By Sam Cholke • Project Manager, Solving for Chicago
The Local Media Association has launched Solving for Chicago, an ambitious new journalism collaborative that partners 20 newsrooms to cover topics critical to their communities. Thanks to support from the Google News Initiative and Solutions Journalism Network, the project will explore how cooperating can create impactful journalism that improves communities as well as strengthens the financial health of the participating newsrooms.
“Solutions Journalism Network’s Local Media Project is committed to strengthening the local media ecosystem by building sustainable, long term collaboratives that embrace solutions journalism,” said Liza Gross, vice president of practice change, Solutions Journalism Network. “We are delighted to partner with the Local Media Association, an organization that shares our vision for an informed and engaged community served by robust news organizations.”
This is the first in a series of papers on the lessons being learned through the work of that collaborative.
In July, the Solving for Chicago collaborative’s 20 newsroom members voted to cover essential workers as their first topic. These employees found themselves suddenly critical to society when COVID-19 struck and in desperate need of timely and accurate information to protect their health and safety. No newsroom alone was fully meeting these workers’ information needs and it was deemed a way to both better reach communities in need and to shed light on the sacrifices being asked of these workers.
In July, the participating newsrooms went through training with Solutions Journalism Network and determined that collaboration alone would not be enough to meet its goals, and it was necessary to include a solutions journalism approach if coverage was to be impactful and useful.
Why collaborations choose solutions journalism
Solutions journalism and collaboration are rising as an appealing way for newsrooms to build trust and expand their audience. But why are they so often paired? At first glance it may seem to increase the complexity of a project to adopt both approaches simultaneously. But the inclusion of solutions journalism into a collaboration can ease the jump over an early hurdle and establish common ground.
What is solutions journalism?
Solutions journalism is an approach to enterprise reporting being put into practice in more than 170 newsrooms across the world. It is rigorous, evidence-based reporting on the responses being taken to important social problems.
Solutions is about describing the problems in our society and searching out the efforts people and institutions are making to fix them — both when they fail and when they succeed. The deeper description of problems and the inclusion of the strengths and limitations of solutions currently being tried is meant to empower readers that have disengaged from news because coverage too often jumps from crisis to crisis.
The practice is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network nonprofit based in New York City. SJN has full-time staff that work to train and support newsrooms in the approach.
What is collaborative journalism?
Collaboration can incorporate a broad range of methods and practices, but at its core is about two or more news organizations working cooperatively when it is more advantageous than competing.
Many newsrooms have collaborated in the past, whether it be sharing content or pairing reporters together on a team-reporting project. Newspapers within the same chain or public radio stations within the same region commonly collaborate, but until recently it was extremely rare for newsrooms to cross multiple industry lines. According to the Collaborative Journalism Database maintained by Montclair State University, until recently it was rare for multiple news organizations operating within the same market to collaborate with other newsrooms that did not share the same business model and medium.
The challenges of bridging the culture differences between a for-profit television newsroom, a nonprofit public radio station can be challenging. It can become an intense challenge when the collaborative is expanded to include a nonprofit investigative newsroom, a community weekly newspaper and others.
The current standard for how to accomplish such a collaboration is Resolve Philly, which currently has 25 partner newsrooms in Philadelphia working collaboratively to cover poverty using a solutions journalism approach. Prior to Resolve Philly’s launch in 2016, such an ambitious collaboration had only been tried twice before. The first was the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, started in 2014 with six members. The other was Chicago, which ran the Chicago Matters collaborative for more than a decade.
Collaboration in Chicago
Large scale collaboration started in Chicago 10 years before the effort was tried in any other U.S. city. For nearly a decade, newsrooms collaborated on long-term investigations on a single theme through the Chicago Matters project. The effort included newsrooms with a diversity of journalistic approaches, including WBEZ, WTTW, The Chicago Defender, The Chicago Reporter and its sister publication Catalyst, and at times included non-journalistic partners like the Chicago Public Library. It was the only collaboration in the country to include both for-profit and not-for-profit partners working across multiple mediums that all competed within the same media market.
