A Texas nonprofit that turned criticism into cash. A look at ProPublica’s successful year-end fundraising playbook. How a hyper-local website that’s been around since 2009 recently raised $1 million from the public.
These are just a handful of stories that Joseph Lichterman has explored in Solution Set, his weekly newsletter for the Lenfest Institute, which owns the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I work. Despite a saturated market of media newsletters and coverage, Lichterman has developed a niche by going deep on a single innovation or interesting idea happening in journalism that newsrooms might be able to adapt and benefit from.
Lichterman began his career at Reuters in Detroit reporting on the bankruptcy of the auto industry, but honed his focus on the media while covering innovation at Nieman Journalism Lab. His work at the Lenfest Institute is essentially an extension of that, with a drilled-down focus on finding sustainable business models (plural) to support local journalism.
“I was hired with a relatively straightforward mandate: Build a product that applies solutions journalism to journalism itself,” Lichterman said. “My goal is to essentially produce well-reported blueprints which can help journalists and news organizations to try new ideas.”
Lichterman spoke to E&P about some of the success stories he’s been able to cover, ideas he wishes more newsrooms would embrace and the importance for smaller outlets to find time for some experimentation. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Each week, Solution Set has a very specific format. Can you tell me about it?
Each issue is broken into six core sections: The Challenge, The Strategy, The Numbers, The Lessons, The Future, and Want to Know More? Readers have said they appreciate that this template presents the reporting in a clear narrative. I also start each issue with a TLDR (too long didn’t read) that summarizes the reporting, because I wanted readers to easily be able to scan the issue to see what they’re going to get out of it before committing their valuable time to reading it.
I conducted a survey earlier this year, and a couple of requests were follow-ups on previous case studies and more thematic coverage. Earlier this summer, we did a series of issues on newsroom-driven revenue projects, and in September, we did a whole series of issues on climate change coverage.
What are some of the innovative and successful ideas related to newsrooms that you’ve had the opportunity to cover?
Some of the most interesting ideas I’ve covered have focused on newsrooms rethinking traditional journalistic norms while putting audiences at the center of their reporting.
The Sprawl is a startup news site in Calgary. It calls itself a pop-up newsroom—it’ll cover one topic in-depth for a few weeks, then it’ll take some time off to do more reporting. The site has partnered with its community library and has focused on building out a membership program. I think it’s fascinating because it’s not working from the traditional assumptions of what a news site should look like.
A group of news organizations in Atlantic City partnered earlier this year for a project called Stories of Atlantic City. They worked with some community leaders who went out and reported in their community and then came back with stories that they pitched to the news organizations. I thought this was a really interesting way of opening up the journalistic process and working with the community to ensure that the coverage is reflective of them.
Newsrooms have traditionally been isolated from the business side of the publications. That’s starting to change. We profiled the Guardian’s membership editor who is responsible for connecting paying supporters with the newsroom—while also maintaining editorial independence. It’s a fine balance, but it’s one that has paid dividends for the Guardian.
I also think it’s worthwhile for newsrooms to look for inspiration outside of journalism. Recently, I wrote about how the Pew Research Center is trying to make its work more accessible through newsletter courses. I also reported on how a group of librarians at the University of North Carolina created backpack kits that empowered communities to record their own histories.
Since you’ve been covering the industry closely for several years, are there ideas or best practices you wish more newsrooms would embrace?
I’d like to see engaged journalism practices adopted more widely in newsrooms. Outlets should be thinking more strategically about their audiences and working to better understand how they can create coverage that serves their needs. Journalistically, this helps build trust with your community and also helps ensure that stories are accurate and reflective of the community. And from a business perspective, it’s sensible to try and build a connection with your audiences if you’re going to ask them to support your work through membership contributions or subscriptions.
You also launched a text message version of Solution Set earlier this year?
It was an experiment in partnership with GroundSource to see how we could add more value for subscribers and expand the conversation beyond just a weekly email. It’s a relatively small community, and I’ve been trying a variety of things with the SMS group. The group has been the most successful when I ask the community to share their questions and ideas for upcoming issues. However, I’m still figuring out how exactly to make the text message platform as impactful as possible.
What other experimentation have you done with the newsletter itself?
This year I started the Solution Set News Book Club. The idea was that a group of us could read a book together about journalism, media, or innovation and then discuss it together. We meet every six weeks or so to discuss books via Zoom video calls, and in between we discuss the books we’re reading on a dedicated Slack. We’re currently reading “Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America” by Dorothy Butler Gilliam. Gilliam was the first African American female reporter at the Washington Post.
What would you want journalists to know or take away from the newsletter?
I hope Solution Set inspires journalists to experiment and try new ideas. So much of the focus on innovation in journalism is on how large, international newsrooms are building incredible interactive or experimenting with complex things such as virtual reality. I’m glad those outlets have the time and resources to be able to take on those large scale projects, but most news organizations do not.
That doesn’t mean though that smaller outlets shouldn’t be innovating or trying new things. This is a difficult time for journalism, and newsrooms owe it to themselves and their communities to experiment and redefine their work. My goal is to provide a roadmap for all the ways outlets can try these things.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.