Kathryn Thier teaches public relations and journalism at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication [SOJC]. After graduating with a Master’s in Journalism from Columbia, she worked for seven years as a reporter at Newsday and The Charlotte Observer. She says of her time at the papers, “My experiences there led me to question journalism and what we were doing in journalism.” With guidance from SJN, Kathryn developed a curriculum to teach solutions journalism to her students.
Nicole Dahmen is an academic in the field of visual communication and the faculty adviser for OR Magazine. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and has published and lectured extensively. She recalls, “Two years ago, I began exploring what we call contextual forms of journalism, which intend to cover the story beyond the immediacy of the news. Certainly solutions journalism is part of that. I thought [this issue] would be a tremendous opportunity to tell solutions stories.”
SJN spoke with Professor Thier and Professor Dahmen about their experience teaching solutions journalism at the University of Oregon over the past year. The interview has been edited and condensed.
SJN: What’s the vision of OR Magazine, and how does solutions journalism fit into that vision?
Professor Dahmen: OR Magazine was developed five years ago at the University of Oregon by one of our colleagues, Ed Madison, and at the time it was a very cutting-edge digital publication class in which students produced an iPad magazine. It’s been going strong now for six issues. We felt that this was the opportunity—now that the magazine was really established as an iPad interactive publication that tells the stories of Oregon—to continue that spirit of innovation that we have at the SOJC. And now in the magazine’s sixth issue, to think about telling the stories of Oregon with a solutions focus.
SJN: Were there any unique challenges that you, as an advisor, or the students encountered reporting on solutions?
Dahmen: Kathryn and I worked together on a two-part sequence in which students started developing stories, learned about solutions journalism, did a lot of research in Kathryn’s winter-term class [on solutions journalism], and I had some of those same reporters carry over into the OR Magazine class.
Professor Thier: Basically, as Nicole mentioned, I taught my course, where we learned what solutions journalism is and what it isn’t, and we delved deeply into how to report a solutions story, how you source it, how you frame it, how you interview for solutions. We looked at story models that solutions journalists use. It was a very deep dive into solutions journalism. The students worked in teams and picked a project and had to go through all those reporting steps using the techniques of solutions journalists. They had to pick a story model and explain how their story fit into the story model and what the four qualities were and how they were going to get at the four qualities. And so it was going to be too much of a challenge to teach them about solutions journalism and have them produce a story in just 10 weeks. So they did this very big reporting project, but they didn’t actually write the story. And, as Nicole said, many of the students then moved into Nicole’s class, but some of the students in Nicole’s class hadn’t been in my class, so there was a mix. What was interesting is that only one story carried over from my class to Nicole’s class.
Dahmen: Then when we started the OR Magazine class in our spring term, every student in the class was responsible for developing a potential story idea. Then we started doing the legwork and the research, making phone calls and seeing whether these were actual potential solutions stories. And then we narrowed it down to five stories, one of which had begun to be developed in Kathryn’s class.
Thier: One thing that’s also interesting about OR Magazine is we’re producing a journalism publication, of course, but the class is made up of journalism, as well as advertising and public relations, students. So it’s a really neat collaborative experience, with written journalists, photojournalists, videographers, multimedia journalists, and data journalists on the team.
SJN: How did students receive the idea of solutions journalism?
Dahmen: Students at the SOJC have been very receptive. We really have a culture here of innovation; we emphasize journalism’s responsibility to the community, journalism’s relationship to the community. We talk a lot about community engagement. And if you look at our school mission statement, we talk about being dedicated to education that is related to freedom of expression, dialogue, democracy, and it’s really important that we’re preparing our students to become responsible citizens in this global society. So our students understand that idea from day one, walking in our door. We find that our students are also very interested in making a difference; they have a very strong empathetic interest and are interested in global issues as well as local issues, and how they can, essentially, make the world a better place.
SJN: I imagine that OR Magazine has a large readership among students at the university. Do you have a sense of what their response to this year’s edition was, in terms of readership, engagement, or emotional response?
Thier: One of the big goals in my course was getting students to question journalism and the role of the journalist in society. In my course, they really delved deeply into how to report a solutions story, how to source it, but the bigger picture is that I wanted them thinking about this, because they’re going to be journalists in society, and journalism is changing. Whether they actually write or produce a solutions story or not, I want them questioning and thinking for themselves: What am I doing here? How am I contributing to this profession? What do I feel is the appropriate response professionally and personally for me? What was so great about OR Magazine is that they then had that opportunity to test it out—to pick their own story idea, to actually see what happens when you interview people who disagree about a solution or have different viewpoints. We’re both teaching them skills, and we’re teaching them about an emerging practice within journalism, but we’re also trying to get them to think on a much deeper level.
SJN: Nicole, as a media scholar, what do you see as the value-add of solutions journalism? Are there any problems in the media space that it’s addressing?
Dahmen: One of the things that research has shown recently is that what we call those “conventional” news stories—the who, what, when, where—the just-the-facts approach—we’ve seen a decline in those types of stories and a corresponding rise in what we call “contextual” news stories. These are David Bornstein’s words: He defines contextual news stories as that “wide-angle” lens that helps us provide a big-picture approach. So from a scholarship perspective, we have seen that again, we absolutely still need and have those conventional just-the-facts stories; we’re also seeing a rise in those big-picture approach stories.
What I think is so important and what research is looking at with these stories is, again, they move beyond those basic facts to really help audiences have a deeper understanding of complex issues. So not just the who, what, when, where, why of institutional bias and racism or gun violence, but really looking at also what’s possible—both in terms of solutions, resilience of people on these complex issues. And again, I think what’s also really important about this is we are seeing communities are facing the same challenges. Solutions stories and other types of contextual stories help shed light on what those communities are facing and serve as examples to others who are in a similar situation. And of course, because of digital technology, social media, digital news, stories like this can have a much broader audience than just a local community.
SJN: You both have taught courses on solutions journalism and helped train the next generation of journalists. On that note, do you have any advice for other educators looking to expand into solutions journalism?
Thier: I’ve done some research on this and what I’ve found is that students need to be at a certain level before they approach solutions journalism. They need the basics of journalism down. In our courses, students have to be through our first two reporting courses—Reporting I and Reporting II—before they could be in these courses, because these ideas are complex and nuanced, and they require students to already have a firm grounding.
Dahmen: We really found that our students have embraced solutions journalism as a genre of reporting. They absolutely understood the principles of solutions journalism. I think they are able to provide a good definition of solutions journalism in their own words, which to me shows that they’re thinking critically about this, and they’re understanding, not just memorizing a definition. We challenge our students and we’ve found that they really rise to that challenge. They appreciate the opportunity to really look at innovations in journalism, and not just from a technology perspective but from a critical thinking perspective. Again, they’re the future of journalism, and we think it’s critically important that they’re introduced to what’s happening in the field.