Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #190. First published in the St. Cloud Times online May 7, 2023; in print May 14

Newspapers print obituaries. While everything else is in flux these days, people still routinely die, and the public wants to know. Friends tell me the obits are always the first thing they go to.

What is new is obituaries for newspapers themselves. Almost daily we hear of some publication that has gone from ER to ICU, and too often their next stop is the morgue.

The Times is hanging on, though without any local staff. We Writers Group members are all that’s left of “local.” Each of our columns is headed by “This piece expresses the view of its author(s), separate from those of this publication” – but for many months now, with no local editorial board, “the view of … this publication” has been AWOL.

There’s talk of hiring reporters, but it’s unlikely we’ll see a return to the days when there were separate government, business, education, sports, and even religion beats.

The First Amendment shows that the Founders understood the critical role of a free press in a democracy. But to have a free press, you first have to have a press. The drastic decline in the number of papers – both a precondition for and a consequence of the “us” vs. “them” polarization that so bedevils America – is widely lamented as a threat to our national identity.

I recently learned of a venture that helps fill the void, and actually may also aid revitalization of publications like the Times.

Nora Hertel, a name Times readers will recognize – government and investigations reporter here from 2017 to 2021 – is founder and executive director of “Project Optimist: Stories that inform and inspire,” an online digital publication with a nonprofit structure. She is currently an Initiators Fellow of the Little Falls-based Initiative Foundation, an award that recognizes social entrepreneurship. On learning this, I asked Nora what she is up to.

A clue is in her mission statement: “Project Optimist strives to engage residents of greater Minnesota to help them collaborate across common divides, tackle seemingly intractable problems and grow more optimistic about the future of their communities, region and world.” I noted the active verbs: engage, collaborate, tackle, grow.

Nora replied: “In traditional journalism we go for agitating words that trigger emotions like anger and frustration. When I covered elections I ransacked the thesaurus, looking for different ways to say ‘battle’ or ‘challenge.’ Now my focus is ‘solutions journalism’; it’s designed to bring people together, using words that engage them positively. I was trained to tell both sides of the story, sure, but we’ve gotten into the habit of highlighting the most polarized voices because they are the ones taking the microphone. I am searching for more people in the middle and trying to focus on problem-solving.”

The term “solutions journalism” piqued my interest, as does Project Optimist’s goal of “pairing inspiration with information.” I asked Nora what features of an event or situation or problem would lead her to hear solutions journalism saying, “You need to tell this story.”

“First, in no way am I acting alone,” she replied. “I use the official definition from the Solutions Journalism Network: ‘rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems, which includes these key elements: response to a social problem, what has worked and what hasn’t; insight on what can be learned from the response and why it matters to the audience; evidence, that is, data that indicates effectiveness (or not); limitations – don’t shy away from revealing shortcomings.’ In no way is solutions journalism ‘fluffy.’ It’s evidence-based, but with a different center of gravity. It’s just as scrupulously objective as traditional reporting.”

At the Project Optimist website I found a story by Nora that demonstrates this kind of journalism: “Waste not: How the St. Cloud recovery facility turns wastewater into green products.” “’NEW [nutrients, energy, and water] Recovery Facility’ used to be known as ‘wastewater treatment.’” Now it produces valuable products plus all the energy it uses. The politics, economics, and science that converged to generate this change can be replicated elsewhere.

Project Optimist’s stories, often illustrated by local artists, are available online, and can be picked up by anyone and any newspaper, including the Times.

As our conversation wrapped up, I was reminded of what Jacqueline Bussie, executive director of the Collegeville Institute (a job I had long ago), has written: “Because of the prevalence of bad news in the world, we should become hard-boiled hope-detectives who follow hope around every day in our tricked-out panel van complete with surveillance equipment, forensics lab, and flashlights. We are looking for clues of everywhere hope was last seen. Like all good detectives, we need to interview witnesses.”

Nora Hertel is a hard-boiled hope detective in Central Minnesota. She’s also an EMT, with skills and equipment for resuscitating the press. Good for her. Lucky for us.