From northwestern Costa Rica, a small bilingual newspaper is using solutions journalism to tell stories of how residents are solving their communities’ problems.
They are residents of Hojancha who reforested a river basin and brought water back to the town, fishermen who are bringing turtles back to Playa El Jobo and an organization that is providing IUDs to residents in Huacas who can’t afford big families.
For the past year, La Voz de Guanacaste has reported these and other accounts using the approach of solutions journalism, which focuses on how people and organizations are responding to social problems, beyond just denouncing them. The publication is part of a growing community in Latin America that is learning about this approach to reporting stories.
“Solutions journalism has helped us to further assert our mission, which is to empower communities through information. It has helped us to assert it because through this type of journalism we are not only telling people what is happening, but how it is happening,” Noelia Esquivel, who is in charge of the solutions journalism project at La Voz de Guanacaste, told the Knight Center. “We give them the insights so that, if they face similar problems they can replicate a successful model and thus be able to solve their problem as well.”
The journalist explained that the newsroom has used the approach to cover the environment, human rights, non-governmental organizations and public institutions.
For example, Esquivel’s first solutions journalism story for the newspaper was about how volunteer firefighters in the coastal district of Nosara were using personal cell phones to receive and catalog emergency notifications while they wait to be integrated into the country’s alert system. The force was vital to the community since official firefighters from neighboring Nicoya was 37 miles away and they could not arrive to emergencies in time.
As they’re part of a small team, the journalists in the newsroom have confronted challenges, such as measuring the impact of their stories, including whether or not people are taking action as a result.
However, the solutions journalism stories they have published have greater reach and engagement on Facebook and they are among the publication’s most read stories, according to Esquivel.
“And that fills us with satisfaction because we know that we are not telling happy stories,” the journalist said. “It is not about telling happy stories, but telling stories that have that added value and that can empower audiences to take actions so they know they can take action.”
Organizations they’ve covered have also gained momentum as word spreads about the services they provide, Esquivel explained. Or, in one case, the newspaper was contacted by an organization that wanted to replicate a youth outreach program they read about through the journalist’s reporting.
When La Voz de Guanacaste decided to take on solutions journalism in August 2018, they got assistance from Mikhael Simmonds of the U.S.-based Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) to help “to know what solutions journalism is and how to implement it in the newsroom,” Esquivel said.
As the journalist explained, Costa Rican newsrooms hadn’t yet explored it much and although she had heard about it in school, it was not taught in-depth.
Simmonds and Liza Gross, Argentinian journalist and vice president of the SJN, also gave a virtual workshop for the entire newsroom, and La Voz de Guanacaste became the organization’s first partner in Latin America.
“The team is super aligned that it is very valuable to tell the stories with this approach,” Esquivel said.
Expanding solutions journalism through Latin America
With the help of funding from the Tinker Foundation, the SJN and the Gabriel García Márquez Foundation for New Ibero-American Journalism (FNPI) recently teamed up to expand the journalistic practice in Latin America over the next two years.
“We’ve sealed an alliance to spread throughout Latin America the approach of investigating in-depth and with rigor the initiatives that successfully combat social problems in different spheres of our societies,” Alejandra Cruz, director of journalism workshops at FNPI, told the Knight Center.
It includes in-person workshops, webinars, scholarships for production and the dissemination of tools for editors and reporters, as explained by Cruz.
SJN, founded in 2013, was a seasoned partner for the FNPI in their mission. The group trains journalists on how to write solutions journalism stories and has newsroom partners across the world. It offers a Learning Lab with a basic overview of solutions journalism and specific guides by issue. A basic toolkit is in Spanish now, and more guides will be added as FNPI translates the material. The SJN also maintains the Solutions Story Tracker, a 6,562-story database of reporting searchable by topic and success factors.
The first official workshop of this new alliance under the grant from the Tinker Foundation took place in May 2019 in Cartagena, Colombia with 15 journalists from the region and was taught by Gross and journalist Gregory Scruggs. About 160 people applied.
“What happened in Latin America is pretty much what has happened to solutions journalism here in the United States,” Gross told the Knight Center. “[In the U.S.,] a lot of our editors and reporters and producers had been thinking in a solution-y way, had been sort of exploring this possibility of ‘What lies beyond just describing the problem? Is there anything else? What else can we give our readers?’ They were very motivated along these lines, only they were not calling it solutions journalism and they did not have a method for it.”
In Cartagena, many people had been looking at solutions journalism and were happy to learn the methodology behind it, but Gross said they were also skeptical and had questions “that every journalist should have.”
