RJI Fellowship project helps TV newsrooms go from only reporting on problems to solutions journalism

The Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute has awarded seven fellowships for the 2019–20 academic year with projects to improve gun violence reporting, expand solutions-based journalism by local TV stations, help large and small newsrooms get the most out of push notifications, customize audio documentaries through voice commands, measure the community impact of online stories and preserve digital content that’s being lost.

Training journalists in new reporting concepts is a first step, but many times this alone is not enough to break old habits, says Carolyn Robinson, regional director of newsroom practice at Solutions Journalism Network.

That has motivated SJN to return to 15 commercial TV stations they trained earlier this year to observe daily operations and learn specifically what’s working and what isn’t. They are able to do this follow-up training for the first time in SJN’s history, thanks to the additional resources provided by an RJI Fellowship.

Robinson says it is her hope these follow-up meetings can help transform traditional mindsets and practices.

Solutions Journalism Network is an organization that trains journalists to cover how and where people are effectively addressing important community problems. It moves journalists forward from simply reporting on just the problems in a community, says Robinson.

Bringing solutions journalism to TV news

The workshops held earlier this year were SJN’s first attempt to bring solutions journalism into commercial TV newsrooms, after an initial project with a TV station in Cleveland, Ohio. SJN has primarily trained print, online and public media newsrooms since it launched in 2013. As a former TV journalist herself, Robinson says she saw a need for solutions journalism in commercial TV newsrooms.

According to Robinson, SJN’s initial training with any newsroom involves explaining what solutions journalism is, answering a newsroom’s questions, brainstorming solutions journalism project ideas and talking to audience engagement teams to get newsrooms started on a project.

However, after workshops are over, obstacles can crop up that prevent solutions journalism from growing. These obstacles include staff quitting and leaving a hole in the solutions journalism setup or resistance from new leaders to implement solutions journalism. Unfortunately, since SJN is a small organization, limited resources have prevented follow-up visits in the past, says Robinson.

SJN hired veteran TV journalist Deborah Potter, a former director of the Radio and Television News Directors Association (now called Radio, Television and Digital News Association), to conduct the follow-up meetings.

“So now what we've been able to do, that we’ve never done before, is go around and do a second pass and really connect with the newsrooms to see how well these concepts are being established,” she says. “Where are the strong points? Where are the weak points? Where can we shore it up?”

Potter was also tasked with identifying a champion within each newsroom who is passionate about solutions journalism and will keep it running in the newsroom, she says.

While she visits the newsrooms, Potter is also conducting interviews to put together a playbook of how to do solutions journalism in a newsroom, which will be shared with other TV broadcasters.

What Potter has learned

So far, one of Potter’s biggest takeaways has been the importance of getting buy-in from top leadership, says Robinson.

“Many times we’ve been approached by journalists of all kinds who are very excited about doing solutions journalism,” says Robinson. “They want to learn it and spread it in their newsrooms. That works sometimes, but many times unless that person can convince the person that's running the newsroom that this is what they want to do, it's not going to set in.”

Potter has also learned that sometimes it can be a challenge to get newsrooms out of the traditional problems-oriented approach to reporting, which focuses only on problems in the community. Solutions journalism also highlights what is being done to solve the problems, says Robinson.

Potter is also gathering metrics to see how well the newsrooms’ projects have been doing and how well they’ve performed.

At the end of the project, SJN plans to measure the effectiveness of the TV visits and look at whether a second layer of training and support is needed.

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