing whether or not a response is working. This means they include data or qualitative results that show how effective a response has been. If there’s a lack of evidence, the reporter must be transparent about why that is and why the story is still worth telling.
Lastly, solutions stories include the limitations of a response, or where a response is falling short. Even if a reporter determines that a response to a problem is “working” and making progress, there will still be shortcomings to report as well.
What solutions journalism is not
There are many misconceptions about solutions journalism, so it’s also important to understand the types of stories that may look like solutions journalism, but actually are not — what SJN calls “solutions journalism impostors.” Solutions journalism is not just fluff, PR, or “cheerleader journalism,” and it’s not advocacy either.
Solutions stories don’t gloss over the limitations and barriers of a response to a problem. Rather than praising a singular response to a problem or an innovative individual as a “silver bullet” solution or a hero, solutions stories also report on the structural issues that contribute to the problems in the first place.
Solutions journalism does not mean reporters come up with their own ideas for solutions and write articles urging leaders and residents to implement them. Nor do solutions stories advocate for one response to a problem over another. Instead, journalists report on responses to problems in the community, including investigating how effective these responses have been and how they have fallen short.
What questions, thoughts, or ideas do you have about solutions journalism? Do you know of any responses to problems that we should report on? We want to hear from you — reach out at any time.
Examples of solutions stories in The Land
Check out these solutions stories in The Land, which are included in SJN’s Solutions Story Tracker, a searchable, curated database of solutions journalism:
By Aja Hannah | May 19, 2022
By Conor Morris | May 2, 2022
By Marc Lefkowitz | February 1, 2022
By Michael Indriolo | October 5, 2021
By Lee Chilcote | January 19, 2021
Reading and listening recommendations
Do you want to learn more about solutions journalism? Here are some recommendations for further reading and listening:
-A recording of a Twitter Spaces conversation SJN hosted earlier this month featuring J. Brian Charles, deputy editor at Baltimore Beat, a Black-led nonprofit news outlet, and Ashton Lattimore, editor-in-chief of Prism Reports, a nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color
-A bilingual Spanish-English podcast episode about solutions journalism from El Colectivo 506, a community news organization that reports on solutions in rural Costa Rica.
–Laura Dulce Romero, a fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, interviewed eight researchers and colleagues who do work related to solutions journalism for this six-part podcast. The first three episodes are available now, with more episodes coming out on Mondays until Oct. 24.
–“The Snack Table,” a biweekly roundup of fun solutions journalism-related tweets and other newsletters to check out
-A selection of newsletters for anyone looking to do, teach, and read solutions journalism
-A collection of Instagram posts from SJN about solutions journalism, including how to do it and why it’s important.
-Guides and toolkits on how to produce solutions journalism