This old ballet

Over the last year, I've been writing periodically about issues related to journalism, particularly how to sustain it. Although newspapers sometimes feel a distant cousin of books and even magazines, they may well be the canaries in the coal mines of publishing: first disrupted, a warning to the larger community.

Last August, I wrote two posts ("Acts of journalism", followed up with an Esther Dyson-inspired "Your Daily Dataset") that explored ways we might sustain investigative journalism. While ad-supported revenue models work at a certain scale, they aren't big enough on their own to pay for local and most regional reporting.

I suggested that local newspapers could evolve to become trusted sources of open data. Subscriptions could include the right to access this data and mine it for trends, patterns and insights – both a service and a form of citizen reporting.

Rethinking reporting has a name now – "solutions journalism" – whose spirit was channelled into a post by Addie Thompson that was published last month. In it, Thompson talks about "why journalism is like really bad parenting (and how we can fix it)".

The thinking behind solutions journalism has some appeal: "mainstream media has a bias for bad news", so we need to report stories that tell how social problems are being solved. Its proponents argue that doing so helps engage readers and spurs them to get involved.

Thompson's post acknowledges that there isn't much agreement yet on how solutions journalism translates into a business model. While it is consistent with Esther Dyson's thinking about "the quantified community", the links haven't been clearly drawn.

Service journalism certainly has its place (I've argued for it in some of my previous posts), but making it our primary focus is potentially misleading. Even with a positive, solutions-driven spin, we still have to understand what problems exist and why they need to be solved.

Sustained change requires a clear understanding of both where we are – the byproduct of investigative journalism, I'd argue – and where we want to end up. Balancing both awareness and a belief in a shared vision is hard when we focus only on one side of the equation.

These are ideas Robert Fritz explored in The Path of Least Resistance, a book whose arguments later influenced Peter Senge in his studies of systems thinking. I wouldn't dismiss solutions journalism as an idea, but I think we still need some reporting that helps us understand we have problems.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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