This Newspaper Hired Homeless People to Report Its Stories — and Changed Their Lives

When David Denny walks the U Street corridor of Washington, D.C., it doesn’t take much to remind him of the 1968 riots, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. led to looting and arson that left the city in flames. “We saw people throwing bricks and bottles, and breaking windows: All hell was breaking loose,” Denny recalled. “You’d see stuff burning everywhere.” Today, he walks around the same neighborhood, pointing out the African American–owned businesses that survived the looting. “A lot of innocent people got caught up in this whole fray, me being one of the innocent people. I had a gun trained on me at the age of 13.”
Fifty years later, U Street is a thriving commercial corridor, but the riots are still fresh in Denny’s mind. For years, he coped by using drugs and alcohol, and he spent some time in prison. For a time, he called an abandoned building in southeast D.C., roughly a 15-minute drive from where the riots took place, home. He busied himself by writing poems in his head about his experiences, to keep his mind active and spirits up. Nights were spent sleeping atop a flattened box, a makeshift bed in a sea of milk crates, broken glass and empty cans.
Denny would be the first to admit that his current life looks quite different from the one he worked hard to escape. As a contributor at Street Sense — a biweekly, volunteer-run newspaper whose vendors are part of the homeless community — Denny spends three days each week in his blue Street Sense vest, a stack of papers in hand, selling copies to D.C. residents. A portion of the sales goes towards the paper’s production costs; the reporters tasked with selling copies keep any remaining earnings. Other days, Denny facilitates orientations for new vendors in Street Sense Media’s office.
It’s a business model that’s worked well for the company, which has expanded from an initial print run of 5,000 newspapers in 2003 to a thriving media center, where staff members can use various media platforms —  including film, theater, audio, photography or illustration — to tell their stories. “When I first found Street Sense Media, I was sleeping on the street, addicted to drugs and alcohol, and coming home from prison,” Denny said. “I wanted to find a way to be productive in society.”
While the first street paper, the now-defunct Street News, was founded in New York City in 1989, there are currently over 40 other street papers in circulation in the U.S., including Nashville’s The Contributor and Portland’s Street Roots. In 1994, the International Network of Street Papers was founded in Glasgow, Scotland, taking the movement worldwide. Today, there are more than 100 street papers in 35 countries, employing about 21,000 vendors annually and reaching over 4.6 million readers.

Street Sense vendors at orientation. “There is no single story of homelessness, there is no one cause, and there is no one solution. Each one of our vendors participates in the programming that best fits their own situation,” says Jeff Gray, Street Sense’s sales and communications manager.

In an era where the circulation of print newspapers has been steadily declining, the existence of Street Sheets might seem like an anomaly. However, their power as an advocacy tool has enabled some papers to fund themselves through grants, though the amount each one receives can vary widely, according to Megan Hustings, Director at the National Coalition for the Homeless. “Grants are a one-time thing, and you get lucky if you receive them more than once,” she said. “While we’ve seen some papers ebb and flow, others have gotten well set up.”
While the cost of each paper varies by city and publication — according to Jeff Gray, Street Sense Media’s sales and communications manager, most cost $1 or $2 per issue, with monthly magazines costing slightly more — the business model for all papers is the same. Vendors purchase papers at a discount, and sell each issue for a slightly higher price, keeping any profits. “It’s entrepreneurial for the vendors,” Hustings said.
The majority of Street Sense Media’s operating budget comes from private donations. “We get grant money from private foundations, and generate some income from sales of the papers,” Gray said. Vendors purchase their papers for 50 cents an issue, which goes towards the paper’s operating costs, and each issue is sold for a suggested donation.
But before they’re able to sell papers, vendors must train to earn their license to sell. At Street Sense Media, the training is up to a month long. “We ask that they come in for an hour-long training once a week,” Gray said.  “Once they leave, they have a checklist to complete [which includes] attending multimedia workshops and meeting staff members.” The workshops are held twice a week, and are led by volunteer professionals in their field, Gray said. “We have a theater workshop hosted by a nonprofit theater company, a filmmaking cooperative and a writer’s group run by a local professor.”

It might sound like school, but none of the workshops are mandatory, and none of the vendors have deadlines. They’re given writing prompts and are encouraged to create art based on feedback from instructors. “The amount of time spent selling the paper and participating in workshops varies from vendor to vendor. We don’t have any requirements,” Gray said. “Some vendors sell the papers seven days a week and don’t participate in workshops; some come to workshops and rarely sell the newspaper.”
Since the newspaper was founded in 2003, Street Sense Media has expanded to offer workshops in theater, writing and podcasting for those experiencing homelessness.

