Solutions that sizzle

July 9, 2013

As a young reporter decades ago, I had a grouchy editor who fit the Lou Grant stereotype. He would look at my copy and growl, “Move the conflict up higher. More people will pay to see a dog fight than a dog show.”

He had a point. Conflict is the essential element of a story. All stories have a central conflict, from the front page to the sports page to the comics.  But to be inspired to action, people need one thing more: a solution.

So how do we tell stories about solutions that are interesting? You cannot change human nature or engrained journalistic habits. However, Resource Media has worked with policy advocates who have made practical solutions a hallmark of their communication strategies. These folks have also demonstrated creativity and ingenuity in telling success stories. Here are a few examples.

  • People & Carnivores. Rare wild animals like grizzly bears and wolves can be at once threatened and threatening, depending on one’s perspective. People & Carnivores works with ranchers to reduce conflicts between people and wildlife. That means advancing solutions that allow livestock producers to thrive, reducing risks of losing lambs and calves to hungry predators. One of the tools they work with are Livestock Guard Dogs, or LGDs. These dogs mean business, and can make the world safer for ranchers and wild predators alike. Plus, the puppies are cute enough to be Internet sensations. Here’s the video.
  • Nitrogen pollution is one of those problems that can make one throw up one’s hand in exasperation. Excess fertilizer from farms, lawns and golf courses end up in our streams, lakes and oceans, creating air and water pollution and threatening human health. But what can be done? Turns out, there’s plenty to be done. Resource Media has developed Nitrogen News, a website with an interactive US map that features stories about practical, real-world answers to reducing nitrogen pollution. In Texas and Pennsylvania, farmers are using innovative cultivation methods to reduce pollution and save money. In Michigan, a researcher is exploring the use of cover crops to reduce the need for fertilizer. And a nitrogen footprint calculator by two Virginia scientists shows how your own food and energy choices can make a difference. The website and map put a human face and “can do” attitude on solutions.
  • Advocates of “smart growth” often bemoan the social and environmental consequences of sprawl. Smog. Time wasted stuck in traffic. Productive farmland lost to pavement. But for cash-strapped local governments these arguments bump up against the seductive lure of tax revenue from shopping centers and Big Box stores on the edge of town. But groups like the Council of Infill Builders and the Local Government Commission focus on solutions: they help cities and towns think about land values, the way farmers think about the land they cultivate – on a per acre basis. When governments start thinking about land as a resource, they realize that that directing development toward city centers, where property values are high, results in far more revenue per acre than on the outskirts of town where values are far lower. By helping governments meet their top responsibility – paying for local services citizens demand – advocates are winning support for better land use decisions in some of the toughest places.

If you just want attention, complain about a problem. But if you want to inspire people, talk about solutions too.

Before joining Resource Media, Ben Long was a daily newspaper reporter, freelance magazine writer and book author. He still writes for blogs like High Country News and magazines such as Montana Outdoors.