Sparknews, launched in Paris on May 31, is a self-described “social start-up” designed to harness the power of journalism to spark positive change in the world.
If that sentence had you reaching for your idealism-dimming goggles, think again. “We’re not talking about ‘good news’ journalism, like the prince’s wedding or ‘today a baby panda was born in a zoo,’” specified Sparknews founder Christian de Boisredon, in a phone interview. “There are websites where they only deal with good news, and why not? But that’s not our target…we are interested in concrete solutions.”
Labeled the “YouTube of solutions” by French news site Telerama, Sparknews is a digital platform that aggregates examples of what it refers to as “double impact journalism:” articles and videos that do not merely point out the problems that plague our society — “a very important role of the media,” according to de Boisredon — but go one step further by presenting solutions, or partial solutions, to these problems. The goal is to facilitate the diffusion of good ideas that others may then be empowered to replicate, such as a wheel-shaped Q-Drum that makes it easier for individuals to transport water across long distances, or a $2-$3 pair of universal glasses that adjust to fit 93% of prescriptions.
The idea for the start-up was sparked by a story: “two French guys were in Chile in the 1980s. During the week they were working in a bank, and on the weekends they were volunteering in the slums of Santiago,” began de Boisredon. One day they read an article in French newspaper Le Monde about Muhammad Yunus, who is considered the father of microfinance. Finding Yunus' ideas brilliant, they decided to replicate them by creating the first microcredit bank in Chile. In so doing, they helped to create 30,000 microcredit businesses, generating 100,000 jobs.
“The most incredible part of this story is that the journalist doesn’t even know it,” marveled de Boisredon. “The question is: who created those 100,000 jobs and changed the lives of 100,000 families? Of course the French guys played a role, but the first spark was the article.” The two “French guys” in question are de Boisredon’s brother Hubert de Boisredon, and his friend Laurent Marbacher. “That’s how, when I was 14 years old, I realized the impact of journalism,” concluded de Boisredon.
The Sparknews website, whose catchphrase is “channeling solutions,” is divided into 23 thematic channels, such as education, urbanism, new technologies and health. Individuals, journalists, activists and social entrepreneurs are invited to post, embed or link to videos or articles originating from news organizations, institutions or the general public that present concrete solutions to important issues. In the top left-hand corner of videos, it is marked whether they are media content, institutional content or public content, so that viewers can add salt accordingly. Funding will come from category-specific partners, such as Véolia eau, from whom Sparknews content will have “total independence,” according to de Boisredon.
Sparknews is intended to be useful to journalists on several levels: as a different route through which to broadcast their work, as a source of inspiration for fresh story ideas, and as a forum through which like-minded individuals can communicate. They are also offered the opportunity to take part in a competition, whose first prize is 10,000 euros in grant money.
The 20 day-old website, which has attracted approximately 200 contributors thus far, according to de Boisresdon, is only the starting point for Sparknews. Another initiative in the pipeline is International Solutions Day: following a successful project with French newspaper Libération known as “le Libé des solutions,” in which the cover and two thirds of the content of one issue per year is dedicated to solution-based journalism (and the issue sells extremely well, according to de Boisredon), Sparknews intends to hold a day early next year upon which media partners from 20 countries around the world will put out special editions, supplements or broadcast programming devoted to solution journalism.
The international content would be shared among media partners, who would offer advertising space in exchange that Sparknews could sell to finance the project, said de Boisredon. “The idea is to make a huge buzz on social media so everybody will want to buy this issue on the day – so the idea is also to increase sales and change the world,” said de Boisredon with a quiet laugh.
Telerama characterized de Boisredon as a “dreamer with pragmatic tendencies;” confronted with this description, he accepted it with another chuckle. “I am in a way a dreamer because I believe that articles and news stories can change the world,” he said. “The problem with the population today is that they all feel that it’s too late, and that there is nothing to do— I think that if the media talk about solutions more often, it will make people think that we can solve a lot of the problems.”
De Boisredon quoted the phrase that French journalist and writer Albert Londres famously used to describe the role of the journalist: “il faut porter la plume dans la plaie… journalists have to stick their pen in the wound,” he translated, adding: “he is right in a way, but that is not the only role of media. Once they stick the pen in the wound, they can also write about the solutions where they exist.”
Photo courtesy of Sparknews "Focus on Vision" video: