It’s the old news adage that continues to dominate the priorities of American newsrooms: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Hard news and tragedies tend to dominate headlines, and we rarely see the other side of the coin — what happens after the fact?

While niche news outlets like Upworthy and the Solutions Journalism Network have made producing and sharing more positive news part of their missions, the non-profit Images and Voices of Hope (IVOH)  hopes to help more mainstream news organizations do the same thing — through a “Restorative Narratives” fellowship program. The program aims to enable journalists to pursue these stories of resilience and have them published at their home news organizations.

The fellowship launched last December. The five fellows work at different outlets across the country and were invited to join the program to test it out in its first year.

“These are stories that need to be told but often come out overlooked,” Mallary Tenore, IVOH’s managing director, told PBS MediaShift.


Screenshot of the Newtown Bee, whose story during the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings helped inspire the idea for a restorative narrative fellowship.

The staff behind IVOH got the idea for building a momentum around this kind of storytelling genre from a New Yorker article detailing how the community newspaper The Newtown Bee reacted to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn.

“The shootings caused him [the editor] to rethink the purpose of his paper,” Tenore said. “He wanted the paper to be a place where people could find a community of support.”

Bringing these stories of restoration — of the rebuilding, survival and resiliency following a tragedy — isn’t necessarily new to journalism, she said. It’s just that often, these stories haven’t always been given a good name, nor have they been the priorities in newsrooms. That might be because of the pressure newsrooms face to chase stories that will attract the right numbers of clicks and engagement or, it might be that some journalists might fear judgement for pursuing “advocacy journalism.”

“I think it’s easy to lump it all together under ‘positive news.’ That term would probably make a lot of journalists cringe,” Tenore said.


But documenting the resilience and restoration after a tragedy is not meant to put a one-dimensional face on these types of stories. And not every story details “restoration” either.

“Some stories aren’t restorative narratives,” Tenore told MediaShift. “You never want to assume that every tragedy is going to yield a story of resilience, and you don’t want to force it.”

Jake Harper, a healthcare reporter and programmer at WFYI in Indianapolis and one of the five fellows of IVOH’s inaugural six-month fellowship, said restorative narratives often fill in the missing pieces of a puzzle when it comes to understanding a story from start to finish.

“It’s sort of like the second half,” he told PBS MediaShift. “So you have a tragedy, or a negative event. You hear about the first part, but you don’t necessarily hear about the recovery.”


Photo by Flickr user Charles William Pelletier and reused here with Creative Commons license.

Arianna Huffington recently made headlines when she announced that the Huffington Post would be partnering with the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism to deliver more solutions-oriented journalism on the nearly 10-year-old news website.

“As journalists, our job is to give our audience an accurate picture — and that means the full picture — of what’s going on in the world,” she wrote in a blog post about the new initiative. “Just showing tragedy, violence, mayhem — focusing on what’s broken and what’s not working — misses too much of what is happening all around us. What about how people are responding to these challenges, how they’re coming together, even in the midst of violence, poverty and loss? And what about all the other stories of innovation, creativity, ingenuity, compassion and grace? If we in the media only show the dark side, we’re failing at our jobs.”

That strategy is along the lines of IVOH’s purpose with the Restorative Narrative fellowship, Tenore wrote in a blog post. But trying to monetize these stories outside of partnerships like the Huffington Post one is a bit trickier. IVOH, for example, offered each of the fellows this year a $2,500 stipend from the organization’s existing funds to work on their projects. The fellowship also sets out to explore best practices for telling these stories and and different curriculum and training methods.

That each of the fellows already had funding to pursue these restorative stories from an individual entity probably made it easier for editors to jump on board with the project, Harper told MediaShift. His editors at WFYI, for instance, hired him knowing that he had received the fellowship and were excited for it, he said. But it was a different ballgame before joining the newsroom and partnering with IVOH.

