Depending on your perspective, the great tradition of American journalism is either dying out as a result of technology and changing business models, or it's being reborn better and stronger as a result of technology and changing business models. Either way, some funders, as well as plenty of journalists, feel that the free press is not fulfilling its most important role: helping the public understand and solve society's toughest problems.
There's an old saying in media that "if it bleeds, it leads," and so much of today's news coverage focuses on problems rather than on solutions. And that's a bigger problem than you think. Why? Well, for one thing, the endless onslaught of bad news can make people feel like problems are overwhelming and unsolvable—whereas more exposure to successful remedies can engender optimism and momentum to tackle those problems. Additionally, spreading the word about solutions that work is a key way to bring them to scale.
Enter the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), a nonprofit that works with news organizations and journalists to transform coverage of complex issues that communities face, and to emphasize "rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems."
You might think that this mission would appeal to foundations, which are in the business of solving problems. You might also think it would appeal to funders keen on backing new approaches to journalism. You'd be right on both counts. Ford recently announced a $150,000 grant to SJN, and last year the group won a Knight News Challenge award for work on improving health care. That work also won backing from the California HealthCare Foundation.
Other funding for SJN comes from the Hewlett Foundation, which has given $300,000 over the past two years, and the Rita Allen Foundation. Both of these foundations believe that improving journalism is a key to strengthening civic life. Last year, the Nellie Mae Foundation, which is working to boost student achievement, gave a $250,000 grant to SJN to collaborate with the Boston Globe to produce an "intensive, solutions-oriented examination of issues facing public schools." SJN also got $600,000 from the Gates Foundation in 2014 to fund similar work on education in Seattle, in partnership with the Seattle Times.
Founded by journalists, SJN is promoting an approach to journalism that not only reports on the problems, but also on the programs designed to rectify these problems. Most importantly, however, solutions-oriented coverage tries to understand and explain why programs are working—or why they're not working. So we can, you know, learn.
"The key is to look at the whole picture—the problem and the response," says SJN. "Journalism often stops short of the latter." News stories that reveal what has worked can lead to more constructive and less divisive public discourse, the organization says.
SJN was co-founded by David Bornstein, Courtney E. Martin and Tina Rosenberg. All are active writers and journalists with extensive credentials and at least one Pulitzer between them. Bornstein and Rosenberg write the long-running Fixes blog on the New York Times website.
The SJN offers lots of tools and resources to journalists who want to learn how to include solutions-oriented reporting in their own coverage.
One of words that's tossed around a lot in journalism is "analysis," as in, "news analysis." It's where the journalist purports to explain the meaning behind the news; in reality, it's usually just another word for a piece of commentary. But solutions-oriented coverage, in its effort to reach objective and fact-based understanding of social initiatives, really does sound like actual analysis. Which is something we need.