Bridging the gap

Back in 2014, we wrote this post about the results of a laboratory test that we commissioned in collaboration with the Engaging News Project at the University of Texas, in which readers of solutions-oriented stories reported higher levels of self-efficacy, optimism and agency as compared to readers of non-solutions stories. The test was designed to gain insight into the question, “Do audiences engage differently with solutions journalism than with other kinds of news coverage?

Increasingly, the answer to that question looks to be yes.

This week, Engaging News published the results of a new study that replicates the earlier result: solutions journalism leads to a greater sense of optimism and self-efficacy among readers. The study also yielded some juicy new insights, like that solutions journalism may be correlated with greater time on page as compared to news that focuses narrowly on problems; and some puzzling ones, like that solutions stories had higher bounce rates than non-solutions stories.

The study consisted of a survey-based experiment and two field tests conducted in collaboration with The Deseret News. Here is some of what it found:

  • Readers of solutions journalism believed more strongly that problems could be effectively solved, that they themselves could contribute to the solutions, and that solutions stories were different from the news they typically see—further validating the results from the 2014 study.
  • Readers of solutions stories spent more time on page than readers of non-solutions stories. In the experiment and one of the field tests, readers of the solutions story spent about 25 percent more time on the page (roughly 30 seconds more) than did readers of the non-solutions version. In the second field test, they spent 9 percent more time on page (about ten seconds).
  • Readers of solutions articles left the website more frequently than non-solutions readers. Bounce rates—the percentage of visitors who leave the site after viewing only one page—for solutions stories were about 15 percentage points higher than for non-solutions stories. We’re not sure what to make of this one. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, Engaging News wasn’t able to get information about where Deseret News readers went after they left the website. Did readers go to the website of an organization named in the story that is working to address the problem being covered? Or did they go Google the new Tesla Model 3? Is this a one off result or a pattern that will hold? We don’t know, so we’ll be looking into it further.

In a few instances, the new study diverged from the earlier one. The 2014 study, for example, found that readers of solutions journalism were more likely to share the article on social media, read more articles both by the same author and in the same publication, and read more articles about the particular issue. The latest study, in contrast, found no difference in social sharing or commenting behavior, and readers of solutions stories reported being less likely to read more about the topic. The mixed results suggest that more research is needed.

What is abundantly clear: solutions journalism strengthens agency, which research shows is an important precursor to social change. It’s not enough to recognize the problem; people need to have a sense that problems can be solved. At a time when cynicism is historically high and trust in the media historically low, solutions journalism can serve as a powerful antidote.

What is becoming clear: We’re seeing the link between solutions journalism and increased time on page in several places, suggesting an emerging pattern. We collect online engagement data from our newsroom partners and, for a sample of six solutions stories, average time on page was 45 seconds higher than for stories in “comparison sets” provided by the newsroom (non-solutions stories published in the same week or stories on a similar topic or of similar size and scope). More: an analysis of 150 stories from The Seattle Times’ Education Lab, a solutions-oriented series about education, found time on page to be positively correlated with the degree of “solution-y-ness” of the story (we’ll be posting more soon about how we determine “solution-y-ness,” but in a nutshell, we have human coders who assign stories a score based on a five question rubric that we developed).

We have a long way to go before we fully understand the potential of solutions journalism to engage audiences, and we’ll continue to explore these questions—and share the answers—over the coming year. But we can now say with a fair bit of confidence that solutions journalism does engage audiences differently, in ways that journalists and newsrooms can leverage to more effectively drive social change.