Denny found Street Sense Media through a former vendor, and he was inspired to use the paper as an outlet for poems he wrote while in prison. “I only create poetry; I can’t draw or sing,” said Denny. “But I had a ton of poems in my head, and I submitted one of them every time a new issue came out.”
One of the entries Denny’s most proud of is Commentary to a Black Man, which caught the attention of former President Barack Obama after one of Denny’s most regular readers sent it to him after its publication in 2013. Nine months after the poem was published, Obama responded with a letter, reflecting on its depictions of the African-American community and the need for a commitment to change. “We need to change the statistics for young men and boys of color — not just for their sake, but for the sake of America’s future,” Obama said in the letter.  “We will start a different cycle, and this country will be richer and stronger for it for generations to come.”
One of the biggest benefits to vendors at Street Sense Media is the full-time case managers they have on staff, who play a key role in helping vendors connect to services that will help them find permanent housing. “Affordable housing in D.C. is [still] incredibly expensive,” says Colleen Cosgriff, Street Sense Media’s on-staff case manager. “It can be a long and frustrating process for someone to wait, and there are a lot of unknowns. But we try to work ahead of those things so when the opportunity arises, we’re ready to go.”
Among the complications that make it a time-consuming process: In order to get into permanent housing, the list of items vendors need to provide varies by program. The most important item to recover is the person’s ID — which can be a driver’s license, social security card, birth certificate or immigration documents. “When someone is homeless, it is common for their belongings to be stolen or thrown away while they are on the streets or in a shelter,” Cosgriff said. “It’s important for someone to have all of their IDs because some programs require this.” Once these items are found, the vendor can apply for a housing voucher.
She added: “One of the great things about Street Sense Media is while I’m working on a lot of tangible needs, like housing, benefits and healthcare, we have artistic workshops and opportunities for people to express themselves and tell their own stories.”
The most important part of Cosgriff’s work with Denny was playing a part in rebuilding his day-to-day life. “He’s an amazing writer, and being able to share that in a paper was really important to him,” she said. “One of the things we had to work on is the concept that there’s something better out there for everyone,” she added. “People don’t deserve to be homeless. They don’t deserve to live in this type of poverty. But when you’re in there for years and years and that becomes your life, you’re surviving day to day.”
While Cosgriff hasn’t known Denny as long as some of the other vendors, she admits that working with him was more than just a weekly check-in. “David and I didn’t sit down and say, ‘It could be better,’ and that was it,” she said. “We talked about housing, life and art. He’s a poet, and I also really appreciate poetry, so we were able to have a conversation around things that were important to him. It’s amazing to see customers interacting with him, and to hear him doing his pitch and to see people responding to him.”
Cosgriff says her work with each vendor is important, as is the bigger picture of what Street Sense Media hopes to accomplish in their local community. “We have the opportunity to help someone get the tangible needs met,” Cosgriff said. “To get the food, to get the healthcare, to get the home. But then we also have these amazing workshops, and this community for people to rebuild the other side of their lives — to respect themselves in a way they maybe haven’t in a while.”

To hear David’s story and to learn more about Street Sense Media, watch this video.
See More: Denver Pays Homeless Residents to Help Clean Up the City

How to Talk About Solutions Journalism

Last month, the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network published a list of local newsrooms and other media outlets that have integrated the practice of solutions-oriented reporting into their coverage. The post was a turning point of sorts; when SJN was founded in 2013, the term “solutions journalism” wasn’t exactly common parlance, says co-founder and CEO David Bornstein. In Bornstein’s view, it’s not enough to simply lay out the facts of a problem: Society will only move forward if we’re exposed to what is working in communities — and work together to elevate those solutions.

Bornstein launched SJN to spread the practice of approaching news stories through the lens of problem-solving. Besides an ever-growing database of published solutions stories, the organization trains journalists and provides a place for them to connect. NationSwell spoke with Bornstein, who’s been covering social innovation for two decades and co-authors The New York Times’s “Fixes” column, on what solutions journalism is and why it matters.

NationSwell: Since you founded SJN in 2013, how has the organization evolved, and how has the field of solutions journalism evolved in general?

Bornstein: There’s been so much change. I would say our original mission was to legitimize and spread the practice of solutions journalism, which we define as rigorous reporting that looks at solutions to social problems. It’s fairly legitimized now that there are more and more news organizations regularly integrating solutions journalism into what they do — and not just as an add-on, but integrated into their core work. There’s certainly still a long way to go. But there’s much more adoption than there was even two or three years ago. And much more acceptance that journalism has to help people understand the nature of problems, and what their options are to try to respond to those problems.

NationSwell: Negative news still dominates most headlines. Why do you think that is, and what impact does that negativity have on audiences?

Bornstein: Most news is reacting to something that is problematic, and it still seems to be job one in journalism to identify problems and where society is falling short, whether through scandal, malfeasance,  corruption or negligence. As we used to say, the problems scream and the solutions whisper.

If there is a shooting or a fire or an explosion, these kinds of flash-point events demand coverage. Even if a politician says something inflammatory, it demands coverage. A solutions story is often something that is quietly working in the background to improve high school graduation rates, or to reduce the levels of addiction in a county — things like that. These are not always things that are clamoring for attention. They’re not screaming the way the problems do. It takes more of an intentional effort to discover these stories and more research, usually. They don’t land on your desk; they don’t appear on the police scanner. That’s why you need to build in the editorial habit to look for [solutions] stories, because if you don’t, you will continuously miss them.

NationSwell: How do you keep solutions stories from veering into the territory of advocacy? For example, you can say that in the U.S., gun violence is a problem. Most solutions stories would probably highlight organizations that are working to reduce gun violence (editor’s note: NationSwell has published several). But the reaction we see from some gun-rights supporters is to accuse us of trying to suppress the second amendment. How do you balance those two things?

Bornstein: I would say the main thing is to report on lots of different ways communities are reducing violence, [whether] by making it harder for certain types of people to get guns, or by policing approaches that use epidemiological tactics to try to anticipate where and when gun violence is going to occur, and head it off at the pass. The point is not to advocate for any one approach, but to look at all the options, and to associate options with the evidence.

Journalists should not be in the business of picking winners, but we should be in the business of furnishing as many options as possible, so people can deliberate with all the information they need. Every community should be aware of the full range of options that are available to solve the problems that are most pressing.

“If journalists don’t give people news that strengthens their ability to be effective and compassionate citizens, people won’t consume it very much.”

NationSwell: How can solutions-oriented reporting engage and impact people in a way that traditional reporting does not?

Bornstein: News avoidance is on the rise, because it’s very difficult to turn on the TV or look at your screen and see 50 stories that are all really stressful and depressing about the economy, about climate change, about the rise of polarization, or about populism or bigotry or violence. People will eventually stop engaging, which is what researchers are finding.

The simplest thing journalists can do is to tell the whole story. When you’re covering society, do you only cover the pathology? Or do you also look at responses and efforts to solve problems, which are quite abundant in most areas? We’ve rarely come across issues that you can’t report through a solutions lens. And when you do that, people might say, “Oh, wow, we have a really big problem with gun violence in our country. And look, there’s also about 300 different things that communities are trying to do to reduce gun violence.” You could get fatalistic and say, “Well, none of that seems to make a difference to Congress.” Or you can say, “But boy, there are a lot of communities that actually are safer today than they were five years ago, so let’s look at what happened there.” So you can give people information that enables them to engage and have a sense of control, efficacy, and curiosity.

