Parallels Between Solutions Journalism and Issues Management

Readers want to see more news reporting about solving problems. Issue managers should take the same cue and look for solutions, not just offer explanations.

Readers want to see more news reporting about solving problems. Issue managers should take the same cue and look for solutions, not just offer explanations.

Solutions journalism could make issues management more necessary – and more challenging.

Solutions journalism is a new thrust in journalism schools, including the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, that seeks to apply investigative reporting techniques to identify and explore solutions to vexing community or social problems.

In many ways, solutions journalism parallels issues management. It involves careful listening and casting a broad net for relevant solutions in place or under consideration around the world. Listening posts, quality research and broad awareness of what others in similar situations are doing are the tools of savvy issue managers.

Regina Lawrence, executive director of the UO’s Agora Journalism Center, cited the center’s collaboration with local news organizations to create “solutions-oriented coverage of Portland’s housing crisis.” The one-year project included community engagement to identify issues and gathering personal stories that Lawrence said otherwise would have been missing in local news reporting. The result has been a more engaged community conversation about a range of housing issues, which culminated in legislation at the just concluded Oregon legislative session.

Stretched newsrooms no longer have the luxury of taking time to become absorbed in an issue and undertake “closer listening within a community,” Lawrence says. With funding from the Knight Foundation, she says a platform called “Gather” will be created to provide an online meeting place for journalists and provide “a toolkit of case studies and resources.”

Solutions Journalism Network already has posted a beta site that contains hundreds of news stories on a wide array of topics from agriculture to science. In the category of “Agriculture, Fishing & Forestry,” there are 202 curated stories about: “Management of food systems and their underlying resources. These stories center on ways of maintaining productive, healthy and sustainable systems of agriculture, fishing and forestry. Included also are efforts to establish food security, community food systems and responsible irrigation.”

Many of the stories probably could be discovered through Google searches, but a network devoted to finding solution-oriented stories could save reporters a lot of leg work and lead them down paths they may not have time to discover. It could be a tremendous tool for reporters, editorial writers, bloggers and community journalists.

If Lawrence is right about solution journalism on the rise, it will mean issue managers need to up their game to keep pace. That means finding ways to listen to the rumble in key communities and being aware of related developments and ideas in other places.

The best form of issues management is anticipating significant change and coming up with ideas in advance to cope with it or, better yet, bend that change into an opportunity. That suggests issue managers should applaud and even support the spread of solutions journalism, which could improve the depth and quality of news reporting on complex or multi-sided subjects.

Smart issue managers might even seek out opportunities to interact with solutions journalists in forums aimed at identifying trends, challenges and opportunities.

At a minimum, solutions journalism promises to go beyond breaking news and superficial coverage of sophisticated issues, which could lessen the growing cynicism of news consumers and of constituencies that issue managers must communicate with and convince.

“Solutions remain an under-represented part of the news – particularly given the astonishing changes that have occurred around the world in recent years,” wrote David Bornstein in a New York Times op-ed. “Over the past two or three decades, millions or organizations have sprouted up globally to tackle problems in new ways.” If that spirit animates journalists to seek solutions, it also should animate issue managers.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.