David Byrne’s Reasons to Be Cheerful Cheers Us Up
Will Doig, co-editor of the online magazine Reasons to Be Cheerful—founded and launched by David Byrne, with a focus on “solutions-oriented” stories—tells us why a dose of positivity can be a potent salve and a welcome tonic during an unrelenting news cycle.
Reasons to Be Cheerful started as a personal project of David Byrne’s, before expanding and launching more formally as a magazine last year under his nonprofit, the Arbutus Foundation. Would you say this was a reaction to the 2016 election, or to the polarized news cycle more generally?
I don’t know that he would say it was directly in response to the election, though there may have been an element of that. It basically started when David himself created a website, called it Reasons to Be Cheerful, and started writing stories about positive news that he was hearing and reading about. I think he just felt that, you know, the world is a crazy place. I’ve heard him describe it almost as this self-therapy project, and yep.some of his friends and people he knew were writing for it, too. At a certain point, he decided he wanted it to become more of an online magazine for public consumption, and so, a year ago, he hired Christine [McLaren, the other co-editor] and me to help with that, and we relaunched the site in August. For all of us working on it, it’s been a really stabilizing experience during a destabilizing time.
What makes a story or topic right for RTBC?
It’s a good question, because I do think that sometimes it’s easy to have a misconception of what we’re trying to do: It’s about good news. Then we’ve got a goofy name, and maybe this might just be another website with kitten videos. [Laughs] But what we try to deliver to readers is basically journalism that focuses on tangible progress, on problems that are out there in the world. [Mainstream] media focuses mostly on the problem, and we try to focus mostly on the solutions to those problems. Our criteria for stories [are] pretty strict, in that they are all about solutions that currently exist and have been implemented—not just good ideas, not just things that make you happy, but stories of actual progress in systemic solutions.
By focusing on solutions, I think that you can actually affect positive change and inspire people to be part of that change. Whereas, if you just focus on problems, there can be a dispiriting nature to it. I think all of us feel that, in a way, it’s very easy to have your perception of the world be warped by all of the information that’s out there—all the media, as well as the social media. You just start to think that everything’s terrible. Our stance is that things aren’t all terrible. There are good things happening out there as well, and to completely ignore them actually paints somewhat of an inaccurate picture.
RTBC covers a range of beats: climate change, culture, economy, education, tech, and more. What have been some of your most-read stories?
Two of our most popular stories were just published, about the current coronavirus crisis. One was a story that we ran a few weeks ago, about Taiwan’s response to the crisis, and how [that country] has had pretty substantial success at dealing with this situation, looking at what their outcome has been, and also why the country in particular has had so much success. And it turned out that it’s about how Taiwan views its political system. Here in the U.S., we tend to get really kind of sentimental about democracy—it’s all about the history and the pageantry—and Taiwan has a much more pragmatic view of democracy, which is: This needs to deliver concrete results for us, or else it’s not working. That kind of attitude—that kind of political system—comes in handy when you have a national emergency.
Another was from our Viewpoint series, which is for David’s occasional essays that are a bit different from our reported pieces. It was his take on what’s going on right now—and I’m a bit hesitant to try and summarize it because it’s his take, and I don’t want to describe it wrong, but I would encourage people to read it. It’s been the most popular piece we've ever run.
It seems we’re all actively seeking reasons to be cheerful, these days more than ever. How has the pandemic affected or fueled the way you view and shape your coverage?
In one sense, we’re providing news about legitimate solutions that are happening right now, and that, a lot of the time, are flying under the radar. In fact, we’re in the process of putting together a story series that will be specifically about solutions implemented during this pandemic—not to the virus itself, but to various long-standing problems that we’ve never been able to get to the finish line for whatever reason, political, economic, or otherwise. But the crisis now has created an opening to implement solutions that never had a chance before. Things like relocalizing industry and universal basic income are being looked at seriously; a lot of climate change and urbanism solutions are being looked at, and so forth.
Another thing that I think we’re providing during this crisis would hopefully be a sense that we are all in this together, moving through it in a way that is hopeful, because I think that seeing solutions can make people feel encouraged that we can figure out a way and work together.
What are some ways, on a personal level, that you’re trying to keep cheerful through this crisis?
This is a horrible time for pretty much everybody, and there’s not a lot of ways to put a happy spin on what’s happening—nor should we. It’s not that kind of time. I guess what I’m trying to focus on is that this is going to be an incredibly transformative experience. I truly believe that our world will never be the same after this, and my hope is that it will actually change for the better. I know that sounds a little Pollyanna-ish, of course, but I actually could see it happening. I certainly don’t think that things will go back to the way they were. And I think there are a lot of ways that things will actually get better in ways that are probably completely impossible for us to imagine now, because they’ll be so different, but I can foresee it happening.