Because people really do want to build a better world. It’s a very strong human impulse to have control over your life and over your community, and, in a way, be able to shape things with your aspirations. If journalists don’t give people news that strengthens their ability to be effective and compassionate citizens, people won’t consume it very much.

NationSwell: As local newsrooms shrink, are you worried about the sustainability of solutions journalism?

Bornstein: No, I’m actually worried if local newsrooms don’t start providing their communities with news they really value and are willing to pay for, those local newsrooms may go out of business. I think the number one thing news organizations have to do today to become more economically viable is to change the product, you know?

In survey after survey, when people are asked, “How does the news land on you?” they say, “It makes me feel depressed, it makes me feel powerless, and I don’t know if I can trust it.” Which are the top three reasons that the Reuters Institute has said people are avoiding the news. So basically you have a product called news that in its normal consumption makes people feel depressed and powerless. And then the news organizations’ response is to say, “And gosh, you won’t even pay for it.”

But if the product, over time, gives people information that helps them to be more powerful and creative as citizens, they will buy it. Just like people pay a ton of money to go to college, and a ton of money sometimes to go to conferences. People pay for knowledge when that knowledge is really useful to them. Question is: Why won’t people pay for the news? They’re not considering it useful knowledge at some level where they would pay for it.

NationSwell: A lot of people, as you alluded to, don’t trust the media because they think it’s biased. Why do you think that sentiment persists, and how does solutions journalism fit into that bigger picture?

Bornstein: Well, there are a lot of biases in media, and the bias we always look at is political bias, whether it’s a liberal or conservative newsroom. But the main bias in journalism is the bias that says a problem is newsworthy, and a response to a problem is not.

When we go around the country and speak to reporters in small towns, we say, “What do you think of the national news about your community? Is it accurate?” And they’ll say, “It’s usually pretty accurate, but it’s also not really fully true.” Especially if you go to the South, people say, “The national news always makes us look like a bunch of dumb yokels. You come to Alabama to cover us when Alabama can be made fun of.” And so you can look through newspapers for the last 20 years to see how many stories about things happening in Alabama in the national press look at the creativity, the agency, and the problem-solving acumen of the people in that state. And you will probably come up pretty empty-handed.

NationSwell: We’re obviously living through a time of profound division and partisanship. Do you think solutions journalism has the potential to bring people together for a common cause?

Bornstein: First of all, people have to learn how to talk to each other. We commissioned an article last year called “Complicating the Narratives,” which really looked at how journalists, or anybody, can listen and interview differently in order to develop a deeper understanding of people with whom they disagree. Those are skills that many people lack, including many journalists who end up, through the course of normal interviewing and reporting, pushing people into their corners.

But the lens of solutions journalism is an interesting one. If you look at a problem — like a school’s low graduation rate, or how to care for children who’ve experienced trauma — and you lay out 10 different responses to that problem, you’ll find that most of the time, the ideas and models put forward are not that ideologically divisive. If something is working people are like, “Yeah, that makes sense.”

It’s really the national-level frames on federal policy that are extraordinarily divisive, and we keep the focus on them all the time. When we shift the focus to local problem-solving, it’s amazing how much more trust and agreement and common ground people can find. By focusing on local-level problem-solving and the solutions that really do make a difference in people’s lives, journalism will rebuild trust. And it will reduce polarization: as a matter of fact, I know that to be true. I’ve seen it.

This interview has been condensed and edited. To support the Solutions Journalism Network’s mission with a donation, click here.

The 10 Most Inspiring Books of 2017

This year’s top news stories sometimes made it tough to remain optimistic, given the mass shootings, hurricanes and wildfires, controversial legislation and the threat of nuclear war. In times like these, when the daily headlines can feel so oppressively grim, we often turn to longer works to put our historical moment in context — to show us that there’s a better way forward in organizing healthcare, dealing with crime, addressing climate change and stabilizing government. That’s where this list comes in. Spanning both fiction and non-, essays and memoirs, these are the books that gave us hope in an otherwise tumultuous year.

Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women” By Susan Burton and Cari Lynn

After her 5-year-old son was accidentally killed by a cop, Susan Burton descended into a crack addiction that landed her in prison — over and over again. As detailed in this heartfelt memoir, Burton eventually got the help she needed and now runs A New Way of Life, a scrappy nonprofit that offers sober housing and treatment for formerly incarcerated women at five safe houses in South Los Angeles.

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes” By Dan Egan

The Great Lakes used to be a cesspool of industrial chemicals and municipal sewage, until Congress intervened in 1972. A massive cleanup followed, but that ongoing recovery is being threatened today by invasive species inadvertently dumped into the lakes. Dan Egan, a reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, lays out a natural history of how foreign fish and filter-feeders arrived (then spread through the nation’s waterways) and how government regulators can adapt.

Unwarranted: Policing Without Permission” By Barry Friedman

Ever since the unrest in Ferguson in 2014, policing’s become a hot-button topic. Rather than blaming cops, Barry Friedman, a law professor at New York University, tries to move the conversation forward, arguing that judges and ordinary citizens alike need to do more to restore the Fourth Amendment’s protections against “unreasonable search and seizure” in a time of heightened surveillance and militarization among law enforcement.

Janesville: An American Story” By Amy Goldstein

On a frozen morning in December 2008, the nation’s largest automaker, General Motors, closed down its oldest assembly plant, laying off thousands of workers and hollowing out Janesville, Wisc., the hometown of Rep. Paul Ryan. Amy Goldstein, a reporter at the Washington Post, picks up the story there, poignantly describing the efforts to shore up a vanishing middle class.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions” By Valeria Luiselli

Why did you come to the United States? What countries did you pass through? Did anything happen on your trip that scared or hurt you? Depending on how they answer those questions, unaccompanied children fleeing violence in Central America are either granted a pass or sent back. Writer Valeria Luiselli, a volunteer who administered the questionnaire, details her first-hand experiences with the immigration system in this 120-page essay.

Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America” By Mary Otto

One in three low-income adults avoids smiling. That’s a consequence of treating dentistry as optional, allowing tooth decay and gum disease that afflict the poor to be written off as failures of personal responsibility. Mary Otto, a veteran health journalist, makes a stirring plea to close an unacknowledged gap in our medical system.

Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption” By Benjamin Rachlin

In 1988, after a neighbor came forward to claim a $1,000 reward, Willie Grimes was convicted of breaking into a 69-year-old widow’s house and raping her twice. Two decades into Grimes’s life sentence, DNA evidence exonerated him. In this meticulously researched book, Benjamin Rachlin explores North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission, the first body of its kind to hear wrongful conviction pleas and restore integrity to a system that’s locked up thousands of innocent people.

The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic” By Ganesh Sitaraman

The Founding Fathers curiously left any reference to wealth out of the Constitution, believing that America was a country where citizens were born equal, rather than becoming so, as Alexis de Tocqueville later put it. In a treatise packed with historical anecdotes and political theory, Ganesh Sitaraman, a Vanderbilt law professor, makes the case that America’s “middle-class constitution” is straining under an economic divide and offers corrective reforms.

A Kind of Freedom” By Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

The lone work of fiction on our list, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s epic debut novel follows three generations of a black New Orleans family, from World War II to the War on Drugs of the 1980s to Hurricane Katrina at the dawn of a new century. Even as they struggle to get by, in a country where racial progress has always been fitful, the family members display remarkable endurance.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” By Timothy Snyder

Another book about how to save our democracy, this slim volume dispels the notion that a republic can persevere without an engaged citizenry. “History does not repeat, but it does instruct,” Timothy Snyder, a Yale professor, begins, as he shares how totalitarianism gobbled up Eastern Europe a century ago and what can be done to prevent its creeping approach today.

The Media Startup That’s Run By Black Millennials, For Black Millennials

In November, three days after the presidential election, African-American students at the University of Pennsylvania received racist texts through the messaging app GroupMe, including insults like “dumb slave,” a Nazi-inflected “Heil Trump” and a calendar event for a daily lynching. The New York Times ran a single sentence about the incident, buried in an article on A21; The Wall Street Journal gave it two. Online, at The Washington Post, quotes from administrators and UPenn College Republicans dominated the story.
Compare that to the way Blavity, a digital media company run by and for black millennials, handled it. They published a 1,473-word op-ed by Brian Peterson, the director of Makuu: Penn’s Black Cultural Center, about taking the hateful words as a call to action. Unlike the version so many national outlets ran, if they covered the news at all, Blavity centered the harassment on a black person’s experience.
With only 13 percent minority representation in newsrooms, headlines about African-Americans tend to skew toward extremes: Rihanna’s latest album on one end of the spectrum, gun violence in inner cities on the other. Blavity aims to provide a less sensational middle ground, depicting the multiplicity of ways to be black today. Headquartered in Los Angeles, the site reaches about 7 million unique visitors a month. And their core demographic, young people of color in America’s major cities, seem to like what they’re seeing: 38 percent of users make repeat visits.
“How does it feel to be stereotyped [in the media]? Sometimes, it feels bad. More often, it just feels false,” says Aaron Samuels, a poet and one of Blavity’s co-founders. “Watching news about black people that’s mass-marketed to non-black people, the facts are weird or the names are pronounced wrong. Or maybe the facts and names are right, but the story’s incomplete, and we’re not getting the entire perspective. That rings as inauthentic, and it makes people want to check out.”
A portmanteau of “black” and “gravity,” Blavity takes its name from a gathering spot for African-American students at Washington University in St. Louis, where the site’s four co-founders all earned their undergraduate degrees. Because black students are underrepresented at the institution, a table in the student center became the spot where they gravitated, says Jonathan Jackson, Blavity’s head of corporate brand. “We have to navigate spaces that we don’t own. When we find each other, we stick with each other,” he adds. As one of the few locations on campus where African-American students weren’t in the minority, the roundtable became a community nexus and a site for discussion.
Blavity, which launched in 2014, works much the same way, offering a chance to interact with writers and readers from similar backgrounds. “It looks like me, feels like me. I don’t have to bend who I am to be a part of it,” says Jackson.
Once there, surrounded by like-minded peers, readers’ identities deepen and grow more complex, according to the site’s co-founders. Blavity is not about bridging the divide between black and white, but rather exploring more nuanced differences between, say, a first-generation Ghanaian immigrant and someone with deep roots in Atlanta, between comic book–reading “blerds” (black nerds) and hip-hop fans.
“People assume that black folks don’t care about exploring this nuance, but the complexities are just as important as the similarities,” Jackson explains. “It gives a voice to people that we pretend don’t exist. ‘I’m a gamer but you don’t think I am, because you think gamers don’t look like me.’ This is not a subculture: We are the culture.”
To capture those diverse narratives, Blavity employs a team of 16 full-time writers. In addition, the company accepts op-eds and commissions freelance pieces from across the country. Their primary qualifications for contributors: “a quick pulse on what’s going on” and an ability to “translate that into meaningful conversation,” says Jackson.
Their stories delve into topics that receive little mainstream coverage, like black masculinity or the stigmas against mental healthcare. That’s not to say Blavity doesn’t cover the day’s dominant headlines, too: They devote plenty of space to Black Lives Matter and police brutality. But even there, the tech company has a different approach than most news organizations in that they refuse to share body-cam footage of officer-involved shootings, which they believe causes unnecessary psychological trauma.
To widen their reach, Blavity’s stable of reporters produces content on nearly every platform, whether it’s moderating a Twitter discussion on interracial dating, Instagramming the best black designers on Etsy or Snapchatting a tour of the African-American History Museum.
As America’s first black president leaves the White House, there’s much at stake for the black community. After his election, Barack Obama gave his first interview to Ebony, an African-American-owned publication. This past summer, the magazine, whose covers over its 71-year-history had been graced by the likes of Muhammad Ali and Aretha Franklin, was sold to a private equity firm — a sign, to observers, that black-owned media’s influence was slipping. Blavity’s recent success suggests the decline might simply have been generational. They prove there’s still a market and, more than ever, a need for news written by black writers for black audiences.
“We’ve been making and building things for a long time, but the ownership has not been ours in a meaningful way. Blavity is a medium to communicate our value,” says Jackson. “There’s never been a more critical time to have that than right now.”