Bridging the differences between the newsroom cultures was a persistent challenge and contributed to the eventual end of the effort in 2009, according to a 2018 Democracy Fund report. Contributing factors included local foundations playing a heavy hand in choosing the topic and a loss of momentum during down time between efforts when reporters would cycle back to their assigned beat.
As other cities have now started to experiment with collaborations in a similar way to Chicago Matters and are learning again that collaborations must have a plan for managing differing newsroom cultures.
Why collaboration and solutions in Chicago?
Momentum has been growing for some time in Chicago to revive its tradition of collaboration, but it is clear that there are lessons to be learned from the past if it is to be successful.
Solutions journalism is a critical component of a larger scale collaboration for a complex news ecosystem like Chicago. The diversity of approaches to covering a topic make it an appealing place to tackle complex reporting topics. But the day-to-day practice of journalists in different newsrooms can vary wildly. One of the lessons of Chicago Matters is those diverse methods can lead to a culture clash if there is not some common ground established early on.
Solutions is helpful because it is a well-supported approach that is easily accessible to most newsrooms and it accepts a broad diversity of methods to accomplish the storytelling. In an initial training in July, the Solutions Journalism Network approach was warmly received by the group, with many feeling it supported their underlying commitment to strong community journalism and addressed their frustrations with the incentives of social media to promote conflict.
“All of the editors on my team universally really liked [solutions journalism],” said Tom Shaw, chief product officer for the Shaw Media, a chain of 36 publications in Illinois. “It’s not a listicle of cats, it’s meaningful journalism.”
A collaborative must align both the goals of the editorial staff in the room together as well as business and development staff who often are not. Solutions journalism allows both editorial and back office staff to focus on when the content provides the most value to their audience.
“If our future business model is primarily consumer revenue then the core dynamic of that is the content has to be great,” Shaw said. “So solutions journalism is more appealing to people who are avoiding negative news. It fits nicely into our ideas of what journalism should be, and part of that is making our community a better place.”
Collaborations that include a diverse set of partners that normally compete within the same media market brings with it a number of cultural challenges that must be anticipated.
Solutions journalism provides a shared framework for newsrooms to find a shared set of values within a project. By centering the value of the reporting to the audience, it also helps align the goals of the editorial and business staff within the scope of the project.
Building on the foundations
Solutions journalism has served as an excellent foundation in some of the most successful large-scale collaborations in the country, including Resolve Philly, the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative and the Granite State News Collaborative. The ability to expand to include a greater diversity of newsrooms strengthens a collaboration’s ability to reach new audiences with impactful coverage.
Mature collaborations are finding strategies they use consistently to build on the foundations of solutions journalism, particularly when incorporating members that focus on technology-driven journalism that produces non-narrative reporting such as maps, data visualizations and interactive tools.
Resolve Philly has added an additional category of journalism the collaborative members can pursue to extends the problem-solving ethos of solutions journalism to non-narrative work.
“’Service journalism’ helps to sell the idea of solutions journalism because it’s also about actual things that can be done,” said André Natta, reporting collaborative editor at Resolve Philly. “Service journalism is helpful because it fills in the gaps.”
It is important to note that service journalism reinforces the underlying values of solutions journalism. It is an expansion of methods. It allows for a greater diversity of partners to participate in the collaboration and engage in the core culture that initially grew around narrative journalism.
Exploration still needs to be done on what strategies are most effective to align the goals of the business and development offices as collaborations more fully explore reader revenue options. Chicago will be an interesting test case to develop strategies for bridging the needs of for-profit and not-for-profit newsrooms revenue goals. The idiosyncrasies of local philanthropic environments will likely require an adaptive approach. The community of collaborative directors established by the Solutions Journalism Network and the Local Media Association guarantees that those universal lessons can be surfaced.
 “The Shape of Chicago’s Media Ecosystem and Possible Paths Forward,” Sheila Solomon and Andrea Hart, https://localnewslab.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Democracy-Fund_Chicago-Media-Ecosystem_final.pdf