Investigative solutions reporting and Our Kids

Steve Volk
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A little bit about the work I do...

As the investigative solutions reporter at Resolve Philly, it’s my job to spearhead the Our Kids project, covering the foster care system with a level of dedication the subject normally doesn’t receive. The investigative solutions piece actually takes time to grow into (I’m still doing it), which is fascinating to me. 

Let me back up a step. I write long-form journalism and have my entire career—juicy narratives in which a protagonist meets an obstacle and the story tracks their attempts to surmount it. This way of thinking about stories lends itself to solutions journalism in the best imaginable way. I am used to locating problems, finding the person central to solving them, and telling the story through their eyes. Still, this reframing of my work—to try and foreground solutions—has forced me to think in new ways.

Ideally, each story should begin with that “solution” character—the person pursuing the potential fix—but that is easier to commit to, conceptually, than to achieve when writing a specific story for any one of our 20-plus partners.

In my work, as I encounter problems in the system, I have to:

1. Survey the people advancing proposed solutions.

2. Win the cooperation of one of them, preferably the one with the most promising solution.

3. Immerse myself in their story and their solution.

4. Vet that solution and compare it to the other solutions in the field. This requires a rigorous examination of the central narrative itself, and the willingness to be critical of the very person/organization I first appealed to for cooperation. It also requires a fairly deep reading of the available research and interviews with some “outside” experts—meaning, people not vested in the solution—yet “in” the field, so I am sure they know what they are talking about. Notice step 4 here is super long.

5. I also need to find an editor at one of our partner pubs that is eager to take the project on, and do it in the exact way Resolve prefers. So far, we’ve got great partners so that part has worked out.

6. At the end, the reader should feel like they have met someone who is pursuing a worthy and important goal, and they should be aware of how their work is succeeding or failing, why it bears promise and its evident flaws.

7. There is a prohibition in solutions journalism against hero worship. I think this is entirely right, and it’s also a bit of a struggle. I’m a reporter, for 20-plus years now. I meet people doing heroic things all the time, and it’s my job to find them. I think people are even more heroic for accomplishing whatever they do in spite of their flaws. And so I interpret this dictum as rather nuanced. Like, I get it, but you also cannot tell me these people are not heroes.

I think I have really only hit the right mark, in terms of delivering what to me is this classic solutions journalism template, three or four times so far. The challenge of this work is also what makes it fun.

There are a couple of other things I do and would like to note: I sort of manage the project, though I lean on the support of numerous people here, including J- and G- Gene, Cassie, Julie, Aubrey and Derrick as the most notable crew. I come up with ideas of how it might look and where it might go, and rely on their judgment to tell me if an idea is good and workable or not.

I am, additionally, putting together an Our Kids podcast.

I also consider myself, maybe most fundamentally, an ambassador. It is my job to represent this “new” way of doing journalism, to the public and to our partners. I strive to be a pleasure for partners to work with, to make collaboration appealing, and I strive even harder to be respectful to the community and network of sources—also known as people—I am utterly reliant on to report anything at all.