A Possible Path to Ending Smartphone Addiction, Diagnosing Journalism’s Cynicism Problem and More

The Binge Breaker, The Atlantic
Prompted by a never-ending stream of vibrating notifications, the average person checks their smartphone at least 150 times a day. As an alternative to severing all ties to technology, the advocacy group Time Well Spent, co-founded by former Google employee Tristan Harris, is working to convince software companies to find their conscience and halt the psychological tricks that keep us hooked on screen time.
When Reportage Turns to Cynicism, The New York Times
The media’s been blamed for paving Donald Trump’s path to the White House, with hours of free airtime during the primaries and false equivalences during the general election. But two reporters pinpoint another problem with the business: Journalism focuses too narrowly on what’s going wrong. If news organizations were to practice “solutions journalism” (like much of what you’ll find here at NationSwell) and share what’s working, we might place more faith in our institutions to fix problems.
Shuttered State Prisons Spring Back to Life, Stateline
As mass incarceration continues to decline, the nation’s correctional facilities are emptying out. What to do with 150 state prisons we no longer need? Some governments are flipping the properties over to businesses and nonprofits. In Illinois, two juvenile prisons will be converted to reentry centers for adult inmates, while in California, medical marijuana growers believe a lockup (once teeming with drug dealers) could make a perfect greenhouse.

Being a Great Leader Means Being in Service to Others

It’s hard to decipher a through-line in Shaifali Puri’s 13-year career that spans the New York State Attorney General’s Office, the Empire State Development Corporation, the nonprofit Scientists Without Borders and the Nike Foundation. But look a little deeper and you’ll see that Puri has the spark of spontaneity that allows her to leap at opportunities and a core mission to improve people’s lives. Currently a visiting scholar at New York University’s journalism school, Puri is researching how technology can be harnessed to benefit the developing world. She spoke to NationSwell about the lessons she’s learned from her eclectic career.

What’s the best advice you have ever been given on leadership?
When I got hired at Fortune (a Time Inc. magazine), they only hired young people, and the only job you could get was to be a fact-checker. What was really great was that these kids came from [top] colleges and universities, and [the company started] them all at the bottom of the totem pole, in a job that required you to do what felt like menial work. Later, when I got a federal clerkship after law school, I was incredibly proud of myself. On day one, when the judge came into the chambers and said hello, she said she had a very important lesson to impart: the proper way to staple memos in her chambers, which was at a 45-degree angle in the top left-hand corner. Some people might say that’s crazy. But I’m grateful for having had those jobs — where you had to pay immense attention to detail — because so much of our focus today is on leadership. But it’s hard to be a great leader unless you also know how to be great at not being the leader, and how to be great in service to others in the organization.

What’s on your nightstand?
I usually have one fiction and one non-fiction book going at all times. My fiction book is called “The Flamethrowers,” by Rachel Kushner. The nonfiction book I just started is called “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires,” Tim Wu’s book on net neutrality.


What do you wish someone had told you when you started this job?
Worry less about the title and much more about the skills map. What are you learning in each job? Sometimes in my career, it was learning how to be a deputy, how to manage big projects, how to be a boss. You’ll get a career in which you’re doing meaningful work. It’ll be eclectic enough to expose you to many different things, and you’ll get to learn a variety of skill sets so you can figure out which ones you truly want to run with. I wasn’t smart enough or didn’t have the foresight to plan out my career, but looking over my shoulder, I’m glad that without knowing what I was doing, I was jumping at opportunities that had something to teach me, more than I was worrying about a particular industry. Ultimately, by total chance, I think it served me better than had I tried to plan my way here.

What’s your perfect day?
One that has a lot of serendipity in it. Something that I love but don’t do enough is ramble around New York. [So I’d] get up when the mood strikes (I’m usually a pretty early riser), have that cup of coffee, read The New York Times totally unrushed and head out with my boyfriend in tow to leisurely see where the day takes us. It might involve museums, the park, just staring at the architecture through Chelsea or the West Village, checking out what endlessly new thing is happening in the Lower East Side or going through Chinatown (which is one of my favorite parts of New York). Just walking and taking it in without a plan, ending at one of my favorite, not-overrun, neighborhood West Village restaurants. Then, a perfect evening stroll back home. When I forget why I love this city, a good walk always reminds me.

What’s your proudest accomplishment?
I want to preface this by saying, I’ve been very lucky because I have been very privileged. I did not have to worry about financial circumstances when I came out of college. The thing I feel most proud of isn’t any individual accomplishment. I’ve really tried to build a career of purpose. When I went to Scientists Without Borders, I didn’t know the field. The New York Academy of Sciences took a chance on me, and I’m really proud of having built something. It was like being a tech startup CEO: taking a germ of an idea to a full organization. I made a lot of mistakes, and it wasn’t always clear we were going to have the funding. It felt really important to me, because the promise of what the organization could achieve: eradicating global poverty, trying to bring science and technology resources to solve the challenges of the world’s poorest people. So I’m really proud that, in the face of a tremendous amount of terror and self-doubt, I persevered. That’s been something I’ve tried to do in my career, which is take on things that have scared me and do it anyway.

What don’t most people know about you?
I was, at some point, a certified bartender. I got my certificate in college. I figured if you ever needed a fun back-up career, that was it.

