Transcript #34 Lucy Purdy: Positive News and How To Change The World

Hello - and welcome to the first episode of 2019! Today's episode features a conversation I had with Lucy Purdy, the editor of Positive News Magazine at the end of last year. 

Positive News uses the approach of Constructive Journalism to highlight the issues that need tackling in the world and also offer solutions, or highlight people that are working on solutions. It is about agency rather than fear mongering. 

Shameless plug alert: I was also featured in the latest edition of Positive News (#96) in a feature called 'The Solutions Generation' which I'm very excited about - so do go and buy the latest edition :)

Listen to our conversation here

Lucy: My name is Lucy Purdy and I'm the editor of Positive News Magazine. I've been involved to some degree for about 5 years. I first got involved when I was a freelance journalist and then gradually went from writing to doing a bit of subbing and editing and then became editor about 2 years ago.

I previously worked in local newspapers up in Warwickshire. That was my first job. Then in north London. Then I went freelance and started following my nose a bit, in terms of what I wanted to write about. Which was issues to do with the environment, about food growing, gardening, that kind of thing, as well as more 'newsy' stuff. I found this publication one day called Positive News and though, 'This sounds really good'. So I've been involved for a while.

Marcus: What is it that you like about Positive News?

Lucy: As a journalist at that time it was quite a novel thing. I had quite a traditional news training, which means that I was really trained to hold power to account, to ask people difficult questions, for interviews to be quite adversarial, that kind of thing. So coming across Positive News and realising that it wasn't fluffy, feel good content, but it was actually proper journalism, just with a focus on solutions it just felt really new, interesting and exciting. It was something that I really wanted to be part of.

Marcus: Something that I found when I was exploring my own relationship with depression, it was around the time of Brexit, which I think is complicated for many people, and I just felt watching the news and reading in the media, was a constant cycle of how terrible the world is. People being stabbed. People embezzling. Wars happening. Conflict. I didn't really feel that it was good for fostering good mental health in myself so I just switched off and stopped watching. I wondered what relationship do you see yourself with traditional media and where does Positive News fit into that?

Lucy: It's really interesting that you say that because a lot of people come to us after doing the same thing. After they have switched off, that's either from buying the newspaper, listening to the radio, watching the 10 o'clock news, that sort of thing, but they have this sense that they still want to be informed about what is going on in the world. So they come to us with that mindset of wanting to know what's going on but also being left with a sense of what they might be able to do about it, or what is being done about it, or potential solutions.

While much of the mainstream press focuses on what is going wrong, we try to focus on what is going right, but not in a really simplistic way. We say we focus on progress, possibility and solutions. I think there is a really human need in us to want to know what is going on and I think negative news sells really easily because of this inbuilt desire to be aware of danger. To be aware of the things that we need to be able to survive in the world, so negative headlines do really grab attention.

With Positive News we really do try to come at it from the understanding that inspiring awe also does the same thing. There are studies that point to that. It can be as powerful, but it just isn't done so much. It's kind of an untapped field, but it is growing. It is often referred to as Constructive Journalism, within the industry. The kind of journalism we try to do is not superficial, we hope. It is using the traditional techniques of journalism - interviewing, fact checking, research, all those kind of things in a rigorous and quality way, but applying those techniques to drawing out what is being done.

Marcus: Do you think it is having a positive effect on society? Have you seen in the past 5 years since being here, changes within society?

Lucy: It's hard to say on that sort of scale, but we know anecdotally from readers that it has a big impact on people's lives. They say that they want to be kept informed, but in a way that doesn't leave them feeling completely disempowered and hopeless. So we try and draw out examples of compassion, of kindness, of people working together in inspiring ways, of solutions. We don't try and present things as 'This is the solution' on a particular topic, but it is just a way of showcasing people that are trying.

I think that is really important, because that is part of what humanity does. Yes, things go wrong. There is war, there is famine, there is corruption, there are all sorts of terrible things and difficult experiences that people go through, but I think that there is another side to the coin. That is that people are capable of amazing things as well and of working together in often very difficult circumstances, and of coming up with solutions to really, really difficult problems. So we just feel like it is not a true reflection of humanity if we only focus on the negative side. We need to show that other side too.