“At the time I was a freelancer, and pursuing stories like that — it was a lot of effort to even find them, and then pitching them was another story,” Harper said. “I think it’s just the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ mentality is sort of pervasive, and it’s hard to get attention and readership to those [other] stories.”

Photo by  Rocío Lara on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

IVOH, meanwhile, launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo in December to raise funds and build awareness and momentum around the fellowship. While the campaign fell short of its goal of raising $25,000 — it raised $18,396 — Tenore said it definitely helped generate a positive buzz around the fellowship and the emergence of the genre. But she also found herself wondering how to make it sustainable.

“The question I found myself asking was: How do you move people along the spectrum from sharing, to caring, to giving?” she wrote in a follow-up email to MediaShift. “I found that it was easier to get people to share the link to our campaign and care about it. Helping them see why they should give/donate required a lot more time and dedication.”

IVOH’s inaugural fellows will present their restorative narrative stories at IVOH’s annual media summit in June, which is currently open for registration. For an example of the restorative narrative genre, check out the stories from Ben Montgomery (one of the fellows) in the Tampa Bay Times.

Sonia Paul is a freelance journalist based in India, and is the editorial assistant at PBS MediaShift. She is on Twitter @sonipaul.

Correction: This story has been altered to correct Ben Montgomery’s last name. 

This piece originally published on February 23, 2015, on PBS MediaShift.

With the recent release of his new book “Engaged Journalism: Connecting with Digitally Empowered News Audiences,” it seemed like high time to have a long conversation with Jake Batsell on the future of news. The journalism instructor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, previous Seattle Times and Dallas Morning News reporter, and now, book author, was inspired to research and write a book focusing on news engagement when he found himself in a new “hybrid” position at the Dallas Morning News. Half the time he was pursuing and filing stories as he always had, and the other half, he was shooting and editing video.

Now, that sort of “hybrid” position is probably not anything unusual to many newsrooms. But at the time, it was an eye-opener for Batsell on the future direction of news. After getting a teaching position and applying for several grants and fellowships to visit various newsrooms across the U.S. and U.K., he’s come out with a book on best practices in engagement journalism, and theories on how journalists and newsrooms can continue to explore this connection.

Below is an edited transcript of a recent conversation I had with Batsell.

Sonia Paul: Engagement is a buzzword across media circles all over the world now. How do you think most media makers are understanding it, though? Is it similar or different from the way you understand it?

Jake Batsell: There’s a whole different conversation on how the wider world of communications defines engagement. I think from a journalism perspective, I think the sort of default knee-jerk definition a lot of people have in their heads is that engagement means interacting with audiences on social media. But especially after doing my work for the book, I’ve found it’s a much wider understanding than that. It’s not about tweeting links to stories half-heartedly. It’s about really and authentically integrating the audience into your work and mind when doing your job. It’s a way to not only deepen and engage loyalty, but it’s also a revenue opportunity.

My definition of engaged journalism is the degree to which a news organization actively considers and interacts with its audience for its journalistic and financial mission.



Just as “engagement” is part of the everyday lingo of newsrooms now, so too are the ideas of “sustainable business models” and “financially viable revenue sources.” The 1990s and 2000s saw the expansion of a more civic-oriented journalism method — newsrooms experimenting with town halls and other events where journalists could interact more personally with the public. In Batsell’s mind, this hasn’t necessarily stopped. Organizations are now just thinking more strategically about how they can also make money and fill a need for their audiences.

How might the financial incentives around engagement work? 

Batsell: For example, the Texas Tribune has an ideas festival where they have keynote interviews with newsmakers, and there are panel discussions as well. For the last couple of years, they’ve drawn over 2000 people to attend this festival. People attend partly out of altruistic reasons, but it’s also in their self interest to attend, because if you’re interested and involved in Texas politics, it’s THE place to be. The Texas Tribune translates that interest and attention into opportunities for sponsorship — you’ll get a mention in the program, on the stage, and so on. It’s because these sponsors want to reach this influential audience … It’s really through sponsorships that events have the most revenue potential.

