Why PRI is keeping an eye out for stories of resilience

When David Beard took the helm as executive editor of PRI.org last year, he and his colleagues contemplated new avenues for the website to explore.

They came across an initiative, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, called “100 Resilient Cities.” The project highlighted major metropolitan areas that had recently faced turmoil and provided those cities with resources to overcome the pressures they faced.

It would serve as one of the inspirations for PRI’s own loosely-knit series about resilience and the people who embody that ideal.

“Resilience stories fit in with our whole philosophy,” Beard told ivoh by telephone. “It’s our whole ethos here, to look for a different kind of story. And it gives listeners and readers a reason to explore the world and see what a great, awesome, and sometimes sad place it is.”

Dave Beard

Beard, who was formerly the digital content director at The Washington Post, joined PRI.org at a moment of change. Public Radio International, the nonprofit media company that runs PRI.org, lost some of its flagship radio programs in the last half decade.

In 2012, the BBC World Service terminated its 26-year partnership with PRI. The popular radio show This American Life also severed its ties in 2014, after 17 years with the company. The intervening time was marked by a slump in PRI’s audience numbers.

But with the changes came new possibilities. In 2013, not long before Beard arrived, PRI re-launched its website to better serve its digital audience. Its Web traffic was starting to spike.

As Beard prepared to enter his new role, general manager Michael Skoler told the Poynter Institute that PRI’s new website was pulling in 1 million unique visitors per month. That was a significant leap from the 390,000 views the site reported only a year prior. (Skoler is also an Images & Voices of Hope trustee.)

Beard was charged with maintaining the upward momentum, as the site’s first executive editor. Highlighting stories of resilience is part of his strategy to set PRI.org apart from its competitors.

“So much of what we do is looking for stories about how man bites dog, then dog bites man,” Beard said. “It seems almost implausible that folks would show resilience sometimes, in times of tragedy.”

Beard and his colleagues decided to approach the theme of resilience through different and sometimes unexpected lenses. Some stories had less to do with the aftermath of disaster and more to do with science, infrastructure, or economic struggles.

One of those stories was about a young European landscape artist who dedicated herself to revitalizing the Emerald Necklace, a historic string of parks in Boston. The young landscape artist created a film and held an art show in hopes of raising awareness about the increasingly decrepit parks.

Her story, which ran on WGBHNews.org and PRI.org, isn’t presented explicitly as a “tale of resilience,” but Beard feels it fits right into the theme. “It was just a fresh set of eyes on a problem with an aim to restore, in this case, Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision of a park encircling Boston,” Beard said.

Another resilience story took listeners into the heart of a Finnish “open prison,” where inmates are allowed to walk around freely in anticipation of the day when they would be set free. Beard says it’s one of the most popular stories on the site.

“Here’s one place that started from a very hardline position and came to view rehabilitation as an opportunity, not an obligation, not a burden,” he said.

In general, PRI.org’s audience is young compared to other mainstream media organizations. According to Beard, Google Analytics places the median age of its users in the mid-30s.

It’s an audience that exudes confidence and positive energy, Beard said. That perception is backed up by statistics. In a 2014 survey, the Pew Research Center identified millennials as the most optimistic generation, compared to other groups like Generation X, the baby boomers and the “silent” generation. Forty-nine percent of millennials said they believe that America’s “best years are ahead.”

That kind of audience wants to know more than just the world’s troubles and pains. Beard believes they seek out “models to fix the world that we’re going to have for the next 50 or 60 years. … I think it’s our responsibility as providers of, let’s say, the wheat instead of the chaff, to give folks the tools to help create a better world. The information to set better examples, to keep that hope.”

That said, he readily admits that “there might be limits to resilience journalism.” News media is charged with covering both the positive and the grim. If journalists concentrate single-mindedly on resilience, their stories could teeter into “myth-making.”

Images & Voices of Hope has shared similar sentiments while developing a storytelling genre it calls Restorative Narrative — stories that show how people and communities are making a meaningful progression from a place of despair to a place of resilience. Restorative Narratives don’t ignore the tragedy, problem, or crime at hand. They do, however, acknowledge that the story doesn’t end when the hurricane leaves town or when the last shot is fired; in many ways it’s just beginning. When done right, these narratives can help balance out media coverage for the better.

“Nobody wants to distort the story,” Beard said. “Nobody wants to create a formula that downplays the tragedy itself. needs to be done responsibly, even if it messes with the narrative.”

It’s a delicate balance that Beard’s team is still trying to figure out. What gets lost when resilience is highlighted? How strong a focus is too strong? It’s partly for that reason that “resilience” remains an informal theme at the moment. It takes the pressure off.

“It’s not like I’m saying, ‘I’ve got to get my resilience story out this month or this week,'” Beard said. “It’s just baked into what we do.”

Another reason for keeping the theme informal is practical. Extra funding and staff would be needed to turn “resilience” into a vertical, a separate section of the website devoted to that particular theme.

Nevertheless, Beard continues to search for examples of resilience and “positive modeling” to feature on PRI.org. Sometimes, he looks back on his own career as a foreign correspondent in Latin America for inspiration.

“When I was in Haiti, I saw people who had walked for an hour to sell their wares. And maybe they would or wouldn’t for that day. But they’d be up before dawn, and they’d be walking back. Their life is much harder than mine. How do they find the grace?” he said with a sigh. “There are lessons to be learned from everyone.”

That kind of everyday resilience motivates Beard to face his day-to-day struggles, and he hopes it can do the same for PRI’s online audience.

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