In response to your question, even in the time that I have been involved with Positive News it is an approach that has really been gaining traction within the industry. Now some of the quite major news organisations, like the Guardian, the Huffington Post, the BBC, are experimenting with this kind of journalism. Whereas before it was often the And finally... bit on the bulletins, so maybe a quite superficial story of a cat being rescued or something like that, I think it is now being taken much more seriously. More resources are being committed to it. I think there is still a long way to go before we achieve much more of a balance, but I think it is being taken seriously. I like to thing we had a small part to play in that.

Marcus: So do you think that economics still plays a bit part in the type of journalism that is put out into the world?

Lucy: Yes, it's really interesting. I think traditionally that has been what sells. Bad news sells. People's reaction to Positive News is often 'that's quite nice and everything, but quite naive. The world is not really like that'. Which I completely understand.

I think news is also undergoing a crisis financially anyway. Obviously the ad driven revenue models of yesteryear are really crumbling, so it is actually a really interesting time to look at new ways of doing things. Our ownership structure, for example, is quite interesting. We are actually a co-operative, owned by 1500 of our readers around the world. A few years ago we ran a crowdfunding campaign and the people that brought shares are kind of 'reader/co-owners', so it means that we are completely accountable to them. It was a way for us to raise investment for us to grow as an organisation, but it also meant that we were able to grow without being controlled by a big corporation or a wealthy proprietor. So we are basically democratically controlled by the people that we are here to serve. We are a fairly small team, with limited resources. We'd love to have banks of journalists on every continent, but we are starting small.

It is really exciting to see other publications, not necessarily in constructive journalism, but other independent magazines and things like that, really coming up with new and exciting ways to make money, that aren't dependent on the stereotypes and assumptions of old. Negative news is definitely one of them.

Marcus: So that funding structure and the way that the magazine is fundamentally run I guess has a big effect on the ethos of the whole magazine. You read a lot about the big major big major news organisations all being owned by oligarchs and billionaires, which obviously has an effect. So if you can democratise it more, then I guess it really enables you to make real changes and not be controlled by market forces so much.

Lucy: Yes, I mean it is going well for us. Our reader numbers are growing, we were in newsprint before, but we changed into magazine format about 2 years ago and it is a much more high quality magazine. We try and keep the design to a really high standard, and try and make it something that is a news and current affairs publication, but also something that is beautiful. We think that the news is something that can be beautiful as well.

Our circulation is now around 13,000 in total, with about 5000 subscribers, which is an improvement even on last year. We are now stocked in WH Smith stalls around the country.

Marcus: Yes, I see it more now. I guess these would usually have been more in specialist magazine shops before. I know in Brighton there is a really nice magazine shop, called Magazine Brighton, that sells really beautiful magazines that I go in a lot, because I don't usually expect to find those sort of magazines on the shelves of WH Smith. I saw it in the train station WHSmith yesterday and I thought that to me indicates some sort of change.

I think it is also interesting what you said about people saying, It's all very well and good having positive news but the world isn't really like that. But then you also said that it is not just fluffy, feel good stories, it is about solutions. That's the difference, because actually the content in Positive News isn't always positive stuff. It is telling you about wars, and famines and poverty. I mean, all of the positive stories ar based in something which could easily be spun into These are the problems and we are all doomed. But it is not. I think it creates agency for people to be like Yes, these things are happening, but what use is just sitting and complaining when you could get out and realise that you are part of society, you are society, you are the world, you can change it.

Lucy: Yes, like you say, for us what is the use of ignoring the major things that are going on, because that means we are irrelevant. Like I say, we are now in WH Smith and things like that and a big part of our aim is to become more mainstream, but I think to be relevant we need to cover things that people are really grappling with and that society is really grappling with.

To give you a few examples, in our last issue we covered the topic of porn which we feel is a really big and growing topic that is kind of under the surface and not really spoken about that much, maybe even less so than mental health, I don't know. But the sheer numbers involved and the sheer availability of it on the web we were like Right, I think that is a topic. But instead of just saying so many teens are watching porn at whatever age or its having this impact on relationships or whatever, which we did cover, but we also wanted to look at what is being done about it. So I interviewed, for example, a married couple who it turned out the guy had a problem with porn which kind of came out of the blue for them. So we talked about how they coped with that, and interviewed some of the organisations that have set up to help people, I think experts disagree whether or not it is an addiction, but it certainly has these addictive qualities and we thought that was a relevant and growing topic.

