How The Huffington Post is mobilizing its newsroom to take on social issues
When Jo Confino started in newspapers more than three decades ago, reporting was way different.
"It was always journalists throwing stories over the wall at readers and never wanting anything back," he said. "Now, I think we're trying to say: How do we create partnerships with our audience? And how do we become champions for our readers?"
Confino should know. At The Guardian, where he worked for 22 years, his last job was executive editor in charge of sustainability efforts, a position that saw him supervise projects urging readers to get involved with social change. When he was recruited to join The Huffington Post in 2015, Confino assumed similar responsibilities, becoming its executive editor of impact and innovation.
At least one aspect of that job is unusual for a journalist: Confino spends a lot of time thinking how HuffPost's reporting could convince readers to take action on urgent social issues. Where many journalists are content to leave policy recommendations to lawmakers, Confino and his team tend to look for problems and encourage their solutions.
That's the kind of thinking that led to HuffPost's latest big project, a sweeping look at food waste that will serve as a kind of template for the way the online news organization covers issues it deems majorly important to society.
This morning, The Huffington Post launched "Reclaim," a multimedia reporting project that at once exposes a worldwide social problem — in this case food waste — and encourages readers to take specific actions to remedy it.
The project, which involved more than 30 reporters, editors, videographers and photographers at the online news organization, combines journalism with a kind of activism: After checking out any number of the 50 stories being produced by HuffPost's journalists, readers are encouraged to sign a Change.org petition demanding that retail giant WalMart begin selling ugly fruits and vegetables, which often go to waste. They're also directed to urge grocery chains to adopt transparent food labeling standards and join a 30-day campaign to cut down on their own food waste.
By pointing out fixes for food waste, HuffPost is partaking in a type of reporting known as solutions journalism, which diverges from typical doom-and-gloom coverage that often greets big problems.
"We're trying to move away from this idea that news organizations give people such a diet of bad news that people feel disempowered and disengaged," Confino said. "We often make it easy for people for people to put their heads in the sand because it's too difficult and it's easy to hide away."
This isn't the first time The Huffington Post has dropped the standard of neutrality in favor of a particular issue or cause. It made headlines last year for calling Donald Trump's presidential campaign a sideshow, later amending its stance and calling Trump an outright bigot.
In adopting an activist stance, The Huffington Post fits in with a growing number of general-interest news organizations — including Vice, BuzzFeed and Mic — that in some cases abandon traditional notions of journalistic neutrality for issues on which there is an indisputable preference: Women's equality, opposition to sexual assault, the existence of human-made climate change.
Why food waste? In selecting the project, The Huffington Post was looking to meet a few conditions: They wanted a project that was global in nature, not just local. They were looking for a story they could tell on multiple platforms, which meant that visuals were a must. And they wanted a project that touched on multiple issues — in this case, global poverty, climate change and consumerism.
"It was basically searching for a story we felt brought together a number of issues we cared about and where we thought we could make a difference," Confino said.
In addition to articles, The Huffington Post also plans to engage with readers on social media with Facebook posts, tweets and Snapchat challenges. Confino's team has also planned photo galleries and user-generated content.
Look for HuffPost to try additional projects in this mold after expanding this campaign to examine e-waste and excessive trash caused by other consumer goods, Confino said.
"Journalists have to be careful that we don't have too many campaigns, because there can be diminishing returns if we engage in everything," he said. "But I think that there's certain things that we care about where we can engage and become more proactive."