Good news is good business, but not a cure-all for journalism

Positive news sites are presented as the answer to news fatigue, but solutions journalism practitioners disagree

Most news consumers probably know that the news these days is mostly dire, and that the act of staying informed about world events can leave us feeling more pessimistic, hopeless, and apathetic. The news is so bad it’s even making the journalists covering it anxious and depressed.

To counter bad-news fatigue, some media outlets, in addition to stories about ISIS and climate change, are turning their attention to the antipole of anxiety-inducing daily stories: positive news.

A few established outlets have launched designated verticals within the last few years, such as Huffington Post Good News, started in 2012, and ABC Good News. And there’s a number of dedicated good-news-only sites: one of the oldest is Positive News, with a 25,000-circulation quarterly print publication in England, the Good News Network, and Happy News, among others. Sites like Upworthy, although not promising a focus on positive stories only, collect all that is fun, shareable, and inspiring—which is rarely depressing.

Besides the honorable goal of helping readers get through their day without getting depressed by the news, there are other good reasons for outlets to highlight positive stories. Headlines that include words like “good” or “happy” are likely to reach more eyeballs, according to several studies that conclude people are more likely to share positive stories online.

In other words—Arianna Huffington’s words, actually, speaking about HuffPost Good News last year—“It’s not just good for the world; it’s good for business.”

It’s certainly been good for Huffington’s business. DigiDay reports that Huffington Post Good News has increased its traffic 85 percent over the last year and gets twice the social referrals of other Huffington Post content. Further, brands love a positive image almost as much as digital virality, and the Good News section signed on State Farm as exclusive partner in January.

Now legacy brands like the Washington Post are joining the trend. This month, the outlet, which is in the midst of regularly premiering new digital products, launched an email newsletter, The Optimist, that automatically goes out to all digital subscribers of the Post as an extra (here’s a preview). The newsletter is a collection of “stories that inspire” by the Post’s own writers with an added few stories from other outlets.

In an email to CJR, David Beard, director of digital content at the Post, said the newsletter, which has signed Wells Fargo as advertiser, is so far successful: “The resultant traffic bump—or bumplet—also has been a surprise.”

Good news, then, is proving good for the news business. Beard explained the idea behind the newsletter as “something to counter the flow of seemingly intractable problems we’re pushing out every day.”

Other publishers of positive news agree there’s a need to counter the negative news-flow and, like Huffington, that there are larger stakes.

“A more positive form of journalism will not only benefit our wellbeing; it will engage us in society and it will help catalyze potential solutions to the problems that we face,” Sean Dagan Wood, the founder of Positive News, said in a recent TedTalk, adding, “And it’s good for journalism as well.”

The idea that positive stories will solve bigger problems doesn’t sit well with another rising crew of journalists—those who practice solutions journalism, or constructive journalism (two slightly different approaches that explore solutions or new, illuminating perspectives to covering conflicts or problems), which some journalists say can actually create positive change. And, they add, it might even be the much-needed fresh air that is turning readers away from stuffy news conventions.

The problem is that both journalists and readers tend to conflate good news and solutions journalism, because definitions are still being pinned down in these emerging fields. That can keep journalists from taking an interest in constructive/solutions journalism and readers from understanding why positive stories are not the simple solution to depressing news.

“The solution is not to produce more positive news but to create more knowledge, to truly understand how the world works, what forces are at work in terms of trying to address problems,” says David Bornstein, co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and co-author of the New York Times Fixes column, which explores solutions to social problem. “It’s not more awareness about problems, or even outrage, but: What can we do about it? What should grow? Where should investments go? Those are serious questions people are asking every day,” Bornstein says.

Although solutions journalism is no new concept, Bornstein is often met by initial skepticism from journalists, who fear he’ll make them produce “good news” (In a 1998 article, CJR wrote about the “emerging phenomenon” of solutions journalism and explained that it was met with some suspicion from other journalists).

Karen McIntyre, a PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, has looked at a number of positive news sites and says that, while both positive journalism and constructive/solutions journalism tend to include positive elements, and there are definite overlaps, “Constructive journalism holds true to journalism’s core functions as watchdog; it provides useful information.” The positive news sites McIntyre studied tend to resemble entertainment more than journalism, she says.

Huffington Post Good News is a case in point. The site is dominated by fun, shareable videos of pets and children, although it does also feature blog posts with advice or inspirational stories.

The fact that most of us feel tempted to click on fun videos is not news. It’s not good news either—it’s just how it is. And while there’s certainly a place for that type of content that might make the world a simpler, or momentarily happier, place, it won’t improve news consumer’s understanding of world events.

Accordingly, Mallary Tenore calls the work her employer does “media as a force for good.”

“I don’t tend to use the word ‘positive news,’” says Tenore, managing director of the nonprofit Images and Voices of Hope, who also encounters questions about whether she is promoting positive journalism. (IVOH may be contributing to some of that confusion themselves though, by posting stories about positive journalism.)

The Washington Post’s Optimist doesn’t have many dog videos, and some of the featured stories probably lend themselves more to solutions journalism or constructive journalism than simply being good news. Beard explains that he “didn’t want to do simply happy stories” but the newsletter is still successful.  

McIntyre says that, while it may not have the potential for clicks of The Huffington Post’s Good News, journalism that explains solutions to problems or otherwise inspires people will still make readers feel more engaged and more likely to share a story than conventional problem-focused stories, an observation that is backed by a University of Texas study.

But as the emerging field of new approaches that may qualify journalism and its impact on society is still legitimizing itself, it seems crucial that definitions become clear.

While advocates for more positive news tend to characterize the modern media as cynical, Bornstein believes that the opposite approach is guilty of the same.

“Just telling readers, ‘We’ll make you feel better before going to bed’ is cynical. There’s better thinking out there besides just the kindness of strangers. That’s not what journalism is for.”

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Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS.