Journalists do what they do for lots of reasons. Some are natural storytellers, gossips even; others get a kick out of unsettling the mighty. Some simply want to find things out to satisfy their natural curiosity.
Most want to think their work has real-world impact, though I must confess that an awful lot of things I have written over the years have passed through this world without touching the sides.
But not always. One of the many joys of editing the Guardian’s Upside series – optimistic journalism that focuses on solutions, initiatives, innovations, people making a difference – is that it often ripples back out into the world it reported on, inspiring readers to take action, generating change for the better.
For me, this is urgently needed in a world where a surfeit of dismal news – a crisis crisis if you like – is demoralising audiences as never before. We surely won’t fix the world if we keep on telling people that everything is rotten, hopeless, unfixable.
While we have a duty to inform and educate society on where we are going wrong, we feel it is only proper we should point out where it is going right too. When we do, when we show what is possible, it can have a powerful virtuous effect on the lives of the people we write about.
For example, earlier this year, we published the story of a pioneering group of Yazidi women who set up a female-only community in Syria as a safe space from the hideous violence and abuse they had faced at the hands of Isis.
Within hours, emails were pouring in from readers asking how they could support the community. We gathered them together in a WhatsApp group and put them in touch with community leaders, so they could figure out how best to send money. One reader, Gill Whittaker, said the aim was “to do something together … Thus a more certain ‘upside’ outcome may be achieved”.
Another example: last year we wrote about the Remakery, a cafe in Edinburgh that also fixes your broken appliances while you wait. Almost 100,000 people shared the article on social media. The piece became part of a virtuous circle, with people around the world getting in touch with the owner, Sophie Unwin, asking how they could set up a franchise in their city.
“As a result of the piece I had more inquiries from across the UK (Nottingham, Brighton and elsewhere) and also internationally (one group in Montreal, others in the US) and I think a few others in Europe and New Zealand too,” Unwin told us. “Some people directly referenced the Guardian feature and said they found it inspiring.
“We’ve received other funding and are in conversation with other potential partners – there is a lot of interest. I would argue that the article also helped raise the wider agenda, as evidenced by news like Ikea’s work on the circular economy. Repair culture is moving more into the mainstream, which has always been one of the aims of this work.”
When we wrote about an obscure cleric who drives around Iran’s poorest province bringing books to children, enough people were touched to club together and buy him a new car for his rounds.
“This was a particularly cheering and hopeful piece in a climate of nastiness and Brexit tedium,” wrote Paul MacGowan. “I wonder if you could let me know if it’s possible for me to send donations to support his work?”
A piece about paint recycling prompted no end of tips (and jokes) from readers. An article about an African environmentalist generated offers of legal support and a UN promise to champion her case. A focus on tree-planting in Niger brought inquiries from farmers in southern Africa. Best practice doesn’t always spread itself.
The Upside has sought to deepen this connection between readers and subjects through a weekly newsletter, which attracts a prodigious digital mail bag each week. We continuously encourage our 30,000 subscribers to get in touch with alternatives, ideas and suggestions. When they do, others can be moved to get involved.
“One of the pleasures was reading about the Green Ukhiya Star Team in The Upside,” wrote Beverley Colgan recently, referring to a little known Bangladeshi group planting 1m trees in the country’s south-east. “I went to their Facebook page but it had no big, obvious ‘contribute’ button.” We put Beverley in touch with the tree planters.
Readers come up with great solutions, too. When we asked what people were doing to cut their carbon, we had hundreds of responses. The innovative things individuals are doing in a dozen countries around the world prompted more readers to write in and commit to flying less, cycling more or eating less meat.
When we asked people for their favourite foreign word that is hard to render into English, it threw up many ideas, notions, tendencies and instincts that some cultures have that others could benefit from. (My own favourites: saudade, turangawaewae, philotimo).
The media must recognise it shapes the world we live in, as well as reflecting it. Hyperbolic coverage of terrorists and school shooters and people who take their own lives will encourage copycats. Hysterical coverage of populism, recession and mental illness risk turning into self-fulfilling prophecy.
When we report progress, more progress ensues. What better way to change the world?