Like so many other great ideas, this one began over a beer.
It was the fall of 2017, and my editor George Stanley and I were in a cocktail lounge in Washington, D.C., during a break at that year’s ASNE convention.
Ten years of cutbacks in our newsroom had forced a reckoning: The last writer on our editorial board was about to retire during a buyout offer, and we couldn’t fill the job. A team of 11 was down to one — me.
We kicked around ideas. Should we recruit a team of volunteer writers from the community and double down on commentary? Should we try to get funding for an intern? Should we just kill the pages?
Finally, George asked, “What if we made you our solutions guy?”
He stumped me. At that point, I had no idea what he was talking about. But that comment sparked what became a pretty radical idea: We replaced opinion journalism at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel with solutions journalism.
We report on a range of local topics in what we call the Ideas Lab — from gerrymandering and needle exchange programs to teen suicide and reckless driving. But instead offering our opinions, we report on responses to social problems – looking for independent evidence that proves these ideas actually work.
Our news team had seen huge impact from adding reporting about best practices to major investigative stories. For example, a report on how much better Columbus, Ohio, was at finding safe, clean housing for people with severe mental illnesses led to improvements in Milwaukee that helped hundreds of people.
The evolution of our opinion pages began in December 2017, when we published our first solution-focused article, examining an idea to allow red-light cameras in Milwaukee. It culminated in February when we launched the Ideas Lab with a diverse new staff.
The Ideas Lab has two main roles to play in our newsroom: to inform the public through a solutions journalism framework and to engage with the public through a combination of online tools and in-person events.
Steven Olikara, founder and president of the Millennial Action Project, introduces “Across the Red & Blue Divide,” an event co-sponsored with the Ideas Lab, WUWM (89.7-FM) and the Zeidler Center for Public Discussion.
Op-eds and political columns are gone. Editorials are rare. Though we reserve the right to use our editorial voice — on First Amendment and public right-to-know issues, or when minority rights are in jeopardy — we’ve written only three editorials in a year. We publish letters to the editor once a week in our Sunday print edition.
Otherwise, our pages focus on evaluating ideas to solve problems and adding context to the news.
In the past month, we’ve written about how bystander intervention programs are helping to reduce violence on Wisconsin’s college campuses; on how 30 years of deindustrialization crushed Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods; and on how protected bike lanes can develop a more robust cycling culture and make the streets safer for everyone — including motorists.
The early evidence is that readers like what they see.
We had very few complaints as we phased out traditional commentary. I didn’t hear from a single reader asking for more editorials.
We often do hear from readers who appreciate that we are turning an independent lens on pressing problems in the community.
Two additional promising metrics: Pages views are up and so is the time readers are spending with our work.
Opinions going unread and unheard
The evolution from commentary to solutions took time and a little budgetary creativity. But the biggest hurdle actually was not financial.
It was me.
After a decade as an opinion writer, I was biased. An editorial board was essential for leading community discussion, I believed. How could we give that up?
I had long thought that an opinion page was less about the specific arguments being made than it was about providing a space for people to convene and consider a range of arguments. That’s where the real learning could take place, I believed, in this marketplace of ideas.
But the more I looked at readership numbers, the more it became apparent that we didn’t have many shoppers in this marketplace any longer.
Editorials, letters to the editor, and especially op-eds from community experts were tanking. Our two political columnists, one writing from the left, the other from the right, were barely keeping their heads above water.
We had lost our readership. Or perhaps, we never had one in the first place. I still recall a former colleague years earlier explaining why I shouldn’t worry if it didn’t seem like many people were reading our page. “Our readership is small, but we get the opinion leaders,” he said.
But as readers headed for the exits, corralling “opinion leaders” alone wasn’t going to be enough. We were losing our impact in the community.
Why did opinion writing fail to attract an audience? I have a theory.
In Milwaukee and elsewhere, people are dug deep into their partisan bunkers. A Balkanization of media along partisan lines helps to make this possible — along with the heavy influence of social media. People can easily avoid hearing the “other side” if they don’t want to.
