Beyond puppy dogs: How The Guardian approaches good news

The Guardian has found gold in good news: higher share rates of stories and more readership than general news pieces.

But The Guardian also has a precise focus. We wanted to understand how special project editor Mark Rice-Oxley developed The Guardian’s take on good news, formally launched last week and called  The Upside.

We talked to Mark on his walk home Monday to the Kingston upon Thames section of London, near Wimbledon. (This interview was lightly edited for clarity).

Mark, you’ve had great success with upbeat news for a while before The Upside. How did it start?

The Upside’s been two years in the gestation. We started thinking about solutions journalism just because we thought the news mix was very heavy and we wanted to leaven that mix a bit. There’s always this cry on our news desk, “Where’s the joy?” Two or three days out of six there would be no joy.

Then I began thinking, this (idea of good news) is more than a few colorful things. There’s a real point and a purpose to it. Then we had an editor-in-chief and a foundation that believed in it, so they put some money behind it.

Rice-Oxley
Rice-Oxley

Why has good news traditionally gotten short shrift in news outlets?

Well, that’s natural, and right, to some degree. If journalism has a principal cause, it is to find the bad people and show them doing bad stuff. That makes the world a better place, too.

You also specialize in coverage of mental health issues. I read Steven Pinker’s Guardian essay in which he says prolonged exposure to negative news can “miscalibrate” people — leaving them with a unreasonable sense about the probability of airline crashes or of ISIS taking over America. Do you agree?

I agree, but not completely. It’s possible that it makes people depressed; what it certainly does is instill a sense of helplessness, that there’s no sense in trying. And I think that’s wrong. We find that when people join a group, working on one thing, their sense of worth increases, even if it’s a small thing.

What particular responsibility, if any, do news outlets have to combat that helplessness?

We have a public duty to foster some of that. I’ve been in journalism 25 years … and I’ve been lugubrious at times because of the news. It’s like a recession: We can sometimes talk ourselves into recession. Negative economic news coverage persuades businesses not to invest and consumers not to spend. So we end up in recession. Likewise, if you tell people that immigration is a security risk, not an economic and humanitarian opportunity, they are likely to turn on immigrants. We hugely underestimate the influence of media on people’s morale.

Both the United Kingdom and the United States are dealing with self-inflicted wounds — Great Britain with the economic pain of its Brexit decision and Washington with its failure to a) protect its campaign and electoral systems from a Russian enemy and b) protect its children from mass school shootings seen nowhere else with this frequency. This is a serious time.

When it comes to the school shootings in America, how much of it is because we glorify the perpetrator? Same with ISIS. That’s the opposite of solutions journalism. That’s stoking-the-fires journalism. …

"Fake news" is perpetuating the worst in people. With Brexit, for 25 years, the British press focused on the worst stories of the EU. … (The EU scapegoating) was easy to believe. … That’s why the British public got it wrong.

How did you come up with your particular focus on good news? To quote you: “pioneers, trailblazers, best practices, unsung heroes, ideas that work, ideas that might, innovations whose time might have come.”

Why are we looking for pioneers and trailblazers? I don’t know why I chose those words. I guess I was looking for people who build something, instead of tearing it down. ... So far, it’s been a very positive response.

So no stories on puppy dogs, with occasional exceptions?

I want to keep the bar quite high. There are the sorts of pieces we could do, but they’re sort of one dimensional.

What sort of resources do you have to do this? And how did you go about asking your readers for help?

We have a small team, on special projects. More than two, less than 10. But I still have the whole newsroom. I don’t want 10 journalists thinking about this all the time. I want 100 journalists to think about this 5 percent of the time. … When an earthquake destroys one part of a country, let’s put the focus on a town that survives, because it went about building differently. …

Readers have been brilliant. We have more than 1,000 responses. We’ve been told to go to Norway as soon as possible, or rural Australia. … It’s an extraordinary, unruly mix of fantastic people (who responded), with some great tips.

Are there “good news” purveyors you recommend, or see as benchmarks?”

The Huffington Post has an upbeat section, which is a bit fluffier than ours. I’m a big fan of the New York Times’ Fixes column. There’s a Dutch publication called De Correspondent that says it presents constructive journalism. Since we’ve launched this, I’ve been getting messages from people working on blogs, things away from the limelight, saying they’ve been trying to do this, too.

How many "good news" stories do you do in a week?

We haven’t made any commitments. We did three last week, and we’ll do two or maybe three this week. But we could do one a week.

What stories have worked best for you?

Of all the solutions we’ve done, one of the first pieces I’ve done, on universal basic income, was well ahead of global interest in that idea, and got huge interest. One in eight people who read it shared it, and that’s quite something. Another, about Portugal’s approach to drugs, is a classic in the genre. It prompts questions: Doesn’t the rest of the world know what Portugal it is doing?

And does the rest of world know how successful it is?

Precisely.

Thanks for your time. I’d love to check in in a bit, so see how it’s going.

Please do.

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