Hope for stabilising the climate. Innovative new approaches to rehousing homeless people. ‘Upcycling’ rotten vegetables to help convert UV light into electricity. Lowest ever numbers of malaria deaths. Growing numbers of mountain gorilla, lion and elephant populations… It’s no wonder Positive News magazine’s readership is soaring, as people everywhere crave a restorative shot of hope in these dark days.
“We’ve actually had a really good year,” says Pauline Milligan, the magazine’s Chief Operating Officer, looking back on the beast that was 2020 and ahead to what 2021 may have in store, as we chat just before Christmas 2020.
“We’ve seen a big growth in our online audiences and subscriber numbers; a surge of interest in what we do,” she continues.
The quarterly magazine ‘for good journalism about good things’ was launched originally as a free newspaper back in 1993, by founder Shauna Crockett-Burrows, and has just published its 104th issue.
The ‘first media organisation in the world dedicated to quality, independent reporting about what’s going right’ has inspired countless others to follow, including growing sections in the mainstream press dedicated to reporting uplifting stories of success, breakthrough and possibility.
“I think because of the pandemic, finding stories of hope, innovation, solutions and resilience have felt even more necessary for people,” says Pauline. “We know about the effect the pandemic has had on people’s mental health – so reading stories that give hope, rather than getting caught in the constant spiral of bad news, can offer real support.”
Indeed, as the first UK lockdown hit last March, worry and anxiety understandably exploded as news outlets competed for the bleakest, most doom-laden headlines. Meanwhile, Positive News started looking for – you guessed it – more positive, constructive stories about responses to COVID, inspiring new community support projects, unexpected collaborations, reductions in air pollution and more.
“There was a huge appetite for that content,” Milligan says, noting that a gift subscription offer last spring was one of the most successful promotions they’ve ever run – perhaps a combination of people looking to cheer up friends and family, and the increased reading time of a population stuck at home.
After reflecting together on what’s gone and what may be to come (the day we spoke, the news of the first ever global vaccination had just broken), here are six inspiring thinking points plucked from our conversation:
“Part of the reason I was drawn to Positive News is because I’m generally quite an optimistic person – I believe in the possibility of change; I believe that humankind is generally good, but obviously with certain events it can knock your sense of optimism and things can begin to feel quite bleak. I’ve experienced periods of depression and anxiety and all those things myself. So to work for an organisation where we are focused on what is going right, I feel it has benefitted me personally.
I’ve worked in charities and social enterprise for most of my career, so I’ve always worked in organisations which are about social change and about doing something positive about social/environmental issues, but it definitely helps to work in a business that aligns with my own values and ideas about things.”
“I definitely don’t consume as much other media as I did before I started working at Positive News. I’ll look at headlines, so I get a sense of what’s going on, but without spending hours going down rabbit-holes of content which can make you feel quite disempowered.
My weak spot is Twitter. I still do sometimes find myself going down a bit of a Twitter rabbit-hole, but I do try to manage that for myself. But what I like about Twitter is I always find there’s quite a lot of comedy on there as well… just people generally taking the mickey out of whatever is going on, so the balance is good.”
“Retail sales have taken a hit this past year, particularly that April – June quarter of the first lockdown when everything was shut. We’re stocked in a lot of WHSmith stores, some Sainsbury’s, lots of independents. We kept going with most of the independents, but the main newsstand – Smith’s and Sainsbury’s, some Waitrose stores – we pulled through that period.
“But then we ran a campaign to use those copies. We decided we had all these copies and we had to make use of them, and we did a small Crowdfunder to get copies to NHS workers – people effectively donated in order for us to donate those copies to NHS workers. So we were able to make some good of the stock that we had – and we actually ended up having to do a reprint because the campaign was much more successful than the stock we had! So that was great. It also really helped spread the word of what we do, and boosted new subscriptions.”
“Most of our brand partners tend to be organisations that are very clearly driven by their social or environmental purpose. If you take, for example, Triodos Bank, it’s embedded in their whole business model. They know we can tell their stories well, and that our audiences are aligned.
But more and more, other businesses are looking at how they have to change. If you take Simple, for example. They’re a Unilever brand, they produce plastic waste, they’re a huge business.
But part of the reason we’re working with them is that they are taking a lot of steps to improve. They have a lot of 100% recycled plastic products now, biodegradable wipes and so on. Although they’re definitely not perfect, they are committed to improving.
My personal belief is that you’ve got to work with big organisations as well as smaller ones. Because if they make a change, the impact of that is going to be huge. And if they influence other brands to also make those changes, that’s where we’re going to see big, big change.”
“When we’re looking at a story, it’s about focusing on what’s being done about a problem. Whereas a lot of journalism is what the problem is, our starting point is always, ‘So what’s being done about this? What’s the solution? Where’s the story about how people are actually trying to do something about this?’
Because there are so many stories about how people are tackling social and environmental issues, so often those stories don’t get told. So we see our role as finding out what’s going right, what is being done about these things. And we want to make sure we’re uncovering interesting stories about change.”
“One of the things we’re constantly thinking about as an organisation is about providing hope. Because it’s absolutely vital to change; if people aren’t hopeful, they aren’t going to put the energy into trying to do things, to improving things. So providing that inspiration through telling those stories is really important.
It’s difficult not to feel overwhelmed sometimes, by so much of what’s going on in the world. But I definitely do still feel hopeful for the future. I think in the stories we tell, there are so many examples of that ingenuity. We tell a lot of grassroots stories, so some are smaller level projects but really interesting and involving fascinating people. But I think when you look at these, and think about all of them combined, that’s where I feel hope. We’re only telling the tip of the iceberg of all this amazing stuff that’s going on.
“As everybody’s been talking about, there’s been a massive reduction in carbon emissions during the lockdowns. It’s provided evidence of the fact that if people, and the government, really want to tackle these bigger issues, they can. There are ways of it happening. It’s not ideal, and of course it’s going to have other impacts. But when it really is necessary, there are things that can be done.”
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