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How the Arizona Daily Star created a solutions beat to build reader engagement and better serve its community

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: Flip the narrative and add solutions-oriented reporting to your coverage, rather than solely focusing on problems in your community. The solutions journalism beat can include stories about people, programs and processes working to fill gaps in equity, break down barriers and make your region a better place.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Jill Jorden Spitz, editor at the Arizona Daily Star, and Caitlin Schmidt, the Star’s solutions reporter and newsroom people and culture coordinator. The team participated in the Major Market Table Stakes program in 2021.

You can also hear all about it on the It’s All Journalism podcast.

Question: What communities do you serve and what can you tell us about the history of your organization?

Answer: The Arizona Daily Star serves Tucson and surrounding communities and is the largest news gathering operation in Southern Arizona. The Star was first published on June 26, 1879. It was independently owned until 1917, when it was sold to the Phelps-Dodge mining corporation.

The newspaper building was destroyed by a fire on Dec. 18, 1933, but the paper came out as usual the next morning and thereafter. On Sept. 2, 1945, Star Editor William R. Mathews attended – and wrote about – the signing of Japan’s surrender in World War II. In 1971, the Star was sold to the Pulitzer Publishing Company and was run through a Joint Operating Agreement with Gannett. It was sold again to Lee Enterprises in 2005 and is now jointly owned by Gannett, which closed Tucson’s afternoon newspaper, The Tucson Citizen, in 2009.

Star reporters Clark Hallas and Robert B. Lowe won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for their coverage of the University of Arizona athletics department.

Q: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

A: As the Star’s newsroom shrunk over the last decade, we chose to prioritize investigative and watchdog reporting, and to preserve resources attached to those things. But when someone raised his hand while Jill was speaking at a local retirement community and asked, “Why do you people hate Tucson?” she realized that our coverage was skewing too negatively in many people’s eyes.

Rather than cut back on investigative reporting, our newsroom turned to solutions journalism to balance the scales. We did solutions-oriented projects on foster care in Arizona and the future of our Air Force base and encouraged reporters to seek solutions stories on their beats. When Caitlin took to solutions reporting and asked to make it a full-time beat, it was an easy yes.

A screenshot of the solutions page on the Arizona Daily Star’s website

Caitlin has become an evangelist for solutions reporting throughout our newsroom and has helped to encourage and train reporters at a much higher level than what we were doing before. 

Because her background is in hard news and investigative reporting, she is the perfect person to show colleagues that solutions journalism is serious, worthy and important journalism that we all should be doing. It is not fluff. It is journalism that focuses on the problem, but also on how others have solved it.

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

A:  This initiative is related to Table Stake No. 1 (“Serve targeted audiences with targeted content.”)

Table Stake No. 1 is all about being audience-first. That was a major focus of our learning during our year (2021) in the Table Stakes Major Market program. When we dug deep, we realized we were too focused on serving existing readers, who are older, richer and whiter than Tucsonans overall. 

We created several new beats to help us realign our newsroom toward covering our community more holistically, and the solutions beat is a big part of that. We want to find and write stories that reflect our community more accurately and that matter in the lives of all types of Tucsonans, not just the ones who already subscribe to the Star.

Q: What is solutions journalism and how did you learn about it?

A: Solutions journalism is flipping the narrative and focusing our coverage on the solutions, rather than the problems, in our community. The beat includes stories about people, programs and processes working to fill gaps in equity, break down barriers and make Southern Arizona a better place.

A screenshot of a solutions story

The Star has long been involved in solutions journalism in various forms, but Caitlin first learned about it through a newsroom training with the Solutions Journalism Network as part of a 2018  project about Arizona’s foster care system and a 2021 project about solutions within the local police department. A year later, Caitlin was selected as a Solutions Journalism Network #MeToo fellow and completed her own in-depth investigation into the state of Title IX at the University of Arizona and what other universities had done in recent years to improve their programs.

She moved onto other topics when the project was done, but last summer, pitched the idea of a solutions beat at the Star after working on a series of stories about improvements to the criminal justice system. Shortly after the beat was created, Caitlin and a small team of Star reporters and freelancers produced a solutions-oriented project about affordable, high-quality childcare for low income families in Tucson, funded in-part by the Solutions Journalism Network. Solutions journalism has been a mainstay at the Star ever since, and Caitlin has been working with other reporters at the Star and independent outlet The Arizona Agenda to produce solutions stories about Southern Arizona and beyond.

Q: How has this work impacted the community you serve?