At the same time, commentary has become commoditized — and cheapened as a result. The airwaves have been flooded with opinions since the Fairness Doctrine ended. And think about your own Twitter feed: Much of what passes for commentary is actually just name-calling and hyper-partisanship — the polar opposite of what you’d call civil. The sheer volume of this white-hot commentary makes it difficult for thoughtful opinion writing to break through.
I also suspect some readers are worn out after the nonstop viciousness of partisan politics, which has only been magnified in the Trump era.
As we’ve cut costs in line with falling revenue, we’ve continually asked ourselves: What can we do for Wisconsin, of value to readers, that nobody else can do? When we’ve asked our community that question, opinion writing did not make the list.
Transitioning from opinions to ‘Ideas Lab’
So how does one transform a traditional opinion page into one focused on solutions journalism?
For us, the first stop was the Solutions Journalism Network. SJN already had come to our newsroom to talk about how journalists could do a better job of covering the “rest of the story.” I attended SJN’s Summit in the fall of 2017 and left with a better idea of how to build out a new approach to community engagement. (A plug: SJN’s website and its members are a fantastic resource even if you don’t want to go all-in as we have. Looking for story ideas? There are thousands of solutions articles in SJN’s searchable database and just as many journalists willing to help you figure it out.)
We started slowly, publishing a hybrid of traditional commentary and solutions stories to field-test the idea. By the fall of 2018, I was convinced. Solutions stories were consistently outperforming commentary, and I was getting good feedback from readers — including opinion leaders — who understood and supported our goal.
With the help of my editor, I was able to reallocate some dollars and start the process to bring a reporter on board. She started work on Dec. 31. A reorganization of the newsroom in February brought two more reporters to the Ideas Lab. We also collaborate with a fifth journalist who works out of our state network’s Appleton newsroom.
It’s still early in this experiment — we called it a “lab” for a reason — but what have we found so far?
First, readership is higher.
For the first three months of 2019, our page views per article were more than double what they were in 2018 when we were still publishing mostly traditional commentary. Overall, our traffic was up by a third even though we produced a third as many stories. That trend has continued.
Time on page is generally high for these stories, usually about double what we were seeing with commentary. And solutions stories have a long shelf life — they can be recycled multiple times with minimal fresh reporting when major breaking news brings the issue back into the spotlight and offers more teachable moments. One example: We wrote about a nonpartisan solution to gerrymandering in January of 2018 to preview a major U.S. Supreme Court case. In June, after the case was decided, we published a new version of that story with only a small bit of editing and fact-checking needed.
Using solutions reporting to build trust
Beyond our reporting, we’re focused on building trust in an era with precious little of it.
We try to do that by having an ongoing discussion with the public and being as transparent as possible:
- We have a Facebook group — now 600 members strong — where we can road test ideas, share content and explain why and how we do what we do.
- We publish a “recipe” at the end of each of our longer stories explaining who we spoke with and why we did the story.
- We use Screen Door, an online module, that allows us to ask questions of readers.
- We had our writers craft mission statements, a short version of which we publish with their stories.
- We spend a lot of time out in the community just listening.
Our goal of building trust is also reflected in the partnerships we’ve formed with trusted organizations around town — with public radio and public TV, for example, and the two major research universities.
Along with Milwaukee PBS, Ideas Lab reporter Rory Linnane produced a half-hour documentary on youth mental health earlier this year. It was screened around the state, then made available free of charge to schools along with an online toolkit educators can use to develop lesson plans. We’ve given away several hundred DVDs so far.
We’ve also launched a yearlong project to listen more intently to the needs of impoverished neighborhoods. We want to learn more about the information needs of the people who live in these news deserts and then develop a thoughtful response to what we hear. We’re working with the local public radio station on this project.
With everything we do, we try to focus first on producing rigorous, helpful journalism that convenes the public around issues they tell us matter most to them.
And that mission isn’t so different from what we aimed to do in the past with our opinion pages.
We just focus on the solutions, not the opinions.
David Haynes is the editorial page editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and editor of Ideas Lab. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. This essay is part of a body of work on reimagining opinion journalism.