Solutions vs Problems

Run with the negative or accentuate the positive? Highlight problems or present solutions? These are questions, writes Dickon Ross, that editors have always grappled with.

By Dickon Ross

Solutions vs Problems

‘Don’t bring me problems. Bring me solutions’ was a fashionable management mantra among publishers back in the 1990s. It was usually accompanied by a ‘stop’ raised hand, eyes dropped towards the floor and a dismissive wave away. ‘Don’t talk to me till you have some answers.’ In recent years, that’s the message that editors have been hearing from their readers. ‘We want less depressing bad news, more solutions.’

When I did my very first evening class in journalism, even before my first editorial assistant job, the local paper editor explained some basic ‘facts of life’ to us budding reporters. They included rules like ‘if in doubt, leave it out’ or insights along the lines of ‘a death in your town is worth a hundred a thousand miles away’, or simply ‘thinner words’.

It was there I also heard for the first time the story about the newspaper launched to print only good news. It didn’t survive long and broke its own policy on its last issue announcing its demise. Although there were those who considered that good news too. ‘Bad news sells’ was long held as a self-evident truth. While readers said they wanted positive stories, what they actually picked up and bought was fast, shocking bad news. The ‘And finally…’ cheering story was just for the very end of the local TV news or below the fold of the broadsheet.

Yet, now we’re hearing that one reason readers are disappearing – missing in digital distraction – is the relentless bad news of recent years. There’s certainly been plenty of it. During the pandemic especially, surveys showed they craved more context and more answers. In short: a more optimistic, constructive, less depressing read.

Publishers’ attempts to deliver on this have become known as ‘solutions journalism’, the latest buzzwords in industry conferences and seminars. It sounds like a positive aspiration and I’m for it but I do have a few, erm, potential problems with this solution.

First, solutions journalism can tend dangerously close to PR puff. Problems put people on the spot. They can upset, expose or embarrass the powerful. But who doesn’t like solutions? Many are commercially backed too so there’s something to sell. My editor’s inbox is bombarded with press releases about solutions – some good, some not so good but they all claim to solve a problem, most for a price. They don’t necessarily have to be right to be an interesting read; after all, there will be failures as well as successes and we can learn from those too. But journalists must never stop asking questions for fear of appearing negative; stay analytical, assess the realistic chances and identify the obstacles as well as the opportunities.

As a session on this subject at Newsrewired heard last month from one local newspaper, that positive, solution articles can be the first to the backburner or the spike when space is short and time is tight. For example, the story about revisiting that nice community project can always wait; last night’s murder or that emerging scandal must run now. This is less true for magazines for which this has long been their bread and butter.

While readers said they wanted positive stories, what they actually picked up and bought was fast, shocking bad news.

The magazine approach

Solutions journalism may look newer to newspapers more used to running what their critics would term ‘doom and gloom’ but magazines have always done solutions journalism – they just didn’t label it that. Whether it’s specialist magazines with items about how to bake a better cake, choose the best washing machine or make better model aeroplanes. Or whether it’s women’s or men’s magazines with articles on how to get fitter, smarter or more successful. Or whether it’s trade magazines covering new opportunities, an interesting new idea or what’s working and what isn’t, where and how – they’re about solutions, one way or another.

While bad news undoubtedly sells, magazine readership surveys call for case studies, useful tips, unexpected insights and practical, ‘how to’ features. When Covid-19 came, Pulse, for example, deliberately prioritised more helpful stories for its doctors than yet more crises. For my magazine’s readership of professional engineers, our COP26 issue was deliberately more about possible answers than the scale of the problem, which was covered so relentlessly by the national media. When environmental protesters proclaim that nothing is being done, our readers know that’s not strictly true because for many, it’s been their work for decades, for others, finding solutions is now part of their day-to-day business.

We have industry experts in sustainability and renewables engineering who say the technology is there now to provide those environmental solutions. More development is always welcome, but there’s enough to save the world. The barrier is sufficient political will backed by resources. So, solutions raise new kinds of problems. It’s cyclical.

It’s important the media cover both ‘bad news’ problems and ‘good news’ solutions but we can specialise. To publishers only just discovering so-called solutions journalism: welcome and what took you so long?

Solutions journalism can tend dangerously close to PR puff.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.