David Bornstein: Solutions Journalist and CEO.
Why did you pivot from more traditional journalism?
For me, the main thing was seeing such distortion in the world wrought by traditional journalism’s narrative of brokenness. It’s often a hall of mirrors view of reality that distorts in predictable and clear ways, amplifying the most dangerous, threatening and ugly aspects of things. Historically, the role was to uncover wrongs and guard against complacency, but today a lot of journalism contributes to fatalism, depression and fear. People respond better to news that lets them understand all dimensions of the story, not just what’s going wrong, but what can be done about it. That’s what solutions journalism is focused on.
What are you doing now?
I am a co-founder and CEO of the Solutions Journalism Network. I work with our employees and partners and spend a lot of my time building and cultivating relationships with news organizations around the world. It’s all about seeing how we can work together to serve our mission, which is to support rigorous reporting on responses to social problems. I also co-write the New York Times Fixes column, which looks at efforts to solve social problems and why they work, or not.
What surprised you most about the transition you made?
Like most writers, I used to be more or less a solo operator. Solutions journalism is much more team oriented. We now have about 30 staff members and over 200 partnerships with news organizations around the world, and we’ve engaged with over 10,000 journalists. The change we’re trying to advance — getting journalists to see the value of spotlighting responses to social problems as well as the problems themselves — has proven to be quite contagious. That has been very rewarding. I enjoy seeing the work and successes of colleagues and partners just as much as I enjoy seeing my own byline.
How did you decide to pursue these specific opportunities?
I have always been interested in how problems get solved. Early in my career, I had an extraordinary opportunity to spend a year in Bangladesh researching a book about the Grameen Bank, the Nobel Peace Prize winning organization that pioneered the use of microloans to fight poverty. I saw that my competitive advantage as a young journalist was that I could go and take the time to get that story, and really dig into the details and nuances of implementation. At that time, I wasn’t married and didn’t have to worry about a mortgage or child care.
What do you see as the greatest challenges facing social entrepreneurs?
It’s not a new critique, but I see too much bypassing of government. There are exceptions, of course, of many efforts to work through government. Bill Drayton of Ashoka has been so effective because he’s worked in and with government, and many Ashoka fellows achieve major impact through policy change. But too many social change organizations focus on direct services, when, if they came together, they could work more powerfully advancing needed system changes. Historically in America, the most influential social entrepreneurs worked to advance policy changes, people like Susan B. Anthony and Asa Philip Randolph. In the last decade or two, you see a lot of people bypassing government because it can be slow and frustrating, and to be sure, government has become dysfunctional in many areas. There’s been much more of a focus on solving problems directly and through business. I see this as a big omission.
What do you believe are the most potentially impactful current initiatives?
Some of the most important things that have to happen are initiatives that help people deal with core questions about human well-being, like how we help people who have experienced trauma particularly early in life, or how we deal with community breakdown and loneliness. It’s blindingly obvious that many children are not getting what they need to be healthy physically and emotionally — basic things like attention from adults and the opportunity for free play in safe contexts. And it isn’t only kids. Something about modern society isn’t conducive to well-being. Loneliness and anxiety are disturbingly common. Depression is soon to be the #1 global illness, in terms of the burden of disease. Many of the social ills that make the headlines — like mass shootings — are attributable to mental health problems that have festered for years untended. So, I think the well-being framework is very important. The idea that we have to integrate concerns about health care, education, the job market and public safety so that individual and community well-being are seen to go hand in hand. For example, we know that kids fail at school because of stressors at home such as poverty, food and shelter insecurity, domestic problems and other concerns. Initiatives that take on the bigger picture about well-being could have enormous impact. As Adam Smith wrote, pin factories are good for producing lots of pins—but healthy people need whole, integrated solutions, not an assemblage of special services. We have more than enough single-focus entities and we keep everyone so busy in our society—who has the time to pull together whole solutions, especially for vulnerable people?
What general advice would you give to people trying to transition towards work that is more aligned with their values?
I find it valuable to do a life inventory. There’s a bunch of things we can discover about ourselves if we pay attention. What are your abiding interests? The environment, animal rights, budgets, spreadsheets, working with young children? Search your life for clues about your abiding interests — you will find them. These affinities usually overlap with your talents. What in this world grips you—whether it disturbs or moves you? Then, the other thing to think about is the moment in time—the historic opportunity. What is newly possible? For our generation, the wiring of the world we call the Internet is destabilizing everything — journalism, medicine, education, business, government, the very structure of human society. Looking for the convergence of your abiding interests, the world’s deep needs, and the emerging opportunities—can be helpful in finding your path.
Given your vast experience both professionally and personally, do you have a top 5 or 10 list of things that you would tell people if they would like to follow in your footsteps or follow a similar path?
-Work with people you respect, admire and love.
-Ask “what needs to happen?” before you ask “what can I do?”
-Then shift from “what can ‘I’ do?” to “what can ‘we’ do?” and play with how big the ‘we’ can be.
-Think of problems as a pot luck dinner situation. The art is for everyone to bring something that they make really well.
-Learn how to read and create a budget.
-Get comfortable asking for help.
David Bornstein is a journalist and author who specializes in writing about social innovation using a style called solutions journalism, which focuses on the responses to social problems. He has written three books on social innovation. He co-writes the Fixes column for the New York Times and is one of the co-founders and the CEO of the Solutions Journalism Network.