The Glass-Half-Full Beat

Exploring the positive news niche

Plenty of people claim that they don’t pay attention to the news because it’s too depressing. The sentiment is certainly understandable—current events aren’t exactly the sunny side of life. Luckily, for these people, there are websites and print publications from around the world, all presenting news that’s meant to leave you feeling hopeful. It’s the glass-half-full beat.

This type of news is often solution-centric. Jurriaan Kamp has made this the focus of his magazine Ode, which bills itself as a publication “for intelligent optimists.” He says that media should not only inform people of problems, but also possibilities, and most stories in Ode are a balance of both. “I think focusing on just good news is just as stupid as focusing on just bad news,” says Kamp. “The reality is different. We do face challenges, but what is wrong is writing about what goes wrong and then just leaving people with that.”

Before starting Ode, Kamp spent a decade heading the economics desk for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. During the week he assigned reporters and edited stories, but on the weekends, he enjoyed visiting bookstores near his home in Amsterdam and browsing the new arrivals.

“One day it dawned on me that that the books I bought were always about solutions,” says Kamp. After reading them over the weekend, it was “back to figuring out whatever the next problem was, and finding the writer to deal with that,” says Kamp. “I realized I was much more interested in solutions than problems. When that disconnect became clear to me I realized it’s time to do something else.”

Ode started in 1995, and was initially only printed in Dutch. Eventually the operation moved to San Francisco, and in 2004, Kamp started an English language version. The magazine presently has 150,000 English language subscribers, and 25,000 Dutch.

Kamp’s newest project, an aggregator called Ode Wire, launched this June. The site scours mainstream news sources for what Kamp refers to as “page 23 stories.” The criteria: a “solution-oriented and optimistic point of view.” They’re in almost every paper, but they are usually buried “on page 23,” hence the nickname. This story sift is done with an algorithm created by Tim Musgrove and his semantic search company TextDigger. It’s a one-stop shop for positive articles from legacy media.

Another noteworthy example is Positive News, founded in the United Kingdom by Shauna Crockett-Burrows in 1993. She describes it as a place to read about “what is breaking through rather than breaking down.” There’s a featured story about flash-mob meditations occurring around London, or a recent post about the installation of community centers in British Museums. While critics may say this type of news is sappy or superficial, Crockett-Burrows feels quite differently. “We don’t deal with soft news. We deal with real people doing real things out in the world,” she says. “We choose to not report on scandal and tragedy because that is being reported day in and day out. We’re not in denial that these things are happening, but there is so much positive news in the world that deserves to be reported.”

Positive News UK prints a twenty-four-page long broadsheet four times a year. It has some 5,000 subscribers, and over 50,000 additional copies are printed per issue and distributed for free by volunteers. It operates through donations, advertising, subscription fees, and a “sponsor a bundle” program, which allows supporters to buy in bulk for distribution. The content is written by freelancers, interns, and the editors.

The Positive News brand has expanded to include print publications in the United States and Hong Kong, a website in Spain, and a website with an accompanying radio show in Argentina. Each version is independently owned and operated, though there is some content sharing between them. Crockett-Burrows says she never expected the publication to get distributed this widely, but she just “hit the right spot at the right time.”

The fans themselves have been instrumental in spreading the Positive News brand. Ilonka Wolch came across a UK edition of Positive News in the late ‘90s while in Ireland, and decided to produce a US version. With 300 subscribers, it’s a much smaller base than the UK version, but they still manage to distribute over 50,000 copies four times a year, using the same types of funding. Wolch says the fact that they have managed to do this every season is a “little bit like magic,” given their monetary limitations, but “somehow, it’s always enough” to pull it off and get their paper out to the public. “Usually the only part of the newspaper that promotes human empowerment is the horoscope,” says Wolch. “My big wish for Positive News is that eventually we will have a bit of influence, and push big papers to have some of the negative stuff balanced with some positive.”

In regions with a recent history of political turmoil, positive stories can serve to encourage and acknowledge the good things happening there. That’s the mission behind South Africa- The Good News, a website started by Steuart Pennington in 2004, based on his book of the same title. It highlights stories about how South Africa has progressed since the end of apartheid in 1994. The site aggregates stories from other outlets, runs original posts about different charities and programs, sometimes running pieces written by the nonprofits themselves, such as a recent post about an internet access program called the Vote for Table Mountain Campaign. Pennington also writes a newsletter, where he sometimes questions negative stories from the mainstream news, such as a recent post that challenges how statistics were used in a story about dismal university rankings in South Africa.

