Journalist Kevin Fagan looked for solutions to homelessness
His newspaper series on the homeless in San Francisco emphasized solutions – what really works and what doesn't. The result: constructive changes.
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[My co-reporter and photographer] Brant [Ward] and I are skeptical, of course – so we hung out in the program to see how it was working, and it seemed to be working pretty well.Skip to next paragraph
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And you also investigated already-existing solutions for your series.
I did reporting on something called Homeless Connect. The problem was that homeless people don’t make appointments, like to go to the welfare office. They just don’t make them. So instead they said, let’s do a once-a-month gathering where homeless people can get all the services they need in one place. Brant and I had been in conversation with homeless outreach workers and we were telling them, you have to meet people where they are. It’s not like they recruited us to help, but during reporting we would emphasize that idea. You have to recognize that they’re still addicted and on the streets. So we wrote stories showcasing Homeless Connect as something that was having an effect and really helping people. With each story the thing grew; putting attention on it helped.
Was your reportage publicly recognized for its achievements?
We got nominated for a Pulitzer Prize each of the four years we were doing the beat. But we heard people saying, isn’t homelessness a problem of the '80s? And back East, especially, because there were some effective programs [out there], people don’t know how bad the situation is in San Francisco.
Brant and I won the national James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, along with several other national prizes, including Brant getting the Robert Kennedy Award for his photos and me getting the national Excellence in Urban Journalism Award.
Do you believe that writing about solutions is a legitimate form of journalism?
It’s absolutely legitimate. We get complaints that it isn’t. Journalism has time constraints and pressure to produce material every day, and that means you look at the shiny object, which is the things that are broken. It’s easier to write about what’s screwed up rather than what’s working. And it’s important to write about problems but it’s not the only thing to write about.
What is the biggest problem journalists run into when they cover solutions?
There’s an institutional or industrial attitude that writing happy stories is sappy. But that doesn’t mean there’s a prohibition against writing about things that work well. They are seen as "puff pieces."
Do you think some, or most, editors are hesitant to accept story pitches that explore potential solutions? Why?
Most would be leery of it. They want useful stories. The trick is you have to be sophisticated enough to let the editor know that you are writing about something that’s useful and informative rather than puffy and dippy. That takes sophistication on the part of the reporter, and on the editor’s part as well. I had to write thousands of stories before I figured out what’s a good story.
• This interview has been edited and condensed.
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