Cha-ching! Five insights into how constructive journalism pays off

From user distrust to alienation and falling revenues, media companies don’t have it easy right now — but constructive and solution-oriented journalism could point a way out.

Graffiti of Albert Einstein
Photo by Taton Moïse on Unsplash

If Albert Einstein were alive today, he might well say that we are living through an age of boundless chance. After all, he was said to have uttered, ‘In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity’, and there seems to be no end to crises at the moment. The coronavirus pandemic, accelerating and intensifying climate change, debilitating cyberattacks, doubts about the health of democracy. Watching the news or scanning the headlines online often feels like looking into the abyss — and this feeling makes many people turn away. And yet, it we trust Einstein (and he was definitely a smart guy!), the same situation can offer very different takeaways. Times of great challenge hold the potential for positive change.

This perspective is also at the heart of constructive journalism. According to the Constructive Institute, a trailblazing institution in the approach, constructive journalism is ‘…a response to increasing tabloidization, sensationalism and negativity bias of the news media today’. Its supporters claim it can meet today’s global challenges by providing nuanced reporting, presenting possible solutions to problems and fostering unifying discussions. The challenges aren’t just external, however; they also include ones that media content providers themselves face in a rapidly transforming media landscape.

Over the past decades, digitalisation has altered every dimension of our news consumption, from where we consume to when we consume and how we consume. But while media companies have attempted to keep up with the technological side of innovation, they have more often than not failed to answer how to deal with the loss of their former unique selling point as the gatekeepers of information. The fundamental questions raised by this shift — what kind of journalism and content attracts and retains users in a sea of offerings, earning their trust and giving them value — has remained largely unaddressed. Journalism, many say, is in crisis. However, if we think along the lines of Einstein, could it actually be a moment of opportunity?

Constructive journalists would say so, but while a fair amount of research has been done on constructive journalism’s handiwork and its promise as a way out of conflict-based reporting, less focus has been placed on how its practice can affect the transforming media landscape in which it is situated. This is especially true for regions outside of the United States and Northern Europe where constructive journalism uptake has been slower.

Good news for journalism

I undertook such a study for Germany’s Grimme Institute, drawing on surveys, social science research, media publications and numerous in-person interviews to create a picture of constructive journalism’s impacts within the media industry. While the study particularly focused on Germany, the questions, challenges, debates and conclusions that arise from the (potential) implementation of constructive and solutions-oriented journalism in the German context address fundamental industry issues that could prove insightful in other cultures and countries looking to find new paths forward.

In an age of seemingly endless doom-and-gloom, with many lamenting journalism’s current state, the key conclusions I drew from the study are — get ready for it — quite good! Constructive journalism has the potential to meet the challenges facing the media today, strengthening society in the process and literally paying off for content makers.

1. Constructive journalism meets user needs

Netflix, Amazon, food delivery that’s just a screen tap away: We live in an on-demand era in which it’s commonly expected that our needs will be met with customized, readily available products and solutions. Product development based on consumer desire has become the norm. Established media cannot afford to ignore these developments — yet it largely has. A preoccupation with technological innovation has overshadowed the fundamental question of whether consumer information needs are being met. Many of these consumers are Millennials and Gen-Zers, and they’re looking for context, relevance and solution-oriented reporting. When established media doesn’t offer them this, these users turn to other providers that do.

But it’s not just young news consumers. According to the Reuters Institute’s 2019 Digital News Report, more than a third of people worldwide avoid consuming news on a regular basis, in large part due to feelings of helplessness and pessimism that arise from news consumption.

Meeting user needs, both the informational and emotional, is a central part of constructive journalism. This doesn’t mean critical journalism goes out the window; rather, it means editorial offices enrich their offerings to focus not just on problem identification but also on possible solutions that are critically evaluated. It is a way of seeing the good along with the bad, which is something users wants. By meeting this desire, media companies can gain and retain consumers in a competitive environment.

