If you’re not part of the solution, are you part of the problem?

Identifying industry problems is a practice that business publications excel at. Business leaders rely, in part, on us to give them warning when we see trouble on the horizon. However, once we’ve done our job of raising awareness, can we do more to help our readers successfully navigate their way through the crisis? Indeed, we can by using a relatively new philosophy in journalism called “solutions journalism.”

The Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) defines solutions journalism as “rigorous, compelling coverage of responses to social problems—reporting done with the highest of journalistic standards.”

Solutions journalism is a method of storytelling that shows how people and organizations are solving significant problems. While SJN’s focus is on society, it’s an approach that is very suitable for business issues, and I think business publications are already a good part of the way there.

Many business publications are currently showing how companies are solving industry problems through narrative case studies. In the case study, we tell the story of how company X solved problem Y, and it’s often told in the voice of someone on the company’s executive team. However, solutions journalism takes that narrative a few steps beyond what we are currently publishing.

Solutions journalism gets into the details of how a problem was solved, and it gives voice to the employees who are implementing and living with the solution every day.

Photo by Olav Ahrens Røtne on Unsplash

Photo by Olav Ahrens Røtne on Unsplash

What would solutions journalism look like in a B2B environment?

I do quite a bit of writing in the manufacturing sector. One of the biggest problems that manufacturers are facing is a significant labor shortage. It’s a business problem (although, one could argue a societal issue as well but don’t even get me started) that is in desperate need of a solutions approach.

Typically, when reading coverage of this issue, I see stories that bring in experts and consultants who share their opinions on how the problem might be solved. Often those opinions promise a silver bullet solution. Occasionally, when publications do cover real-world solutions, they are briefly tacked on to the end of a piece or presented as a short, feel-good fluff piece.

Instead, a solutions journalism approach would dig deep into the ways a few manufacturers are actively solving the problem of the labor shortage. The “how” is the meat of the story. Their solution cannot be taken at face value. You must ask in what ways is it failing and in what ways is it succeeding. It’s a story that doesn’t shy away from talking about the challenges that an organization faced when implementing their solution but identifies those challenges and talks about how they did or did not overcome them.

In the case of the manufacturing labor shortage, one solution story might be about how companies are incorporating robots into their production process. Of course, you are going to talk to management about why and how they did it, but an essential part of that story is going to be how it impacted the workforce. To tell that story you’re going to need to talk to the employees. A solutions journalism piece cannot be told without the voices of those impacted by the solution. This type of in-depth approach to reporting and telling stories gives the reader valuable information, empowers them and it is the catalyst for thoughtful discussion.

Solutions Journalism Isn’t Easy

Editors need to understand that writers cannot do the reporting required to tell these stories in a few hours or even a few days. It involves interviewing multiple people who are involved in implementing the solution as well as those who are impacted. You have to be committed to giving your writers the resources and time they need, and they need to be compensated appropriately for that additional reporting.

Moreover, if the story is big, you might want to collaborate with other publications to give the problem the attention it deserves. An example of a collaboration project is the Reentry Project in Philadelphia. It was a collaboration between 15 different media outlets and produced more than 200 stories.

While I’m not suggesting every problem requires this type of extensive collaboration. However, using the example of the manufacturing labor shortage again, several manufacturing publications banding together and teaming up with educational journals to create a series together is very doable.

Identifying a solutions journalism opportunity

You may have noticed by this point that this is not a solutions journalism piece. I have not shown active ways business publications are using this approach, and I am only identifying possibilities, not realities.  That is because this story is not ready for a solutions journalism approach.

The SJN suggests, when identifying a solutions story, “Ask yourself: What’s missing in the public conversation? Is there a lack of awareness about the problem? Is there some awareness, but insufficient outrage? If so, traditional journalism that exposes the problem may be the best course. However, if the missing parts of the public conversation include ‘What could be done about this? Who is doing a better job handling this problem? then it’s a good candidate for a solutions journalism inquiry.”

In the B2B media world, we might want to replace “outrage” with “frustration” when identifying a solutions story. As in, is there some awareness, but insufficient frustration? Then, when you’ve determined there is sufficient frustration in your industry, it’s time to start looking for organizations that have made some decent attempts at overcoming the problem.

For more information on solutions journalism, check out the Solutions Journalism Network. Their website is filled with definitions, examples and even online training. If you are interested in reading some cases of coverage that uses the solutions journalism approach, you can find them at The Whole Story on Medium.

Traci Browne is a freelance writer with a focus on technology, science, robotics and manufacturing. Browne is a regular contributor for Compoundings magazine, Municipal Sewer and Water magazine and Mouser Electronics Bench Talk Blog. She has written for Robotics Business Review, Professional Mariner, NextBot Magazine, iQ by Intel and a variety of manufacturers.