To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
MORE: Participants Claim This Program Boosts Them out of Poverty. Should Other Cities Implement It?

The Program That Encourages Girls to Speak Out About What It’s Really Like to Be a Teenager

On a recent Saturday evening in Lower Manhattan, nearly two dozen high school girls stood next to glowing laptops, displaying projects to a milling crowd. One used the online presentation tool Prezi to click through chapters of her vampire novel-in-progress, which, she says, is a metaphor for society’s fear of African Americans. Another showed off her short film, “Stop and Smell the Roses” depicting New York City scenes about journeys: subway rides, map-reading, outdoor strolls. In voiceover narration, the filmmaker, Sharon Young, explains the uncertainty she feels about attending college in the fall: “I’m the type of person who wants to plan everything out, who wants to know what’s on the set list, if the clouds are going to be overcast, what sort of direction I’m floating in.”
Girls Write Now is largely responsible for Young’s emerging voice. Since 1998, the New York City program has paired over 5,000 underserved high school girls with established female journalists, novelists, screenwriters, bloggers and other digital media professionals. The teens (only 4 percent of whom are white) mainly come from the outer boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx to string words into poems, try their hand at reporting a story or dream up the concept for a novel. Basic English proficiency is a challenge in many New York City high schools, so Girls Write Now helps low-income young women of color improve their communication, writing and leadership skills. With a mentor, a teenager develops a portfolio of creative work and then, during her senior year, crafts a college essay. Despite outside obstacles, every single senior who participated in Girls Write Now has gone to college — often with scholarships and accolades in tow.
As the media landscape changes rapidly, the mission of fashioning young female writers takes on a particular urgency since there’s now a chance for women of color to claim a space in a world dominated for centuries by white men. In today’s digital age, young women can control their own narrative by telling it themselves online, reaching a wide audience, says Veronica Black, a pixie-cut-sporting filmmaker, museum curator and Young’s mentor. Which is why Girls Write Now offers a special digital media program that trains teens in creative uses of the latest technology. “At the end…girls are equipped to tell a story in GIFs, write a poem in HTML, and take their words to the next level,” says Maya Nussbaum, Girls Write Now’s founder. “From narrative games to audio and animation, writing isn’t just in ink anymore.”
APPLY: Girls Write Now is an NBCUniversal Foundation 21st Century Solutions grant winner. Apply to the 2016 program today.
Young’s participation in the digital media program was unplanned. (Coincidentally, so was Black’s.) Initially shy, Young, a Harlem native and recent graduate of The High School for Math, Science and Engineering, one of New York City’s nine specialized magnet schools, kept her opinions to herself, needing several meetings before really opening up to Black. Together, the pair experimented using various types of digital media before Young discovered that film best aligns with her sensibility and visual way of thinking. (She’s attracted to the freedom that comes with a multi-platform definition of writing because she doesn’t have the patience to draft sentences until they’re perfect, preferring the spontaneity of capturing unplanned beauty on camera.) Suddenly, questions about classic movies, how to write a script and what Black had learned from her own video projects flowed out of the once-quiet girl. One night, as Young worked on her vlog, she glanced up from her video-editing software and realized it was two in the morning. “I think that’s when I realized making films was something I enjoyed,” she says.
Today, in an interview at Girls Write Now’s offices in midtown, Young displays confidence, especially with her mentor beside her. After three years together, they understand each other, laughing about inside jokes and grading each other’s metaphors. “[Black has] been very supportive of my ideas and helped me turn them into reality. She helped me to be vulnerable in my writing and take risks,” Young says, sharing that her mentor “open[ed] my eyes to the different uses of digital media.”
While many of Young’s high school classmates plan on getting STEM degrees, Girls Write Now has given her other options for next year in college (she plans to attend Hunter College, located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan) — including finding a way to bridge both science and art through technology. While scared of the future, she now understands the importance of being a female storyteller. “It’s taking ownership of your identity, your gender, your upbringing and not falling for society’s norms for you because you’re a girl. It’s breaking those walls down,” she says, possessing the mental clarity and confidence to articulate her feelings and share them with strangers. It’s something of a risk, she feels, but one she can’t resist. Now that she’s found her voice — and the perfect medium to share it — through Girls Write Now, there’s no sense hiding it.
Girls Write Now is a recipient of last year’s 21st Century Solutions grant powered by the NBCUniversal Foundation, in partnership with the NBCUniversal Owned Television Stations. The grant celebrates nonprofits that are embracing innovative solutions to advance community-based programs in the areas of civic engagement, education, environment, jobs and economic empowerment, media, and technology for good. Apply here for a chance to be one of the 2016 winners!

Forget Clickbait. This Is How Technology Improves News Reporting

Steve Grove, a onetime print reporter at the Boston Globe and a broadcast journalist for ABC News, joined YouTube and helped the homemade video site influence world events (becoming a platform for investigative video reportage like Sen. George Allen using the obscure racial insult “macaca” and a way to mobilize millions, such as President Obama and’s “Yes We Can” music video). Today, as head of Google’s News Lab, he’s enthused about virtual reality and big data becoming an integral part of storytelling. NationSwell spoke to Grove from Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters about the future of newsrooms.

What’s the best advice you have ever been given on leadership?
[T]o make it something that you practice, not something that you are. I tell my team at Google all the time, “You’re all leaders.” What I mean by that (this comes from some books I’ve read, a few classes I’ve taken and also my own experience) is leadership is helping a group that is facing a challenge grapple with it in an honest and productive way. It’s really getting to the root of what a problem is, engaging in various interventions or techniques to really get to the core issue they’re trying to solve. Great leaders are able to exercise leadership, not just embody it.

What’s on your nightstand?
I just finished a book called “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work,” which is about the modern economy and how technology has actually, in some ways, made us more distant from the actual work-product. The guy who wrote it was a motorcycle mechanic, and he talks about the power of working with your hands and how the trades are actually a really active way to use your mind and develop yourself. It’s not just an argument for, hey, you need to go start your own mechanic shop, but that you should understand how the things you own work.