A: From the start, Caitlin has made the beat one that is inclusive of the community. She launched the beat with a column, explaining solutions journalism and why the Star was investing a full-time reporter to cover solutions stories, and inviting readers to send in suggestions for problems they’d like to read about solutions for or for solutions or problem-solvers in the community. 

The response was big and 100% positive. Each story led to a new source or story and readers and community members have been active in sending along story ideas from the start.

We also saw large reader engagement in the form of emails asking how to help story subjects, so we started adding “how to get involved” boxes to solutions stories. 

In December, Caitlin was selected as a Solutions Journalism Network LEDE fellow and launched a project that aimed to shape the beat into one guided by the community. 

She started attending community events, setting up a table and inviting people to talk about the beat and what they’d like to see Caitlin write about. She also created a solutions survey, which has received more than 200 responses since February. 

A promotional flyer that includes a QR code to the survey that allows readers to suggest topics for Caitlin to write about

She designed postcards to mail to households in low-subscribing ZIP codes, hosted 25 community members in a virtual conversation about the solutions coverage they’d like to see her report on and created a biweekly newsletter with an audience of more than 800. 

Check out the Arizona Daily Star’s solutions-oriented stories at https://tucson.com/news/solutions/. And watch this video of Caitlin explaining the importance of solutions journalism.

Breaking the fourth wall and engaging with readers and community members has resulted in dozens of solutions stories, many with real impact and reach. 

For example, a March 2022 article about a nonprofit seeking land on which to build a village of tiny homes for unsheltered individuals directly resulted in a 9-acre land donation to the group. A follow-up article about the donation resulted in an influx in funding by readers who wanted to help get the village up and running. The community is responding to these stories, and it’s rare that Caitlin will publish a story and not receive a kind email from a reader in response.

Q: How has this work benefited your newsroom?

A: Because solutions journalism covers the spectrum, it’s allowed us to fill in some of our gaps in coverage, which largely exist in social service areas. In the past 10 months, our coverage of mental health, substance use, housing insecurity and homelessness, criminal justice efforts and more has dramatically increased. Solutions stories also tend to include diverse sources, which is helping with the goal of our coverage being more reflective of our community.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: The level of reader engagement and excitement has been a real surprise. Watching the newsletter audience grow week over week has been truly exciting. The level of engagement between readers and story subjects was also not something we expected. 

Most solutions stories perform well on Metrics for News, receiving “excellent” scores for pageviews, average reading minutes, social referrals and visits. The online version of a recent story on a former hotel now used as city-run housing for unsheltered individuals received more than 5,000 pageviews on the Fourth of July weekend. 

When Caitlin returned to work Monday after the story’s publication in the Sunday paper, she had eight emails from readers. We knew Tucson was a community of problem-solvers and helpers, but the feedback we receive from subjects in terms of donations and queries from prospective volunteers after their story was published just shows how much this community was craving coverage like this.

The newsletter has shown consistent growth, typically growing by about 100 subscribers per issue – a faster rate than most of our other newsletters. After four months, it has 840 subscribers. The newsletter speaks directly to readers and asks them to get involved. 

One edition explained solutions journalism, while another asked readers to take our survey. One reflected on lessons learned at a solutions journalism retreat. A recent issue invited readers behind the scenes of our community conversation, teasing upcoming coverage.

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

A: We’re still learning! 

And in addition to trying to grow solutions journalism’s reach in our community, we’re also trying to grow it in our newsroom. 

The second part of Caitlin’s fellowship is newsroom training, so that she’s not the only Star reporter producing solutions stories. Several reporters have already had articles featured in the newsroom, and in June, six staffers took a virtual solutions training to learn more about what it is and how to apply it to their beats. We’re really learning as we go here, but we’re also teaching at the same time, and the beat is not even a year old.

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

A: Break that fourth wall! 

Use solutions reporting as an opportunity to engage with your readers and people who aren’t your readers. The creation of this beat has taught us how eager the community is to engage with reporters and to be seen and heard. 

And signpost your solutions reporting. Let people know what it is, why it’s different and where to find it on your website or in your paper. Our graphic artist created a logo that goes on all our solutions stories – and we also put it on water bottle stickers that Caitlin gives to people who stop and talk with her about solutions journalism at local events.

We created this beat to better serve our community, but it’s proven to have also been an amazing opportunity to connect with the community and talk to and write about people and about issues we haven’t in the past.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: Everyone in this profession understands the value of investigative reporting and holding the powers-that-be accountable, but we don’t often talk about the value of shining a light on the people working hard to right wrongs and fill-in gaps in services. Solutions reporting does that, and to us at the Star, the value has been immeasurable.

Read more about engaging audiences with content that serves them: How Nuestro Estado built a Spanish-speaking audience in South Carolina