One morning in the nineties, Geri Weis-Corbley was at her kitchen table, listening to NPR, when a story about the Bosnian war came on the air. As the reporter began describing the rape taking place in the war zone, Weis-Corbley found herself wondering about the impact the topic was having on her six-year-old son, who was sitting nearby. “I look over at him and think, ‘Wow, he’s going to start hearing the news and not be a happy-go-lucky child anymore,’” she recalled.
Weis-Corbley, who had previously freelanced for CNN, had long been frustrated with her editors’ lack of appetite for positive stories. “Good news doesn’t sell,” she recalls a colleague saying once. She didn’t buy it. In August 1997, with the internet just taking off, she decided to launch the Good News Network (GNN), which promised to offset “the daily barrage of the negative” from mainstream news.
A quarter century on, Weis-Corbley’s news organization is still going strong. GNN has produced over twenty-one thousand positive articles, and it’s the top search result for “good news” on Google in the US. Today, GNN is part of a booming ecosystem of positive-news sites that see themselves as a supplement to—and sometimes an escape from—typical news offerings. And, at a time of declining audience engagement in news, they believe they’re just what the industry needs.
Since 1997, Weis-Corbley has found that traffic jumps after disasters, like the attacks of 9/11, or the 2008 financial crisis. Other sites that specialize in upbeat stories have seen the same thing. “When the pandemic started, we thought, ‘Oh, no, this is really bad for us,’” said Will Doig, executive editor of David Byrne’s Reasons to Be Cheerful project, which launched in August 2019. “It turned out just the opposite, which was that COVID presented the opportunity for so many solutions to emerge that there just seemed to be an endless amount of content.”
Weis-Corbley says GNN runs two types of story, in roughly equal measure: hard news, like positive updates in science and business, and lighter stories—heartwarming tales of goodwill, articles about animals—which GNN calls “kindnesses.” That kind of stuff might lighten people’s mood after a long day, but to the cynic, it’s fluff. Branden Harvey, founder and editor of Good Good Good, a media organization founded in 2017, prefers to keep things more oriented around solutions. There are “a lot of other media companies out there that focus on what I call ‘feel good news’ versus ‘real good news,’ which is kind of like puppies and kittens and rainbows,” he says. “Like, that’s great”—but it wouldn’t make it onto his website. “When Good Good Good sees heartbreak, pain, and injustice in the world, they acknowledge and mourn it,” the newsroom’s mission statement reads. “But Good Good Good never stays there.”
Reasons to Be Cheerful takes a similar approach. Doig says it was founded on the idea that a hyperfocus on negativity in the media was leading to “an inaccurate picture of the world.” It sees its mission as rebalancing the scales—with rigorous journalism focusing on solutions that can make people’s lives better. “We really try to make sure that everything that we do is journalistically rigorous and talking about a positive change. So not ‘One thousand planes landed safely’—which isn’t really a change from anything—but rather, a change from something being bad to something getting better.”
Then comes the tension that all these newsrooms must navigate: in a politically polarized society, not everyone has the same definition of “good.” A new minimum wage for New York City’s delivery couriers might sound like a win, but to business owners, it could be a major problem. A new offshore wind farm might make environmentalists happy but spark outrage from local activists. Weis-Corbley says some controversial topics, like abortion and gun rights, are off limits at GNN. Good Good Good does cover abortion, but goes out of its way to emphasize that it is “not the authority on reproductive justice, and we do not wish to contribute to ongoing political vitriol.” Doig said Reasons to Be Cheerful has largely confined coverage of hot-button topics to its “viewpoints” section. “It’s always a case of nuance,” said Lucy Purdy, the editor in chief of the UK-based magazine Positive News. The site avoids specific coverage of political parties, for instance, but will examine “how to tweak or even transform the political process to make it work for more people.”
All four newsrooms I spoke to said the uptick in traffic they’d seen during COVID had continued to this day. Good Good Good’s “Goodnewsletter” subscribers more than doubled between January 2020 and January 2021—from 14,193 to 29,465—and continued growing, reaching 45,000 in August this year. And good-news stories can be increasingly found in more traditional outlets as well: the Washington Post, for instance, has an entire section dedicated to what it calls “Inspired Life.”
“You want a balanced diet,” Weis-Corbley says. “You can’t just eat junk food, or negative news, all the time.”Jem Bartholomew is a freelance reporter. He was previously a Reporting Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Jem’s writing has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Economist, Time, New York magazine, and others.