2. Constructive journalism provides relevance

Relevance is closely linked to meeting user needs. Consumers want content they perceive as relevant to their lives and experiences. In constructive journalism, a part of relevance means making sure the broadest possible section of the target population is served, whether at the local, regional or national level. This means meeting people in their day-to-day environments, across potentially diverse language, cultural and educational backgrounds. When a large part of the population perceives information offerings as irrelevant, they will seek out other sources elsewhere.

Building relevance requires communicating context, nuance, interconnectedness and practical information — all elements of constructive journalism. It also takes understanding consumers’ daily realities. In Germany, this can be particularly challenging because editorial offices tend to be much more homogenous than the population at large. Diversification won’t be instantaneous, but in the meantime, implementing a constructive journalism approach can help, because the constructive journalist is a self-critical and reflective journalist who puts user relevance at the forefront of their work. And relevant information is information that users want and relate to.

Photo by Ugur Peker on Unsplash

3. Constructive journalism creates better discourse

By better meeting user needs and providing relevant information, constructive journalism can help close the gap between media makers and media consumers. This is no small feat, especially given today’s scepticism toward so-called mainstream media, the erosion of fact-based consensus, virulent hate speech and threats toward journalists that sometimes descend into physical attacks. Yet evidence strongly suggests that constructive contributions provoke less hate speech. Public discussions relating to constructive content also tend to be overwhelmingly positive, creating a positive feedback loop that leads to more constructive offerings which then create more positive responses and so on.

In that light, it may not be surprising that readers of constructive articles feel more connected to the content-making brand and want even more engagement — something media makers want, too.

Constructive offerings are also highly shared on social media, meaning greater reach for content producers. This also means greater visibility for positive, solution-oriented content, which in turn can help reduce news avoidance by countering the overwhelmingly negative content that makes people feel powerless and turns them off.

4. Constructive journalism builds trust

Who trusts the perpetual pessimist? Not many media consumers, it would seem. That’s why constructive journalism’s goal — presenting positive information through relevant nuanced content that meets user needs — can lead to a result that is greater than the sum of its parts. The result is trust, and trust is the lynchpin of any successful business. The media is no exception here. By providing adequate information and serving as an orientation point, the media builds product confidence among its users. A crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, in which reliable information is sought out in an uncertain, rapidly evolving and complex situation, actually provides (cue Einstein!) an ideal opportunity for media to play this role.

Nevertheless, content makers must do even more to strengthen and maintain trust over the long term: They must actively and transparently communicate to users what they are doing and why and clarify the ethics and processes behind their journalistic work. This is one of the goals of the US-based non-profit initiative Trusting News. Building such sustainable trust benefits society at large by improving media understanding and competence and, according to the German journalism network Correctiv, strengthening the broader culture of debate.

5. Constructive journalism points to better monetisation

Change that benefits society is always welcome, but at the end of the day, media companies have a bottom line to meet. The best, most beneficial content offerings don’t do much good if there isn’t any money to pay for it. Today, many established media find themselves in precarious financial positions due to declining ad revenues, falling circulation numbers and competition from free, and often questionable, online sources. So what can be done to turn free consumers into paying ones?

For starters, constructive content could very well help. While it’s still too under-researched to say ‘more constructive content = better monetisation’, anecdotal evidence suggests constructive content can mean money in the bank for media makers, allowing them to stay afloat and continue their essential role as information providers. Various media outlets have observed a correlation between more constructive content and a growth in paying users. Revenue from online ads also seems to grow when constructive content is on the page, as users read longer. The Solutions Journalism Network is also looking into whether advertisers are willing to pay more for ads in constructive surroundings. Such research, and other extensive systematic evaluations, could prove very valuable — literally — for content makers.

Media has no time to lose

People are looking for constructive information offerings — and if it delivers greater user satisfaction, improves societal conversations and builds trust in the media, all the while helping media companies secure their revenue streams, what’s not to like? Yet the practice remains controversial — though controversy is often based on false conflation with PR or rose-tinted reporting. To reap constructive journalism’s full benefits, we must do more research, empirical experiments, training and networking on it, so it is better understood as part of the journalist’s toolbox. As Einstein said, the opportunity lies before us. Let’s seize it.

Head of Trends & Knowledge at Deutsche Welle, Fellow of Constructive Institute, Solutions Journalism Trainer