Pennington quoted Arthur Miller to help illustrate his point: “A good newspaper is a nation talking to itself.” He’s trying to steer the national conversation towards how far South Africa has come since apartheid. This approach has brought in 65,000 unique visitors a month. Pennington loves his country, and hopes his work will encourage further improvement. “In South Africa, our biggest challenges are of transformation and healing,” he says. “That’s more difficult to achieve when much of the narrative is so negative.” There is also a companion site, Africa - The Good News, with stories from around the continent. The hope is to expand further, with niche sites for every country in Africa, each telling stories of progress.

Majid Mirza has a similar approach with The Good News PK, with positive stories from the bad-news mainstay that is Pakistan. But he doesn’t see his site as a news outlet quite yet. “We’re just centralizing stuff,” said Mirza. He hopes to eventually report stories and write original content, because he’s gotten so much feedback from readers who appreciate his approach. “It’s difficult for people when there is a lot of political strikes and struggles to focus on,” says Mirza. “We’re just trying to give people a break.”

Geri Weis-Corbley, creator of the Good News Network (GNN), says that she sees her traffic peak on particularly dismal news days. The day Lehman brothers tanked, her traffic spiked 45 percent. She said she also notices a jump every September 11th. She posts stories from other outlets, often based on readers’ suggestions, much like all the sites I came across. She also writes blog posts and a daily e-mail newsletter. For this year’s 9/11 anniversary, she sent out the same newsletter from ten years ago, which was a collection of inspirational stories from that day. Her slogan used to be “If it’s good deeds, it leads,” but she now calls the Good News Network “news to enthuse.”

GNN is going on its fifteenth year. Weis-Corbley used to do freelance video and editing work, and would often speak with colleagues about her good-news ideas. “They would always says it wouldn’t sell.” Four years ago she polled her readers, asking if they would be willing to pay for good news. When 800 people responded, and seventy percent of them said yes, she started putting some of the content behind a paywall. Access to the site currently costs fifteen dollars for a year, and almost 8,000 people have paid to subscribe since she started charging—proving, she says, that “good news does sell.”

But can you have “news” in your title if you won’t report on the bad? The function of “the news” is to tell us what we need to know, good or bad. Most people I spoke to said they would publish stories that included tragedy, but only through the lens of something that’s happening to counter it. When every story requires a positive element, important information can’t always pass that filter. Real life is a web of nuance, and it is the job of journalism to parse the issues for the audience, whether or not those issues have viable solutions.

No one I spoke to on the glass-half-full beat felt that they were the end-all be-all for information. Kathryn Hawkins, who runs positive news site Gimundo with her husband, says there is a place for all sorts of news: “I would never say that it should replace hard-hitting journalism, but I do think people benefit from a source that does give them positive stories all in one place.” Good news can be a great complement to an overall healthy media diet.

Intersections South LA is not a positive-only news site, but it’s a good illustration of how positive news can be an important part of an outlet’s overall coverage. The site is run in conjunction with USC’s School of Journalism, and the goal is to provide a true picture of the surrounding community. South LA can be a dangerous place, and while Intersections doesn’t refrain from reporting on crime and poverty—two of the area’s biggest issues—it also emphasizes the good things that happen in the neighborhood. Willa Seidenberg, a journalism professor and the editor of the site, says people in the community appreciate the effort. “People are just happy to have some news and coverage that isn’t all negative,” says Seidenberg. “Journalists are trained to look for the conflict. That’s Journalism 101. You look for the tension in the story, and that’s important to know how to do. But no community is just problems. There are wonderful things happening in this community that have to be part of the conversation.”

But when it comes to reporting these types of stories, there’s a fine line between journalism and boosterism. “It can be hard. You don’t want to feel like you are being a PR flack,” says Seidenberg. “We don’t want to just be cheerleaders for programs.” Walking this line requires care, and Seidenberg says she encourages her students to not only report on positive initiatives, but also analyze them. She says her motivations for making sure good news gets reported stems from what drew her towards the media in the first place. “I went into journalism to make a difference and educate people, not just about the crime, drugs and poverty—which is all there. But there’s also a lot of spirit, too.”

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Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , , , , ,