Illustration by Dave Donald.

In 2010, Vancouver had 1,715 homeless people, a nine percent increase from 2008. Digging deeper into the issue, homelessness was growing twice as quickly as the city’s population between 2008 and 2009. The report detailing this, Eberle Planning and Research’s Vancouver Homeless Count 2010, was released in June of that year, a few months after the Winter Olympic Games took over the city, evicting the homeless from the streets on which they had lived. “Dark side of Vancouver’s Olympic flame,” reads a headline in Britain’s the Daily Telegraph. “In an alleyway near the corner of Hastings and Main Streets, addicts openly smoked crack pipes and shot up heroin, others slumped listlessly in doorways or mumbled incoherently,” wrote the author, Philip Sherwell. “Homelessness doubled ahead of Vancouver Olympics, report shows,” reads the headline for Stephen Hui’s article in the Georgia Straight. Hui outlined how although there was social housing being built between 2001 and 2008, the amount of units per 1,000 people in Metro Vancouver had declined due to the rise in the homeless population.

In 2014, the Vancouver Courier’s headline read, “Homeless population largest in Vancouver’s history,” and, three years later, the paper ran this headline: “Vancouver’s homeless population bigger than ever.” Both stories were by the same reporter. But Monte Paulsen, then a reporter for the Tyee, based in Vancouver, sought a different approach to telling a cyclical story. The final product was a three-part series on homelessness in Vancouver with a possible built-in, cross disciplinary solution. The headlines read, “Green and Affordable Homes, Out of the Box,” “Is this Canada’s Most Affordable Green Home?,” and “Homeless Housing For Less.” The articles first take the reader through the history of shipping containers in Vancouver. Being Canada’s busiest port city, more than two million 20-foot-long shipping containers arrived from Asia, leaving tens of thousands behind. In 2009, approximately 93,000 units were deserted at the port. Paulsen reported on cities from Maquiladora, Mexico to London, England that successfully use these containers as housing units. He then scoured Vancouver, talking to government officials, designers, land developers, and architects, asking the same thing: “Hey, is this possible?”

“The idea is that by reporting on responses to problems, it can provide larger impact, more insight, increased engagement, and examine stories in closer detail.”

The stories created so much interest that a few days later, the Tyee covered Architecture for Humanity’s “superchallenge” design competition. Stakeholders from multiple industries gathered, participated, and conceptualized, eventually finalizing a solution. “They created a design studio and got all these brilliant people together to create a prototype in one day of what this would look like, and they said, ‘See! It can be done,’” says David Beers, founding editor of the Tyee. On August 1, 2013, Atira Women’s Resource Society cut the ribbon on 12 shipping containers, welded into a three-storey, 12-unit social housing complex. In 2017, Vancouver’s mayor unveiled a 40-unit modular housing unit, prompting him to say, “The numbers work. It’s minimal cost to the city. It’s something that generates enough income to operate with a small subsidy.” He continued: “This is an example of the kind of creative and innovative ideas that we need more of,” speaking to different ways to solve the problem of lack of housing. “[Paulsen] spent weeks and months on this, and wrote brilliantly about it,” Beers says. “Like a honey bee, he moved around society.”

These stories would be called what is now being increasingly recognized as solutions journalism. The idea is that reporting on responses to problems, can provide larger impact, more insight, increased engagement, and examine issues in closer detail by looking at the other side of stories we rarely see. How are we doing better? It’s a shift in focus and mindset for publications and their employees; a new lens for professionals to look through. It’s not about hero worship or telling heartwarming stories about your neighbourhood bake sale. It’s about compiling anecdotes, facts, interviews, and research to tell stories about positive impact. Sure, journalism has always held top dogs accountable, but how often has it done that and warranted a heart emoji from grandma on Facebook.

The concept of solutions journalism has been gaining traction over the past decade across the country and around the world. HuffPost Canada has an impact section, the Guardian has The Upside, the New York Times has Fixes. It’s had different names throughout journalism’s history: solutions, constructive, future focused. Beers called it future-focused during his first few years of discovering the new genre, admitting that he thought the term solutions was a bit “presumptuous.” Solutions journalism appeals to an audience that craves positivity, something to uplift the weighty blues of child malnourishment, environmental degradation, racism, and other societal issues. Delphine Ruaro’s “Engaging Audiences through Solutions Journalism: Effects on Mood, Behaviour and Attitude Toward the Newspaper (2017),” a journal article published by the London School of Economics and Political Science, says that a sizeable amount of public criticism of media is the industry’s focus on conflict. This has resulted in a loss of confidence. “These criticisms are justified,” she writes. “Newspapers have been evidenced to be negatively biased, and to have a negative effect on readers [causing anxiety and fatigue].” 

It’s tough to distinguish the exact moment when solutions journalism became a thing— the answers vary among practicing industry professionals and academics who study the subject. In fact, throughout history, journalists have covered stories that would today be considered examples of solutions journalism. They just didn’t have the tag then. But by understanding what motivates those who advocate for it more broadly, we can see the movement’s visionary capacity. In 1991, Beers was assigned by Vogue to travel to Europe and report on ideas about harm reduction for drug abusers. His stories included information, data, and sources about the measures of prescribing drugs, safe injection sites, and other “strange ideas that no one had really thought about.”

Vogue later cut the story before it could be published, deeming it too pro-drug. But Beers didn’t give up. He continued researching and reporting in Los Angeles. The result of that effort was finally published in a more welcoming place, Mother Jones magazine, in an article called “Just Say Woah.” Beers was at the forefront of a hot topic, considering America’s war on drugs and “aggressive drug enforcement policy,” which lasted half a century and cost American taxpayers over one trillion dollars, according to Glen Olives Thompson’s Slowly Learning the Hard Way: US America’s War on Drugs and Implications for Mexico from 2014, which looks back at America’s unsuccessful plight. Back in 1991 in Vancouver, the headlines continued to devastate. The homelessness problem was dismal. It was all about fighting, like an actual war. “The whole harm reduction [idea] was a different way of looking at it and having better results,” says Beers, looking at the more solutions-based way of reporting on the problem. 

“It’s less about having insufficient room for negative or traditional journalism and more about learning how to integrate many sides of a story better and more frequently.”

In 1986, Beers wrote about suburban sprawl and its implications on the environment and land usage. The investigative piece looked at the seemingly inevitable fate of infinite suburban business parks in San Francisco’s Bay Area. It was called “Tomorrowland.” Peter Calthorpe, who was, at the time, a California State architect and lecturing at University of California, Berkeley, was frustrated with the article’s negative slant and gave Beers a call. He essentially told Beers he didn’t like the story because it didn’t offer any alternative.

The architect went on to explain his vision for suburban areas and how they can be denser, compact, and walkable, and invited Beers to meet with him to get the other side of the story. The Sunday following Calthorpe’s and Beers’ meeting, “Redesigning the Suburbs” was published in the San Francisco Examiner. “After I wrote that story, he was given a commission to build an entire town based on his idea,” says Beers. “That really told me about the power of solutions journalism.” In Calthorpe’s book, The Next American Metropolis, the author-architect called on Beers in the foreword, saying that much of his success was due to Beers’ story. Thinking about impact makes sense to Beers, who sees the solutions journalism as forward-thinking. “Most journalism asks: ‘What went wrong yesterday and who’s to blame?’ Solutions journalism asks: ‘What might go right tomorrow and who’s showing the way?’”

Co-founder and CEO of the Solutions Journalism Network is Canadian David Bornstein. The network’s mission is to promote the efficacy of the practice, which it defines as “rigorous reporting on responses to social problems.” Bornstein had a drawn-out introduction to the practice of solutions reporting. In 1996, he published his first book, The Price of a Dream, which was a story about Grameen Bank’s anti-poverty approach used in their innovative micro-financing model, based in Bangladesh. That story inspired him to ask: “What are people doing that is working?” His book was nominated for the New York Public Library’s Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism. He met fellow journalist and winner of the same award for a previous year, Tina Rosenberg. “She just sort of came up and said, ‘loved your book,’ and we just met and became friends,” says Bornstein.

In 2010, Rosenberg called Bornstein to discuss a column she wanted to pitch to the New York Times called Fixes. The idea was that this column could be a joint platform for the two journalists to provide rigorous reporting to solutions for some of the biggest social problems the world faces today. “[Journalism] can’t always do its core mission of holding people accountable,” explains Bornstein, “because as we’ve said, you can only really hold people accountable for performance if you can show that better performance is possible.” This opportunity gave Bornstein and Rosenberg the chance to cover old stories from a new perspective.

One night in 2012, in bustling New York City, a group of journalists sat in Bornstein’s apartment and sorted through the pros and cons of creating a network for journalists who wanted to produce content, such as the content being produced in Fixes. In debating its practical application, those present had mixed feelings. Some said “nobody will probably listen. But you should try anyways.” And so in 2013, the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) was born. SJN wants to bring solutions journalism to every newsroom, worldwide. In doing so, the network offers a number of different resources for journalists, academics, students, or professionals to learn from. For example, the network offers an online training program that takes users through the different stages of understanding, reporting, editing and publishing successful solutions-based work. Through this, publications are able to research and produce solutions stories by working, training and benefiting from the network’s resources.

