A problem statement for journalism

Jun 14 2017

One of the best things about Pitch Day is hearing about the problems that our teams have uncovered in the course of a semester. Some of the products from Pitch Day continue on when the afternoon ends, while others complete their runs. But regardless of the fate of each project, we can take important lessons about the problems that communities and media organizations face.

Our judges and audience at Pitch Day aren’t unfamiliar with the problems that journalism face. They’re GMs of TV stations, and editors and publishers of newspapers. They’re all community members, with the information needs of community members. We don’t expect to introduce them to problems they aren’t aware of. But we hope to clarify the ones at hand by turning problems into problem statements.

Our students learned about problem statements at the beginning of the semester, when Shiva Rajaraman came to visit. As Ryan noted in his post, Shiva’s problem statement Mad Libs was: “When I am (in) [situation], I want to [motivation], so I can [outcome].”

We tweaked it a bit, so the sentence that our interns were trying to fill out was: “[Group of people] in [situation] need [problem to be solved] so [outcome].”

The task seems pretty simple— Create a sentence that indicates a problem. But early in the semester, our teams realized that problem statements aren’t as clearly defined as they seem.

A Reese News Lab student works on her group's problem statement.

Problem statements and axolotls

After they created their problem statements, the students began to brainstorm— how could they actually solve those problems? And that’s where the teams found themselves hitting a wall. When people’s problems are so far-reaching and diverse, how do you solve them with one–and one economically sustainable–solution?

You can’t.

You can’t be all things to all people. That’s we tell our interns. And problem statements should prevent you from trying to do so.

Let’s take Chatham Connection‘s problem statement as an example. How did their pitch fill in the blanks of our problem statement Mad Libs?

Group of People: Chatham County residents

Situation: Find out about new developments in their community

Which part of Chatham County? We learned during our visit that there are parts of Chatham County that don’t have internet access. Residents of those areas will have different barriers than other residents.

Problem to be solved: They need access to information about employment, laws, the school system, and the community.

These are all pretty specific needs. But information about employment, laws, the school system, AND the community will look quite different. Features that fill each of these needs are different.

Outcome:  so they can have a smooth transition.

What does a smooth transition look like? Does it look like a full-time job? Good grades for their kids?

It might seem like I’m nitpicking. What’s wrong with helping immigrants with all their problems? Why do we have to limit ourselves? After all, a newspaper can cover education, and employment, and laws— and all the rest— in one product.

It’s a lot easier to brainstorm and develop one feature at a time. How do you help an immigrant access information about employment, laws, the school system, AND the community? That’s a tall order. How would you measure the success of the corresponding product?

Now, how do you help an non-English-speaking immigrant get a job so that they can support their family? That’s a more tangible problem with specific need that has to be filled. And that’s a lot easier to wrap your head around.


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