Some of the biggest challenges for the media today include falling trust, dwindling interest and more and more people actively avoiding the news because it makes them feel sad or helpless.

As journalists, we tend to focus on the problems – if it bleeds, it leads – but there’s a growing demand for news that gives readers the tools to help fix the world. That focuses on solutions.

When I speak with editors and journalists, many of them tell me that they would love to be doing more solutions-oriented reporting – and yet, they aren’t. Overwhelmed by the pace of the news cycle, by the demands of the business performance, it’s easier to stick to the things that work.

But here’s the thing: we do know that solutions journalism works.

Readers not only ask for constructive stories; studies show that they spend more time on these articles, have a higher opinion of their quality and are more likely to return to your coverage.

So how can we help resource-strained newsrooms meet readers’ requests?

There are plenty of newspapers dedicated to solutions journalism. This article is aimed at those that aren’t. I’ve picked my five best tips that won’t require grants, time, manpower or a complete overhaul of your newsroom. Five steps to make your reporting more solutions-oriented today.

1. Know what solutions journalism is… and what it isn’t

Solutions journalism, as defined by the Solutions Journalism Network, includes four key ingredients. It focuses not on a problem but on the response to that problem, it offers insights about what can be learned from that response, it provides evidence that it works or doesn’t, and it places the response in a wider context by not shying away from covering possible limitations.

What it isn’t is good news journalism (although solutions often are, in fact, good news).

The success of bringing any new approach to your newsroom starts with clear communication.

Deutsche Welle journalist Cristina Burack, the English language editor at the Bonn Institute, a newly-founded organisation for constructive and solutions-oriented journalism, says that her own experience has taught her that this underpins all other potential steps that can be taken.

“A lot of people falsely believe that it is sugar-coated news, or selective reporting on only positive events. Of course, it isn’t that – it’s a critical and more holistic approach to reporting. If you’re trying to implement constructive practices in a newsroom, you need to make sure that any initial misconceptions are cleared up; otherwise, the uptake could be difficult,” she tells me.

2. Be clever about prioritising

This may seem like an if-it’s-so-easy-why-isn’t-everyone-doing-it tip, but I know countless newsrooms that would benefit from a revamp, or at least a gentle tweak, of their operations.

When I started out as a reporter I thought every story needed the same amount of attention, the same number of unique quotes. It’s what I was told by editors. But spending less time on some stories and more time on others increases the total amount of impact your output will have.

Figuring out how to prioritise my time helped me improve my own reporting.

So that amusing story about that celebrity may bring you more traffic, but does it need as much work as an investigation into what’s working and what isn’t about your city’s housing strategy?

That doesn’t mean you have to choose – you can do both – but think about how much time you allocate to each and what your ultimate goal is. If you’re under pressure to publish stories for clicks, can you at least use them to your advantage, maybe as a buffer of quick jobs to help you spend more time on solutions reporting? This way, you can stay true to your long-term mission under the cover of your short-term business goals. 

As you gain evidence (and you will) that solutions reporting is good for business too, you may even be able to slowly nudge those business goals in a more constructive direction.

3. Block out time

Can you, without increasing your reporters’ workload, jiggle the daily rota to clear one person’s schedule and let them spend a day focusing on solutions reporting? Instead of everyone sharing an equal amount of responsibility for “easy” and “hard” stories every day, can they take turns?

At one newspaper I worked at, we used to take a reporter off the daily rota every week in the run-up to Christmas, so that they could produce evergreen festive content we could hold for the short-staffed holiday season. If it can be done at Christmas, it can be done any time of the year.

So if you’re under pressure to publish a certain number of stories a day, assign a bunch of easy ones to Reporter A and take Reporter B off the daily news cycle to give them a clear head to switch to solutions-mode. This approach has proven extremely effective in my own work.

4. Use one solutions ingredient in every story

Solutions journalism doesn’t have to be a separate field, and it doesn’t have to be ambitious.

If I were to pick just one tip for newsrooms that don’t know how to squeeze solutions journalism into an already heavy workload, it would be this. Next time you write a bog-standard news story, try inserting just one solutions ingredient. If you interview a teacher about the low standard of education, don’t just ask them what isn’t working, ask them how it could be done better. Or find historical context of a time when it used to work. Or evidence of another city that’s made it work.

It can be as little as one sentence. It doesn’t have to be perfect. The key is to start small.

This is also a potential way for individual journalists to sneak solutions journalism in under the radar even if you don’t have buy-in from editors. Just hope the sub-editors don’t cut the line.

5. What’s next? Remember your follow-ups

Did that story about the rubbish… rubbish collection (sorry) do really well? Great. Now where’s the follow-up? Let’s hear about a scheme that’s been tried and tested elsewhere to see how it would work in your town. Or even a new proposal if it’s got enough evidence that it could work.

That “one solutions ingredient” I mentioned? It could form the basis of a new story. Make the question “how would you do this instead” part of your interview routine – see where it takes you.

Sniffing out what stories have legs doesn’t just show readers you’re invested in your coverage for the long run, it’s also efficient use of time. You’ve already done the groundwork, so looking at the story from a solutions lens won’t be as much extra work. Voilà, two stories for the price of one.Finally, be generous about sharing your best practices. I’ve been working with and speaking about solutions journalism for half a decade and I’m still learning what works and what doesn’t. The Solutions Journalism Network, the Bonn Institute and the Constructive Institute are all great places to start. If you have any tips to share, retweet this article or drop me an email.