“Why is it not advocacy? How can I make it not sound like fluff, but how do I give it weight? How do I manage to invest more time in this? Does it take longer? Is it more of a severe lift than traditional journalism?” the journalist explained.
The journalists from the workshop have created a WhatsApp group to share experiences and learn from one another. Gross said they have also done multiple joint projects and have carried out workshops in their own countries.
“[The participants] are going to go back to their countries and do solutions journalism and also be sort of an ambassador for it,” Tina Rosenberg, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and SJN co-founder, told the Knight Center.
This was not the first time the FNPI offered training on solutions journalism. In 2000 and 2012, the organization held workshops with Brazilian journalist Geraldinho Vieira. In February and March 2019, with the help of Open Society Foundations, it offered a workshop in La Antigua, Guatemala for Central American professionals.
Additionally, Gross and Rosenberg led a workshop to a packed house in October 2018 during the Gabo Festival in Medellín, Colombia, which attracted journalists from across Latin America.
The instructors went over what exactly solutions journalism was, how to implement it in reporting and how to avoid certain pitfalls – like focusing on heroes or engaging in activism (by making promises, or offering a ‘one size fits all’ solution, for example).
Whether they realized it or not, many participants had been working on stories with a solutions journalism approach. In small groups, they brainstormed stories they might tackle by focusing on solutions, and the topics ranged from migration to the environment to gender issues.
The commonality of themes across the continent made an impression on Gross.
“I was very encouraged because that opens up the possibility of collaborations and amping up the impact of your reporting,” she said. “And then I was also very encouraged by their interest in connecting the content that they create with robust audience engagement strategies. How do we talk to our audience and how do we connect them? It’s not enough to write the story, it’s also important to put it in front of our audiences and get our audiences’ feedback.”
Finding a foothold
When asked whether Latin American journalists will be receptive to solutions journalism, Cruz said she understands initial reluctance.
“I would be worried if this wasn’t the case when something new was presented to journalists. It can at first glance be confused with the focus of positive news, with activism or with advertising to the entities that journalism usually monitors,” she said. “But I think that once they know and this vision of rigor, of balance and of depth is explained to them, they understand that it is not about that.”
But doubts have turned to curiosity, as reflected by the numbers of participants in workshops held thus far.
“It is not strange that they are already receptive because this approach is very useful in the newsroom from various angles such as investigating and explaining the success factors and the limitations in successful policies, understanding where the positive exceptions come from (authorities/companies/citizens who do something better that most people do wrong or are not doing) and the monitoring and denouncing of inertia, corruption or incompetence by detecting successful initiatives that have been implemented in similar contexts to ours to solve problems that are qualified as inevitable by those responsible for preventing, mitigating and resolving them,” Cruz said.
The journalist believes that there is a reason to use a solutions-oriented approach that is more connected to journalism in democratic societies, and that is the telling of complete stories.
“Failure to do so is to perpetuate the perception in our readers and audiences that there are problems such as corruption or the failed implementation of policies that will always be so, inevitable and without solution,” Cruz explained. “That is a hopeless vision or at least normalizes circumstances that should be unacceptable.”
For Rosenberg, solutions journalism is an opportunity to confront two crises facing the profession at the moment: how to finance reporting and how to rebuild trust with the audience.
“And so, journalism can’t go on with business as usual,” she said. “And everywhere people are looking for ‘what do we do that allows us to combat these two crises, but at the same time is still rigorous journalism?’ And solutions journalism is one answer to that question. And it’s a question being asked all over the world.”
Rosenberg said she’s seen newsrooms implement solutions journalism proposals in their subscription models and as a way to raise foundation money. For example, U.S. newspaper the Richland Source in Mansfield, Ohio raised nearly $70,000 in just over a month from about two dozen organizations to fund “solutions-oriented independent journalism,” as the newspaper wrote.
At La Voz de Guanacaste, the team was able to carry out their yearlong solutions initiative with help from the Costa Rica - United States Foundation for Cooperation (CRUSA). Though that funding runs out in August, Esquivel said they plan to continue reporting on how the community is finding answers for the problems around them.
“We are going to keep doing this and telling these stories and applying this kind of journalism,” Esquivel said.
The team is pleased to hear about the initiative from FNPI and SJN and sees it as valuable for the region.
“This type of journalism can push us a lot to find a way out of many conflictive situations we have,” Esquivel said. “And we are incredibly happy that other newsrooms hopefully not just from Latin America but also from our country and around the world will begin to implement this type of journalism that in the end is what we seek with journalism, that is, the development of communities and the empowerment of people.”