I have also interviewed former far right nationalists who have previously committed acts of racial motivated violence, and I've spoken to them about leaving those movements. They are known as Formers, and there is a network of them around the world that try and help people who are in similar situations leave those movements as they have. We felt that that was a really ugly topic in certain ways, but one that if you can show what certain people are capable of and that they have really rethought their choices and their pasts and shown themselves capable of making such inspiring changes, that that is really worth of being reported on.

Marcus: So have you heard stories of people getting in contact with you about things that they have directly been inspired to do because of the journalism that you focus on?

Lucy: Yes, we've had some really good ones. I have to try and think of one now!

We've certainly heard of readers who have set up schemes in their local area, one that springs to mind is when we reported on the Pumpkin Rescue Campaign and somebody set up one recently and got the local community involved. It was a real success and she just read an article and thought that she could do that too.

Marcus: What is a Pumpkin Rescue Campaign?

Lucy: We published an article about it around Halloween time. It's a campaign driven by a London campaign group, called Hubbub, and they inspire people to do something useful with the pumpkins after Halloween, rather than just throwing them away. So cooking with them, or composting them, or getting the community together to make something good out of them.

In a much more general sense, we get people get in touch to say that the magazine has just slightly altered their sense of what is possible. It might be a small thing, but I think it can have a big impact on how you see the world. I know as a journalist and Positive News editor, that not everything has a bright side and we don't want to find the positive side of a topic if there just isn't one, but I think it has encouraged me to look at things slightly differently. Like, Okay, that is really difficult but what could be done about it. What could happen if we all maybe focus on that a little bit more rather than just what the problem is and how terrible and disempowered it is making us feel.

Marcus: What's your view on making small changes? Do you think they are important?

Lucy: Funnily enough that was the cover story of our last issue. So we zoomed in on that topic in more detail. That idea of Well, if I recycle my plastic bottle or use a reusable bottle, what good is that if billions of people around the world are using a plastic bottle everyday and throwing it away? Or What happens if I try and be nice to the person on the bus, but they are just miserable and it doesn't go anywhere?

It was a really interesting exploration of that really. We interviewed people like Mark Williamson from Action for Happiness, and people from the kindness offensive and things like that as well. We also included some small acts that we used as examples as ways to test this theory. The consensus seems to be, and everyone will have their own view on this, was that they really do add up. That taking a positive action is a step towards a wider change.

I don't know how you feel about this, Marcus, but if you take the Ripple Effect. There is often something more tangible than what we can see on the surface level. It isn't about being model citizens all the time, or living perfect lives, because obviously the world isn't like that, but if you just put some attention on what could go wrong or how you can contribute that's a really good first step in changing things for the better.

Marcus: I believe in that, I'm a big believer in small changes. I come across that view quite a lot, that I'm just one person, so what is the point? What affect can I have? It sort of makes me feel sad when I hear people say that, because it seems to be completely denying your own sense of agency and your own ability to affect the world. I think maybe it is a symptom of the individualistic way we have come to view society, because, yes, by myself, if it was just me doing this, then that would have very little effect. But if millions of individual people start to do something... well, not even millions, just a small group.... then that becomes more than just yourself. I think that by doing those small things you are likely to inspire others to do them too. That is how change happens.

Lucy: I think change can also happen more quickly than we imagine. Just thinking back to the last year with movements like the #MeToo movement and the campaigning around single use plastic, just how quickly the general public consciousness seems to have shifted on that. Obviously, it remains to be seen whether that leads to long lasting change and obviously there are so many interconnected topics and they are all complex, but to me that is really inspiring. That things can ramp up so quickly.

Marcus: Have you seen the Extinction Rebellion stuff? Because that seems to have exploded suddenly. I'd like to explore and follow that more. I haven't really been around in London recently.

Lucy: It has been quite visible, and I think they have done a great job at literally just having that idea that they wanted to do something and that they felt the real urgency, and this is how they want to tackle it and they have just gone along and done it. It has been a very visible and tangible campaign. I think that is so inspiring.

Also with what you are doing too with Ministry of Change. You found yourself in this position, you followed your heart, one thing led to another, the project is now gathering pace. That is just one person but it's really inspiring. To really step into that “where will it lead? I'm not sure, but let's go for it”.

Thanks for reading! Planets form and die in the time it takes me to type out each transcript, so if you found reading this useful then please do consider supporting my work by visiting my Patreon page. Danke, Marcus