But is it too much pressure for the journalist trying to engage an audience to think about the economic implications of engagement? Take me, for example. How should freelancers figure this out if they’re not attached to any one organization?

Batsell: If a freelancer is doing a job or assignment for a magazine or a newspaper or whatever, then first and foremost, she needs to do that job. It might be a little harder for freelancers to crowdsource on the front end if they don’t have institutional support — like someone guiding them, “Oh wow, this could be a better story if you put a call out on Twitter.”

Photo by Robert S. Donovan on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

More fundamentally, it’s true this is a lot of pressure! The book is not all rainbows and unicorns. Many journalists [I talked to] came out with the sense that, if done well, engaged journalism never really ends. We’re on social media, on Facebook and Twitter and Google Plus, and still — how can I do the shoe-leather reporting I still need to do? I can see from the freelancer perspective that it can be even more tough. It’s a matter for the freelancer what your approach is. I think there is still an opportunity to build a community and be there.


In the introduction to your book, the idea that “journalism is about people, not technology,” is really emphasized. It sounds obvious, but how do you think that mantra might fit into this paradigm of what we call “engaged journalism?”

Batsell: I think it’s really essentially a mindset to open yourself up to an audience, but to be strategic about it. Look for opportunities to find readers and viewers where they already are. Like take Snapchat’s new Discover tool. My students loved it, and all these twenty-somethings are already on Snapchat … So they will consume the news in their natural habitat.

But being aware of all these available channels doesn’t mean deploying them for every story you do … you can’t do every form of engagement on every story.

On a similar note, you wrote, “At its core engaged journalism is the latest incarnation of the age-old journalistic dilemma between covering what the public needs versus what the audience wants. And that “audience-focused engagement is essential to help sustain the watchdog journalism that benefits the public. Boiled down to a single tweet, it might read something like this: Engagement is crucial to journalism’s survival. But to be effective it must fill a specific audience need. And it comes with perks & costs.”

Can you just unwrap that a bit more? The differences between the audience and public, and what they need and want? Because I don’t think most people distinguish the two!

I had that same moment myself when I read [about it] in the Tow Center report on post industrial journalism … those two terms, audience and public, had seemed indistinguishable to me as well. It presents the age old dilemma of feeding people their spinach and giving them the candy they want. Obviously, this is not a new dilemma. Newspapers have comics and puzzles all the time. I think we as journalists arrogantly assumed people want our news, versus maybe they want cartoons or puzzles or the classifieds.

Photo by NS Newsflash on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

So it’s not necessarily a new dilemma, but it is a present dilemma. The first thing is to understand that distinction. But it doesn’t have to be an either/or debate … To me, it’s how you navigate that balance, and the moderate way of how a news organization balances competing interests.

Yes, and you mention that solving a problem and filling a need is at the core of building an engaged audience. So is that to say that engagement is different for different news outlets? Or is engagement different for different audiences? How do you negotiate the two?

I guess both, but ultimately it comes down to really understanding that audience well enough to understand the need you have to fill, especially niche audiences that have different sensibilities, different interests, and so forth. The Texas Tribune has an insider’s newsletter, for example, and most of their news is for free. But they do have a niche subscription service, Texas Weekly, and it’s really insider stuff. It’s the inner workings of Texas politics. They poll a 100-plus insiders every week, and they respond anonymously because they don’t want to be public on the comments section, trading opinions. That’s the sensibility of that crowd.

It boils down to understanding your audience and knowing your audience. I think just about every news organization just has to have head of audience engagement to see what really resonates with people. Because the stories that strike a chord with communities might not necessarily be on the front page.

Sonia Paul is a freelance journalist based in India, and is the editorial assistant for PBS MediaShift. She’s on Twitter @sonipaul.

This piece originally published on February 18, 2015, on PBS MediaShift.