Nora Hertel is an optimist by choice and the founder of Project Optimist. She’s an investigative reporter, “recovering” from 10 years on the politics beat. Nora is a super fan of solutions journalism and trained to teach it through the Solutions Journalism Network. Project Optimist’s newsletter features original reporting about solutions in Minnesota. Solutions journalism is rigorous, evidence-based reporting on responses to social problems. As a subscriber, you’ll see how people are taking on big problems and innovating on environmental, business, and social issues. But how did it all start?
“I witnessed many growing problems in the field of journalism over 10 years. Declining trust in news, political polarization, and news avoidance were at the top of the list. And in the newsrooms I worked, I saw many many colleagues laid off, many burn out, and cynicism rise. I personally was burned out on traditional journalism, but I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving the field. I love telling stories. I love informing people. I love that journalism, at its best, is a key pillar of democracy. But I was worn out from reporting and reading negative news. And the problems with the standard business model (declining ad sales and declining subscriptions) made it so hard to do the work I wanted to do at the paper I’d been working at. I wanted to tell more in-depth stories, and I wanted to focus on solutions journalism. I knew there was an appetite for those stories in central Minnesota.”
Although Nora is no stranger to journalism and storytelling, Project Optimism is just over a year old. “I filed paperwork and launched my landing page in Nov. 2021. This was the first time I shared the vision publicly. I’d been working another job through 2021 while taking entrepreneur courses (20 weeks with ILT Academy plus the Google News Initiative Startups Boot Camp), conducting market research, and developing the concept for my digital news startup. I also had a 1-year-old at the time. It was a busy year! I launched the newsletter in June 2022. The Initiators Fellowship was a huge vote of confidence that helped me launch with the knowledge that I had a group of supporters at my back. Before that, in 2021, the training I received was so needed and helpful. And it has been a labor of love and a fun intellectual pursuit for me throughout 2022. I’ve been following opportunities, integrating reader feedback, and moving forward all the time.”
Project Optimist is a proud member of the Tiny News Collective accelerator program. “The Tiny News Collective is taking on some of those big challenges facing the news industry. Project Optimist was accepted into their second cohort of news startups in early 2022. They help news entrepreneurs in a number of ways. They built a technology suite to help us easily launch newsletters and websites, sell ads, run fundraisers, and more. They serve as a fiscal sponsor for members so we can collect donations before we’ve gained nonprofit status. They’re trying to diversify news ownership across the U.S. It’s an amazing, innovative program, and I’m so proud to be part of it.”
“We are in a historic moment – a pivotal moment for democracy, for the environment, for the news industry. And it’s uncomfortable as heck. I want Project Optimist to help people in central Minnesota (and beyond) face all this uncertainty with facts, solutions, and community in mind. The Solutions Journalism Network defines the work with four pillars: response, evidence, insights, and limitations. These stories need to focus on a response to a problem. They need to include evidence of how that response worked or didn’t work. And they need to include limitations and insights that the folks in the story share from their experience with the attempted solution. We’re also doing something called dialogue journalism. We’re coordinating a series of tough conversations in which we bring people together with different opinions on controversial topics like guns and abortion. The plan is to launch it in early 2023.” In addition to the unique work of dialogue and solutions journalism, Project Optimist also features local artists and is working on outreach programs to train student and community journalists.
“I’ve been on this entrepreneur journey for a little over two years, and I have met so many helpers and milestones that propelled me forward. I have never felt so sure that I’m in the right place, at the right time, doing the right work. It’s an amazing feeling.”
To become a reader, donor, or supporter of Project Optimist, visit theoptimist.tinynewsco.org