What innovations in your field are you most excited about right now?
There are all kinds of new storytelling devices that are making journalism and frontiers really hopeful. While getting traffic to your site is a challenge and thinking about catchy titles or even clickbait is part of a conversation, deeper, more immersive storytelling is even more exciting and differentiates your site or broadcast. Virtual reality’s a part of that. You’re not just clicking and leaving: you dive into it. But another really interesting development (we’re not quite there yet) is journalism via drones. It’s really powerful for things like crisis response… and climate journalism — looking at ways different ecosystems have changed and are changing from above. It’s just a totally new perspective. There’s lots of challenges to figure out there ethically and technologically, but that’s exciting.

Data journalism itself is probably one of the biggest frontiers for journalism right now. It takes a massive amount of computing power that we now have, the extraordinary access to data sets we didn’t have before and a shift of how newsrooms think about telling stories. We, of course, work on Google data in that space, but ProPublica, FiveThirtyEight, The UpShot, Vox — they’re all really innovative data-driven journalism. That’s one of the things we’re betting big on: that data journalism has a huge potential for making readers around the world smarter about topics they’re discovering. Newsrooms are beginning to understand there’s never been a better time to be a storyteller, given the tools they have.

What do you wish someone had told you when you started this job?
I wish somebody had told me to lead with passion and manage with consistency. A lot of leaders are very good at one, but not the other. They can crisply manage a spreadsheet, a meeting schedule, a document and metrics tracker, but they don’t have the vision or the passion to lead an organization. Other leaders give the inspiration and purpose. That’s great, but the management piece falls off a little bit, because it’s harder for them to operationally develop things. Most leaders need to have both. I wish someone had defined that for me. I came into my work with the former — the passion and excitement — and I don’t think I was incapable of the latter, but I didn’t know when to toggle between the two.

What inspires you?
What’s most inspiring to me about my time at Google is amplifying stories or voices that wouldn’t have otherwise been heard. You look at YouTube as a platform for that, or the Internet in general as a chance to discover stories that wouldn’t have otherwise made it into our conversations — that’s a really powerful additive element of technology in media. Whether that’s citizen-captured videos from streets of the Arab Spring or whether that’s someone “coming out” to their community on a blog or whether that’s a kid in his bedroom in Philly or a mom in her house in Montana getting to ask the President a question in a Google+ Hangout, there’s all kinds of elements that plays itself out.

What’s your proudest accomplishment?
I feel very fortunate to have had some amazing experiences at Google. But if I had to pick something I was most proud of, I might go back to before I was a journalist, in my early twenties, when I spent about half a year in India. I just sort of went; I didn’t know anybody there. I bought a plane ticket and landed in Bombay [now Mumbai]. I wanted to do something that went beyond being a tourist, but I didn’t know what. I ended up finding the opportunity to work for an organization that did interventions in small rural Indian towns to try to get 30,000 people above the poverty line. They would help these people grow mango forests or cross-breed cows to create their own dairies. I [wrote] profiles of the people who this group was helping. I got to spend two months in rural villages, finding my own translators, talking to different people who were in these situations. It wasn’t the best journalism or work I’d ever done, but early in my career, it was a really transformative experience.

To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.

Home page photo courtesy of Steve Grove.

