Structuring a Solutions-Oriented Story

Say to yourself, 'Alright, I want to write about a really interesting and creative attempt at solving a problem.' Once you talk about it as being a creative attempt, then you don’t feel trapped into having to find only good news. Because then you say to yourself the virtue of what I’m going to do is show people 'here is somebody who’s tried to solve a problem in a really intriguing way and I’m going to tell you what is working and what’s not working.' Then you feel more open to learning about the project for real, warts and all, successes and failures. As long as you do that and make sure to really dig and learn what some of the stumbling blocks are and report on them, people will find it credible. It’s the puff pieces that just say this is the greatest thing since sliced bread and there’s no problem — that’s what makes people mistrust them.

Meg Kissinger portrait
Meg Kissinger
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

At its heart, solutions journalism is just good journalism. That said, solutions stories are often structured a little differently. That difference is enough to be daunting to reporters accustomed to traditional journalism. So in this section, we annotate four types of solutions story structures: one that explores a positive deviant, one that explains a big new idea, one that discusses an experiment in progress, and one that explores how a location has transformed.

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Positive Deviant

How Rochester Responded to its Lead Poisoning Problem,” which appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s “Toxic Neglect” series in October 2015, explores a “positive deviant”: Rochester, New York. Positive deviant stories, including this one, often feature a secret ingredient. In this case, authors Rachel Dissell and Brie Zeltner say: “What separates Rochester’s approach from other cities fighting childhood lead poisoning is simple: The city decided to start looking for lead in rental homes rather than waiting to act until a child had already been poisoned.” The story also relies on data to show Rochester’s success, another touchstone of this kind of journalism.

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Big New Idea

For some, prenatal care is a community affair” challenges traditional notions of prenatal care. This multimedia piece, which was published in Public Radio International’s “Ninth Month” series, tracks a group pre-natal program called Centering Pregnancy. It is written by Shuka Kalantari. As with many solutions-oriented pieces that explore big innovative ideas, Kalantari opens with a taste of what the program offers. She then backs into what the problem is (in this case, depression among pregnant Latina immigrant women in California), and how this program helps address those issues.

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Experiment in Progress

Sometimes, reporters have an opportunity to cover an ongoing program that has clear pros and cons. This is the case in “Less lecturing, more doing: New approach for A.P. classes,” which appeared in The Seattle Times’ “Education Lab” series in March 2014. The author, Linda Shaw, chronicles a new style of teaching advanced placement classes in high schools — specifically, one that favors group work and debates over straight lectures. The experiment is still underway, and results thus far are mixed. She is very forthcoming about the idea’s limitations, but also does not shy away from the promise it holds. Compared to the “big new idea” structure, this type of story usually has a bit more data and evidence behind it.

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Location Transformation

In August 2014, Kaiser Health News and NPR published, “Wrestling With A Texas County’s Mental Health System,” which explains how Bexar County, Texas, dramatically revamped its approach to mental illness. The KHN piece is written by Jenny Gold. The top of the piece focuses heavily on the problem, with a few lines signaling that the situation is now vastly improved. The major change the county made, Gold explains, was having diverse departments in the city pool their funds together to build a “Restoration Center.” She goes on to explain how the center works, the teachable lessons it can offer, and its limitations. Locations highlighted in this story type may or may not be an overall “positive deviant,” but do offer important lessons.