Solutions Journalism within a Shaky Media Landscape: An Interview with Evette Dionne of YES! Media
To understand the astronomical shift in media consumption over the past several years, one needs only to look at the trends in local newspaper readership. From 2015 to 2020, weekday circulation of local newspapers in the U.S. dropped by 40% and Sunday circulation dropped by 45%. Many of these struggling publications have been bought up by private equity funds, hedge funds, and other newly formed investment partnerships, which generally lack journalistic backgrounds and interest in local enrichment. Their focus is on quick profit instead of quality journalism, and communities are suffering as a result.
Pull that focus back to a national level, and the picture is just as bleak. Audiences have a low level of trust in news media organizations, and Americans under 30 are almost as likely to trust information on social media as they are to trust information from national news outlets.
The great news is that independent nonprofit news organizations have gained steam on a local and national level. These organizations, largely supported by foundations and individual giving, aren’t obligated to consistently and rapidly grow their bottom lines. They’re perpetuating a model of journalism free from the trappings of market pressures, and they’re filling the void left behind by shuttered traditional newsrooms.
YES! Media has been traversing the media’s choppy waters for 27 years. As an independent nonprofit publisher, the organization has consistently prided itself on publishing high-quality, solutions-focused journalism. YES! seeks to be a constructive part of essential conversations, and while it has managed to stay afloat without sacrificing its values, its success hasn’t come easily.
We had the opportunity to sit down with Evette Dionne, YES! Media’s executive editor for nearly a year. Hired after a short stint at Netflix, Dionne’s experience is largely in journalism that tells the important stories from which other organizations shy away. She spent more than four years as the editor-in-chief at Bitch Media, a feminist storytelling organization focused on pop culture. Today, she’s ushering in YES! Media’s new wave of editorial direction and journalism that speaks to audiences ready to change the world.
What was it about working with YES! that appealed to you?
The idea of doing solutions journalism. I’ve been a journalist for more than a decade, and journalism tends to focus on the problem. It’s rare that people, especially ordinary citizens, are empowered with the knowledge and the information to try to fix problems in their communities. What appealed most to me about YES! was moving to the other side. Instead of just saying, “Police violence is an issue,” it’s, “Here’s what we can do about police violence. Here’s how we can approach it. Here are different things that have worked. Here are things that are not working. Here are solutions that you can scale.”
Has YES! always been dedicated to solutions-focused journalism?
YES! began on Bainbridge Island, Washington, 27 years ago. Originally, their focus was mostly on how to bring people together in ways that allow communities to build toward solutions.
The earlier iterations of YES! were focused a lot on the environment and climate change. Over time, it’s evolved to be more social-justice and racial-justice focused. It’s not just about whether it’s possible for us to come together to make things happen, but rather, what are the impediments to that? Often the impediments are around class and race and gender and gender identity. The newer iteration of YES! focuses a lot on if a solution will work for the most marginalized among us. If it works for the most marginalized among us, then we can scale it.
How do you envision YES! as part of the broader media landscape?
I think one of the things that YES! is trying to orient ourselves around is moving from taking a broad view of the issues. Even though the publication has been solutions-focused, it’s really been this broad view. We’re learning how to go from that to being embedded in movements and being an outlet for organizers and lobbyists and people who are on the ground involved in these issues. We want to allow them to speak their piece and explain the reasons why it’s important to become involved from that ground view. I would say that’s really the mission and the purpose now. Instead of being on the advocacy side, we want to move into the activist element of it.
Could you tell us a little bit about your editorial process and how you determine which stories to tell?
Actually, you’re asking me this question at the right time because we’re switching it up. In addition to becoming executive editor, I’m now responsible for our strategy, which means overseeing our content vision, overseeing our strategy and how we do what we do. A lot of it now is around intentionality.
We come together collectively to determine the stories we are going to pursue and the reasons why. Sometimes we want to reach a broader audience, and sometimes we want to deepen our relationship with an audience that we already have. Sometimes we want to start to build relationships with particular audiences, and it’s important to create and publish stories that appeal to them.
We’re in a really unique place because we’ve been doing this a certain way for so long. Our editors have been on beats for a long time. This shift asks them to come out of their beats and asks us to come together collectively to decide what we want to do. Our test run of doing that was the magazine. We have shortened the number of stories that are in each issue, and we come together to decide which are the best stories around the theme that we can pursue. It requires us to do a lot more soliciting, which is also a change. Typically, we were a pitch-driven organization. Now, it’s all around this idea of being more intentional in the kinds of stories we’re pursuing.
YES! has never been and will never be a breaking-news organization. That’s not what it exists for. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t become a part of news cycles. Consider what happened to Jordan Neely on the subway. People may feel hopeless in that situation. We might tell the story of how to become a better bystander in that situation, for instance. We’re really infusing ourselves into those sorts of situations and being more timely by looking at the landscape and saying, “Okay, that’s important. What is the solutions angle?”
Then we find the right writer for the story and the right sources, and then we present it to our audience as almost definitive: “This is our single story about this.”
I always say we’re building toward a quality rather than quantity model. There’s no need to keep producing, producing, producing. We can take our time and be the definitive story around a single issue. That’s worth our time. So that’s the way I’m trying to shift our team to think about it in our organization.
Which recent stories are resonating with your audience the most?
We did a story about the importance of ethnic grocery stores, and people loved it. I think that’s because one of the things that solutions journalism fills people up with is a sense of hope. I frequently quote the abolitionist Mariame Kaba: “Hope is a discipline.” Sometimes you just need something like a bright spot. Something to read that makes you feel warm and fuzzy. It’s a solutions story. But it’s not a solution to an evil problem that is keeping you up at night.
The story talks about the need for people from marginalized communities to go to a grocery store and feel like they’re at home. They have all the things they need to prepare their cultural cuisines. There is a problem there, clearly, but the solution is also fuzzy and warm. It makes people feel good, which is always good.
Do you see any other trends within your audience?
I’m a big data person. I believe a lot in using data and analytics to tell a story about what audiences care about. Instead of just throwing spaghetti at the wall, we can use data to guide the decisions we make about what stories to pursue, especially when we have limited resources.
The thing that we found on the digital end, in particular, was that those audiences care a lot about racial-justice-focused stories, far more than anything else. I wish I could see that more around body politics, around reproductive justice, around gender identities and the attacks on trans people in our world. Audiences tend not to care as much about that, which is interesting to me.
Does that data influence the types of stories you tell?
Yes and no. Data can inform, but it’s not definitive. There are times when all the metrics tell us that we shouldn’t do something, and we do it, and people love it. Data can inform a picture, but it’s not the entire picture. That’s where editorial instinct needs to come in. We might publish a story that only 10 people read, and then publish another story in that same realm, tweak an SEO headline or tweak a social headline, tweak a social image, and it can make the difference between a story performing well and not performing well.
Sometimes a story’s success isn’t about the topic or the sources. It’s not the writers. Sometimes it’s completely out of your hands. Sometimes it’s algorithms. I think part of this is also figuring out distribution. How do you reach people? Being beholden to tech really sucks in that way, which is why YES! is really big on newsletters and direct-to-reader communication.
Do you have a favorite type of story to tell or a favorite format to tell a story in?
I love to tell stories in video format. I think that we’re in a time when we have to meet people where they are. I get asked quite a bit about combating disinformation. So often people are consuming things in video form, and they assume if they see it on TikTok or YouTube, that means it’s accurate. I think a solution to combat that is presenting things in video format that are fact checked, copy edited, and reviewed, and are taking on these big issues of the day in a format that is compatible with what people are looking for.
What’s your ideal future media landscape?
My ideal feature media landscape involves a lot of co-ops and a lot of worker-owned publications. Indie publications that are taking journalism back to its roots. One of the things that really gets my goat is everything being called “journalism” when it’s not.
I think moving into those financial models where you’re not relying on advertising allows you to hold power to account. It also provides space for more people from marginalized communities to get into leadership roles because they don’t really have to play the same political games that you have to play at a legacy publication.
My future of media really takes seriously the purpose of informing and educating the public and doesn’t play footsie with fascists.
How can we take the steps to get to that future?
I think it’s really important to support your local news. They’re being bought by conglomerates. They’re being decimated. If there’s an alternative to a news source bought by a billionaire conglomerate in your local community, support them, because that’s where you’re going to get accurate, real information about what’s happening in your community.
We need to put pressure on legislators to start to control disinformation, whatever that could look like. We know that public television is owned and regulated by the federal government through the FCC. That should start to happen in digital media as well.
And then support unions. Support the folks who are helping people secure jobs and build careers, especially in the digital media landscape. My biggest worry is how much brilliance journalism is going to lose because the financial models don’t allow people to have financial security and job security for long periods of time.
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