MORE: The Software That Could Enable Drones to Go Mainstream

How Encouraging People to Move on Sparks Innovation

As the host of the “TED Radio Hour” on NPR, Guy Raz examines what it means to be a human being (or “an upright, advanced primate,” as he puts it): how we love, grieve, judge, create, imagine, and empathize. The approach stems from his experience as a journalist, during which he served as a foreign correspondent covering political conflicts across the globe, a defense correspondent reporting on the Pentagon and as host of “All Things Considered.” After witnessing an intense focus on differentiating people, Raz uses his radio show to create a community of individuals who believe in possibility and the desire to do better. He spoke with NationSwell at the Washington, D.C. headquarters of NPR.
What is the best advice that you’ve received on being a leader?
When you’re starting out as a journalist, it’s really hard. There’s a lot of failure and a lot of uncertainty because no one takes you seriously and most of your work gets rejected. There were moments when I was starting my career when I would write something and somebody here at NPR would see it. Maybe they wouldn’t read it, but they would see my byline, and they would say “Hey, great job. You’re doing great work.” And that meant the world to me. I really think about that a lot as somebody who’s been doing this for 18 years. When I see people starting out, I make an effort to acknowledge and recognize their work — to help them and to give them advice. Leadership is about passing it on — it’s as simple as that.
What do you wish someone would’ve told you when you first started your career that they didn’t?
I wish that someone would’ve told me that there’s so much uncertainty and combining it with being young and feeling vulnerable will mean that you will have some very tough times. Your whole life there’s a safety net, and everyone is encouraging you. Then you go out into the world and no one gives a shit because they don’t know anything about you. You’re just another 20-something in the city. The combination of that and the uncertainty of your future often causes periods of depression and anxiety.
When I was younger, I experienced anxiety and depression like I had never experienced in my life. I had gone from thinking I was relatively emotionally stable to being in a spiral in my early 20s. I wish I knew to expect that because it was so disorienting when it happened. It was a long time before I sought help. I think we do a disservice to young people, even more so now, because we don’t prepare them. We encourage them, and then that day is over and we send them out in the world. I don’t know what the answer is, but one step would be to have a conversation about it and understand that we set a lot of people up for a period of difficulty and disappointment.
How do you as a leader inspire others?
By helping people to realize their potential and what they want to do. I’ve always tried to be the kind of leader that encourages people to move on. Very rarely have I worked with the same people for more than three years. When the best, best, best people that work with me come and say that they want to try something new, of course, my first instinct is “I can’t lose this person,” but I’ve got to do it. So I always say, “let’s figure out how we can make that happen.”
What is your idea of a perfect day?
A day spent with my children and my wife. I know it’s a lame and clichéd answer, but I love being around them. I love watching my boys interact. They fight. They get along. They play. They hit each other. I just love being together with them. There’s nothing more meaningful than being around family.
What’s on your nightstand right now?
“Originals” by Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg, which is about original thinkers and how ideas form. “Presence” by Amy Cuddy; she’s a friend of mine and I love her TED talk about faking it ’til you become it. I’m reading “Napoleon” by Andrew Roberts, which is really great. [Napoleon was] an amazing guy. He created an apparatus that’s still in place in all of Europe — the school systems, the civil justice system, the criminal court system, the bureaucracy, the progressive nature of Europe. You could call him a dictator or an authoritarian. But by our standards, even today, he was incredibly progressive.
What is your all-time favorite book?
As a journalist, the most important book has been “Homage to Catalonia” by George Orwell. The reason why it’s so important isn’t because of the story, but because of what it represents. Orwell was a young communist and he went to Spain to fight with the communists. He grew to be incredibly disillusioned with them…and was still sympathetic to the ideals, but while most communists would’ve hid those feelings, he wrote in a very transparent way about the flaws of the movement that he believed in. And that, to me, is the mark of a great journalist — a person who is able to fight against their own biases and write something that is real and meaningful and truthful. He represents integrity as a writer that is unmatched.
The novel that’s really stuck with me is “Atonement” by Ian McEwan. It’s beautifully written. In recent years, I haven’t kept up with novels as best as I should, but I still think Ian McEwan is one of the greatest living writers.
What’s your proudest accomplishment?
To create two human beings. I always say that I’ve been really lucky. NPR has sent me to report from more than 45 countries. I’ve seen incredible things. I’ve been in remote villages of Afghanistan where I’m the first foreigner they’ve ever seen and a goat is slaughtered in my honor. [I’ve visited] tiny villages in Kosovo and places in Pakistan. I’ve been all over Iraq, and I’ve met incredible people, but there hasn’t been anything more interesting than watching my kids grow up. You see elements of yourself in them, and you try to correct it because you don’t want them to have your craziness. They’re the 2.0 version of you. You know your own flaws, but then you see your kids, and they’re just better at dealing with things. They’re more advanced versions of you, and it’s just cool.
What is something that people should know about you but don’t?
A few things. My wife and I did not have a wedding. We got married alone. I am really into making stuff at home. I make Kombucha. It’s very NPR of me. And I make a lot of plant milk. Today, I brought a bottle of Kombucha, a jar of vanilla hemp milk and a jar of vanilla oat milk to work. I do a kids news show every Friday, which is one the most fun things I do.
To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.
This interview has been edited and condensed. 

These Jailed Journalists Provide a Glimpse of Life Behind Bars

What if you had a chance to hear an inmate’s perspective on some of the country’s most controversial debates in the criminal justice system? Would you want to know how they feel about overcrowding in prisons or transgender relations behind bars?
In an effort to provide those incarcerated with a positive outlet, as well as giving the world well-reported journalism (held to the same standards as other established publications), the San Quentin News is fielding reporters from an unlikely place: California’s San Quentin Prison.
The staff of 15 — which is comprised of male felons serving time for crimes ranging from burglary and home invasion to murder and a Ponzi scheme — publishes a monthly newspaper with a circulation of 11,500 readers. The paper was founded in 1940, but six years ago, it was revived as a serious journalistic publication, according to the New York Times.
In a trailer next to the prison yard, reporters and editors pour over stories on topical issues including the availability of bras for transgender inmates and a federal court order regarding mental health care for death row prisoners.
Managing editor Juan Haines, 56, mandates his reporters use “boots on the ground” journalism in tackling tough issues.

“It’s about being heard in a place that’s literally shut off from the world,” said Haines, who is serving a sentence of 55 years to life for a bank robbery. “We can go right into the yard and get a quote about how inmates are affected by policy decisions.”

“The Pulse of San Quentin,” as the paper calls itself, is distributed to 17 prisons as well as the 3,855 people at San Quentin. Other topics covered include sports stories on the San Quentin Giants and the A’s as well as entertainment, baby announcements, man-on-the-street interviews and holiday greetings. For members of the public, an annual subscription costs $40.

MORE: Cooking Up Change at an Illinois Prison

The subscriptions, along with donations and grants, fund the printing and distribution. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations does not contribute any funding, but prison authorities approve all content. Earlier this year, the news operation was suspended for 45 days for swapping a photo without approval.

But the paper is not alone in its enterprise. Volunteers and students from the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkley offer editorial and research support. Richard Lindsey, a former staff member who received parole last year, also maintains his connection to the paper by pouring over studies from the Vera Institute of Justice, the Pew Research Center and other scholarly sources to assist reporters. Students from the Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership at UC Berkley have advised the staff on developing a 12-year business plan that includes increasing the number of paid subscribers to subsidize the paper for free copies for inmates.

“When they [prisoners] get involved and see they’re accomplishing something, that could be the one positive tick mark in the ‘good’ column for them,” said former San Quentin warden Robert L. Ayers, Jr.

With writing, he said, “they start expressing themselves in ways other than physical or violent means.”

Ayers revived the publication from the “inmate rant rag” it was into journalistic enterprise that it now is. Though he received pushback, he believes it’s an important outlet for San Quentin’s inmates.

“I’m just trying to give back, to deal with the rips and tears I’ve made in the universe,” said one of the staff members and inmate Glenn Padgett. The 50-year-old, known as Luke, stabbed a man to death and set fire to his home to conceal the crime at the age of 33.

But the work is more than a means of redemption. In fact, more recently the Northern California chapter of Society of Professional Journalists recognized the San Quentin News with one of its James Madison Freedom of Information Awards.

Perhaps it’s just an exercise of the mind for some reporters, but this newspaper is setting out to prove that sometimes the best form of journalism comes from giving a voice to the unheard.