The response has been heady. For instance, south of the border in Washington state, thousands of students were affected when the State of Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) updated an archaic policy regarding expulsions and suspensions for children from kindergarten to grade eight, following a chain of articles published as part of an education series in the Seattle Times. In 2016, bill 4SBH 1541 came into effect. Aside from confusing readers with its letters and numbers, it is about “implementing strategies to close the educational opportunity gap.” Essentially, the bill protects children of colour from being unfairly suspended and more broadly, looks at how suspensions affect youth. 

A few years before the bill was passed, Education Lab, a partnership project by SJN, began a series of stories that exposed a systemic issue. Black and Latino students were more susceptible to school discipline than their white counterparts. The finding, in addition to articles about the damages from expulsions and suspensions, caused governments to act. The stories focused on what could be different about school discipline rather than how many students were being suspended, or how poorly the state’s youth were acting. The team at Education Lab looked over various methods of punishment and wrote compelling articles backed with verified research about discipline measures. These included ending suspensions for students who are chronically late or truant, as well as limiting “exclusionary discipline for students who do not behave in threatening ways, and prohibits all expulsions for kindergarten to fourth-grade students,” according to the Seattle Times reporter Neal Morton. 

“The solutionist theory: reader fatigue is ultimately a consequence, whether intended or not, of the journalist’s story-telling.”

Linda Shaw, editor of Education Lab at the time the series was published, says “It was clear the first year, that audiences were hungry for this kind of reporting because anecdotally, we just got so much good feedback about the stories.” One reader sent $40,000 to a program that helps teachers of colour refine their teaching skills at a community college. Another time, the graduation rate at a local school was increased because their curriculum adopted a “rigorous academic program” that helps children from low-income families thrive in school. The change was cross-industry and large. “When we wrote about the problem, nothing much happened. People throw up their hands and say, ‘Ah, it’s too complicated,’” explains Shaw. “When we covered it from the solutions lens a lot more happened.”

Truth or Consequences (T or C) is a small town in New Mexico named after the popular 1950’s American game show. It’s home to just under 6,000 residents, and its population has been declining for years. T or C sits just under 200 kilometres north of El Paso and almost 250 kilometres south of Albuquerque. Hampered by its physical location in one of America’s poorest states, the town had seen little growth in infrastructure and in turn, their economy. A few years back, Marianne Blaue and John Masterson decided to set up a brewery in the town. In June 2017, the Truth or Consequences Brewing Company opened its doors to residents and tourists alike. In his article, “Brewery helps breathe life into downtown Truth or Consequences,” Heath Haussamen recalls the Revolution Brewing in Paonia, Colorado that opened just before the Great Recession. Haussamen, founder, editor, publisher, and writer at NMpolitics.net, cited mayor Neal Schwieterman, who said that the brewery’s numbers were, at the very least, above the red during the recession, which supplied tax revenue and in turn, helped the government avoid budget cuts. Haussamen profiled a few other businesses that opened up shop around the time that Blaue and Masterson’s brewery opened, including a second-hand store and food truck. And with that, this meagerly-populated road stop survived the recession. In 2014, T or C’s unemployment rate was over 11 percent. In 2018, that number is falling. “Tourism stories are kind of one of the easiest to do in a solutions format because even the publicity of doing the story generates builds towards the solution that the town is working towards,” Haussamen says. “And so even doing the story almost makes the journalism part of the solution.”

This article, among other solutions-based work, Haussamen claims, has opened up more streams of revenue for his small news operation. He says there was a significant increase in revenue when producing the story on T or C’s revitalization and after it was published. “The people who were reading it were really interested in it and really engaged with it.” Haussamen has received multiple grants from different organizations to chase down solutions-based stories. Other publications have also reported increases in engagement and revenue through their solutions journalism content model.

The Discourse is a digital media startup that is working to fill the gaps left by a deteriorating local media, originally founded in Vancouver, B.C. in 2014 by Erin Millar, Christine McLaren, and Colleen Kimmett. “The best way of attracting an audience and ultimately creating revenue and making money is by creating good journalism,” says Anita Li, Director of Communities. “And solutions journalism is fantastic.” The Discourse dials in to forgotten Canadian communities or regions with a lack of local media sources. Its content model is powered through conversations with the communities on which it reports. “The overarching mission for us is to surface stories in journalism or report on issues that contribute to a more egalitarian world,” says Li. The team publishes a variety of stories. However, they always ask: “Does [the content] reveal complexity, new perspectives, or solutions about systemic issues?” It’s the mission that attracts funders, donors, and audiences, Li explains. The most important connection between publisher and audience is mission alignment. Li says although the Discourse’s funding comes from private investors, partnerships, grants and more, investors must accept editorial independence. 

