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Helping Solutions Journalism Deliver on Its Promise

By Thaddeus Mast

March 23, 2023

Cartoon man reading newspaper with problem-ridden headlines.
By Focusing on Readers, News Can Make Real Impact

The Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) is a nonprofit leading a global shift in journalism and focused on what the news misses most often: how people are trying to solve problems and what we can learn from their successes or failures.

Adjunct faculty member Cheryl Dahle, a former journalist, and students in her Co-Design and Social Interventions Workshop spent a semester working with SJN to co-design solutions that would help journalists support and engage with communities.

Journalists are some of the most important agents of change in our society, and the idea of using design to help them step more into a productive role is really exciting. Our aspiration was to explore how journalists can partner with community-based organizations to deepen their relationships—is there a way reporters can produce services and products for a community, beyond traditional news reporting?
—Cheryl Dahle, Climate Initiative Manager and ID Adjunct Faculty
Solutions Journalism Network Co-Design Workshop

Solutions Journalism Network Co-Design Workshop

Students embraced co-design—in which designers approach a situation as facilitators and interveners, bringing people together who might have less power in a system—to suggest a new framework that the Solutions Journalism Network can use to work with newsroom leaders, reporters, and community members.

We explored how power is distributed within news systems; we looked at the stakeholders and worked with Solutions Journalism Network. Their main theory of change was educating journalists about how to write solutions journalism stories, which is great, but they’ve been doing it for 10 years, and they haven’t seen the change they want to see.
—Elizabeth Graff (MDes 2023)

Core Recommendation: Readers and Revenue

The students’ core recommendation was for media organizations to deepen their engagement with readers and communities. In doing so, the organizations will discover how solutions journalism can both lead to new offerings that benefit communities as well as provide new revenue streams.

Diagram representing ID's core recommendation

ID students challenged SJN's theory of change and asked how media organizations could deepen reader engagements. Doing so could lead to both new offerings that benefit communities as well as new revenue streams.

The co-design workshop included discussion and hands-on physical prototyping, including the use of Legos.

The co-design workshop included discussion and hands-on physical prototyping, including the use of Legos.

To explore how co-design might enable that recommendation, the students organized a workshop hosted at ID with a few dozen local social advocacy and business leaders from organizations including Public Narrative, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, and Argonne National Laboratory. The goal: discover community members’ ideal vision of journalism and how those ideals might be incorporated into a network of newsrooms and reporters practicing solutions journalism. This meant intimate, direct discussions and hands-on physical prototyping, including, for example, the use of physical objects like Legos to showcase new ideas in a different light.

We’re taught to look at end users and how they interact with design, so we looked at how readers are using solutions journalism articles. Readers hold the power, and engaging readers hasn’t been explored yet. So why not co-design along with engaged readers? They’ve got a lot of ideas, and we can bring them into the conversation and ask, ‘What do you need? Can journalists do anything for you?’
—Elizabeth Graff (MDes 2023)

Toward Solutions-Focused Media Around the Globe

Now that the Solutions Journalism Network is moving towards larger systems change work , the strategy suggestions made by ID students can be considered and implemented to further the organization’s goals.

The quality and thoughtfulness of the students' work was impressive. They grappled with some of the hardest questions about the business of journalism and how to serve communities in meaningful ways. The insights and ideas they surfaced will contribute to the larger set of reflections around how SJN and the industry evolve and strategize to push media globally to be more solutions-focused.
—Alec Saelens, SJN’s Director of Impact

Sharing a Collaborative Mindset

Working with the Solutions Journalism Network and other outside partners is a cornerstone of ID philosophy, to the benefit of both students and the community.

Students get experience—something that is hard to replicate. If you need to understand how systems work, it’s such a hard thing to do. It takes decades to make a real change in a system, and I think one of the best ways is to try it out.
—Elizabeth Graff (MDes 2023)

Dahle hopes to continue partnering with Solutions Journalism Network and other nonprofits, as the co-design ideas and methods brought forward by ID students push organizations to create a holistic, cooperative mindset.

There is broad applicability of co-design to so many problems, in corporations and in communities. It’s a way of thinking built on partnership and listening and collaboration, which is what we need more of to solve any systemic problem.
—Cheryl Dahle, Climate Initiative Manager and ID Adjunct Faculty