What Solutions-Based Journalism has to do with Social Enterprises (Hint: Everything)

Some things are just better when you can share them.

Like a terrible flick. Maybe underwear shopping. Dare I say...pedicures? And this week (read: the annals of time), we add learning to the list.

After nearly three years of serially signing up for online courses that I was fated never to finish, I recently put my first one to bed. And it was intoxicating.

So much so that, drunk on knowledge, I perused eDX.org’s list of course offerings for my next fix. Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies? Intriguing, but I’ve never taken calculus and fear alternate dimensions (that is what it is, right?). Public speaking? Necessary, but I prefer a trial and error approach. Solutions-based journalism? Suddenly, I had found it.

Truthfully, I was searching for something that would help sharpen my writing skills (the first step is admitting there’s room for improvement), and solutions-based journalism resonated with me on so many levels.

When team Poco a Poco first embarked on this venture, we did it in part because we saw a problem with how current events were being covered by the media. It seemed like a game of kickball gone awry between teams of possessed fourth graders; finger-pointing and name calling come on the heels of doom and gloom.

Certainly, when we started marinating on this idea in the fall of 2016, there was plenty to be upset about (sorry to remind you of that time). Sometimes the finger pointing was justified and the name calling well deserved. The problem was (is?), the approach seemed perpetual. How could we ever begin to evaluate - even think about - resolution if we were unwilling to detach ourselves from assigning blame to the problem?

So we did what any brave young idealogues would do - we ran away. We ran away because we knew that despite the mounting problem-eteering at home, there were people out there working on solutions.

We appreciate that people should have to answer for the messes they create, but at the end of the day, who gives a damn who started it? Not to shirk accountability, but now it’s all of our problem. So you either fix it, or, in an attempt to absolve responsibility, you spend enough time arguing over it that people forget what the problem is even about. At some point, it’s like, the hell with accountability and responsibility - how about some humanity!

Of course, solutions are hard. Matt Damon can tell you all about that. They require diagnosis, analysis, and guts - lots of guts. But we shouldn’t be afraid of the hard stuff.

OK, sorry to have put you through an introduction to what really is supposed to be about the acquisition of knowledge. But sometimes the venting process is cathartic. And also that my recent discovery that solutions-based journalism is an actual thing (maybe buzzword, forgive me) was just so...exhilarating? Or validating. And that it embodies the foundational concept that drives our content-creational spirits and helped us encounter some truly amazing social entrepreneurs.

 

So, what is solutions-based journalism?

The course, “Journalism for Social Change,” was developed by Daniel Heimpel, a lecturer at the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy, in 2012, and has since been adapted for public policy students at USC and San Francisco State University.

As these things go, the course’s foundations precipitated some existential questions, beginning with: what is solutions-based journalism? The answer to which, of course, has a story.

When we look back at the impetus of modern journalism and its role in society, we should probably start with the “muckrakers” of early 20th century America. These writers (think Upton Sinclair) worked to uncover social ills and broadcast them to the public. Their investigations helped mount public pressure campaigns that would eventually lead to landmark policy changes - child labor laws, antitrust policies, wage determination, and so on.

“Muckraking,” now just referred to as investigative journalism, continued and does continue to play a critical role in public information dissemination and policy change: desegregation, environmental justice, Vietnam war crimes, migrant mistreatment, and yes, Russian election interference. But the landscape of social issues and public policy has changed dramatically in the last 100 years - things are more complex.

Early investigative journalism put pressure on institutions to solve glaring problems - children in coal mines, unsanitary working conditions in meat factories, polluted waterways. The question in 2018, however, isn’t just, "will public pressure on institutions actually solve the problem?" The question may better be framed as, "do institutions even know how to solve the problem?"

From this question, solutions-based journalism is born. Journalists have long shied away from talking about solutions because it gives the impression of advocacy - the mortal enemy of transparency. But can’t we focus on both right- and wrong-doing? Spotlighting solutions doesn’t diminish the gravity of a problem. Instead it helps to evaluate the future.

If journalism doesn’t exist to instigate change, then what purpose does it really serve? A daily dose of depression? We’ve all got enough of our own problems to deal with.

What instigates change (cognitive-psychologically speaking) isn’t just knocking people over the head with destitution and hopelessness - it’s aspiration. Climate change is a great example of this. After reading a 1,500 word article about receding glaciers and water shortages in the Himalayas, it’s pretty hard not to feel like crap. And lost. And really, really small. But what about receding Himalayan glaciers and water shortages in the context of giant ice stupas that have provided over 1.5 million liters of water to 5,000 villages in Nepal?

More effectively teaching inner-city kids, effectively banking with the world’s poorest people - these are complex problems that can’t simply be solved by applying public pressure, they require innovation.

By focusing on innovators, readers, viewers, and thumb-flickers become inspired agents of change, rather than just information vehicles for the problem.

The idea isn’t that every solution put forth into the world should be taken as a panacea. Just like old-fashioned investigative journalism, solutions-based journalism needs to critically evaluate both problems and solutions. But sometimes we can learn just as much from what hasn’t worked as what has.

 

And what does it have to do with social businesses?

So, I have to confess, a good deal of the “what is solutions-based journalism?” section was poached from a TED Talk given by David Bornstein, regular NYT “Opinionator” contributor and co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network. But hey man, you’ve got me feeling all inspired! Also, I helped consolidate 20 minutes of educational video content into 3 minutes of reading. In today’s world, that’s worth something.

Looking back to the beginnings of Poco a Poco, which at the time we were calling “The Human Connection Project,” it’s no surprise that we became so inspired to work with social businesses. In a quest to leave behind the infinite continuum of problems-focused media coverage and create change-based content, it became clear that social businesses were at the tip of innovative solutions.

Social businesses address issues that plague society. That is, indeed the social part. So, inherently, they are part of the historical and current news landscapes. Some are businesses first, and social affectors second, others visa versa, but either way, they approach wealth inequality, identity crises, environmental degradation, and information access in a way that policy makers usually shy away from.

The owners, a number of which we’ve been fortunate to meet, are bold, brave and unafraid to deconstruct traditional business models and make their own. They don’t wait for government approval or public pressure campaigns - they see a problem, and they try to solve it.

And they bet heavily on their ability to affect social change. Indeed that is what defines a social business’ success. Their financial viability is directly tied to how much of a product or service they can sell - how well they can implement and execute a business model - which in turn allows them to grow and continue affecting social change. These are models of wealth acquisition and distribution that we haven’t really seen before.

Like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this week is about sharing. I’m not sure any of the information here is more than an expression of in-process realization, but I thought it interesting as we take a more critical eye to the news media and grapple with the fact that our policymakers can’t pass legislation because they are so deeply entrenched in the blame game.

As David Bornstein points out in his TED Talk, much of the polarization we see in society stems from the fact that we don’t know if we can trust one another - if we can trust the intentions of our neighbor or elected official.

I think solutions-based journalism and social businesses intersect right the core of this problem. Journalists should be trusted public informants, and I think they’re evaluation of social problem solvers is critical to helping improve how we consume and understand issues. In a sense, it takes the problem outside of a vacuum.

If you’re interested in hearing more from an actual expert on the intersection between journalism and social businesses, Mr. Bornstein has written a number of books on the subject.