One example of how the Discourse practices solutions journalism is through its work in Scarborough. Discourse contributor Aparita Bhandari’s article, “More than an eyesore, Scarborough strip malls celebrate community,” is a story about the essence of ethnic shops in a multicultural division of Toronto and what kind of value and opportunity the stores bring to marginalized communities and minorities. These types of stories help build relationships and trust. “You’re actually paying to be a part of a like-minded community of people,” says Li. “And in this case for Discourse, it’s a community of like-minded people who want to affect change in the world and want to brainstorm [and] discuss solutions to systemic issues.” 

The impact subsequent of a solutions model has been felt by many news organizations. In France, the Nice-Matin was in the red before adopting a solutions-based content model. According to the SJN, the publication’s subscriptions rose 70 percent and gained 300 percent more page visits on solutions articles. Even the Seattle Times Education Lab reported stellar numbers for engagement. Over 60 percent of the Seattle Times readers agreed with the statement, “The [solutions-based] story changed the way I think about this topic.” They also reported that solutions journalism stories received over 100 percent more page views than non-solution journalism, and had a 180 percent increase of time-on-page. The Education Lab stated that solutions stories received over 230 percent more social shares. At a time when journalism is trying to nudge into readers attention spans upon competing media gimmicks, and profit in doing so, this model has been proven to do just that, and more.

Although the numbers offered by SJN seem convincing, there is still indecision on exactly what solution journalism offers. Ruaro’s paper suggests that from a psychological point of view, it is unclear whether or not solutions journalism can actually evoke high levels of reaction. However, an article that has “mobilizing information could counter the helplessness driven by the media by explaining how readers can individually contribute to solving the issue.” Critics have asked if this edges too close to advocacy. “One of the top misconceptions about solutions journalism is that it advocates for a specific solution or proposes a solution that doesn’t yet exist,” writes Samantha McCann, SJN’s director of communities. “Stories that advocate for a specific solution…are usually found in the opinion section of the paper,” she continues. “Authors take a stand and argue why a specific program is the best choice.” 

“They reported that solutions stories received over 100 percent more page views and had a 180 percent increase of time-on-page. They stated that solutions stories received over 230 percent more social shares.”

Take, for example, Peter Calthorpe’s foreword in his book. The exact quote was: “Finally, I must acknowledge David Beers, who through a rare act of advocacy journalism, first published these ideas and thereby catalyzed much of what has come to pass.” Beers believes that the term “advocacy” was used in a way to describe rarity, rather than activism. But even so, Beers says in an email response: “When journalists transmit the ideas and visions of experts, they are [in part] advocating for one vision of the world or another. We should be rigorous, skeptical and fair-minded on behalf of the reader. But we shouldn’t consider it a sin to facilitate discussions that could lead to positive change.” Experts in solutions journalism would argue that calling it advocacy simply isn’t true. 

“Basically, you’re just reporting on a response to a social problem, the results that it’s getting, and what could be learned from it,” says Bornstein. Advocating would require the writer to pine for a solution. Not only would that be in the crosshairs of journalistic integrity, but it could also prove to be an editorial blunder if that solution doesn’t shape up. “You only have good evidence about the past and only conclusive evidence about the distant past,” says Bornstein. “To protect yourself, the main thing that journalists need to do is not to overclaim.” Every problem has its limitations and, in turn, so does the solution. These need to be clearly stated. 

Beers offers three methods of response-driven storytelling. The first is living through the solution, almost like if Gonzo met solutions. An example of this, he says, would be The 100-Mile Diet, authored by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon. The second is finding a small-scale experiment that has already collected viable data and reporting on it. The story asks: Can it be scaled upwards? Why wouldn’t this work in this town or city? An example of this would be safe injection sites in Vancouver. The last method of solutions reporting is asking: Is our future happening somewhere else right now? This method is comparable to Monte Paulsen’s story, where he sought a solution across the Atlantic, far from home. 

Solutions. Future-focused. Constructive. Call it what you will, but the principle is the same. It’s less about having insufficient room for negative or traditional journalism, and more about learning how to integrate many sides of a story better and more frequently. Experts are unsure of what it will look like in the future, or how it will be integrated within the media landscape. “I think that ultimately, the term ‘solutions’ will just go away. It won’t be needed,” says Bornstein. “You won’t have to say there’s a special kind of journalism that asked you to go look at how people are trying to solve problems, it’ll just be obvious.” What this calls for is a shift in approach. And by focusing on the impact of the story rather than the delivery and the packaging, news outlets might be able to salvage readership, trust, engagement, and, thus, revenue. “There’s this belief in journalism that trust is a function of accuracy,” says Bornstein. “Trust is actually a function of relationship. We don’t trust people just because they think they are right – that’s important. We trust them because they have our backs.” 

And isn’t that what we are here to do?

This story appeared in the RRJ’s Spring 2019 issue.

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