What’s Working: How to build a foundation for effective service journalism

This RJI series takes a deep dive into a strategy or new idea that is gaining traction in the news industry. In three monthly columns, we’ll do an overview of the idea, describe some best practices (below) and talk about what’s next. Then it will be time for the next idea and the next three-column package.

When looking at the news media business alongside the rise of the internet and digital platforms, it’s almost always cast as an unfortunate, if not tragic, decline. The internet didn’t just give everyone in the world the same access to the vast online audience — it created countless other outlets for peoples’ attention. Media companies don’t just compete with each other; they’re fighting for eyeballs with everything from Facebook to Fortnite. Smartphones exacerbate things, splintering experiences across hundreds of apps — any information, or distraction, is just a couple of taps away.

Rarely is this story framed the opposite way: that today’s digital landscape represents unprecedented opportunity. The same tools that have “democratized” online content provide a framework to reach new audiences and deepen connections with existing ones. The audience may be splintered, but they still need to get their information from somewhere.

One of the best ways for news media companies in 2020 to fulfill that need is with service journalism — content meant to help users solve a specific problem. Last month, I explored why service journalism is having a moment, partly because of the renewed importance of Google and SEO in reaching audiences.

Knowing the what is only half of the answer. There’s also the how, and this month I’ll explore some of the best practices in good service journalism. While the tools are similar to those in traditional reporting, service content often requires a different way of thinking.

It isn’t easy being evergreen

For any publication whose primary focus is the news (mainstream or niche), the idea of evergreen content is often a challenge. It’s not conceptually hard — an article that’s as useful today as it is a year from now is a simple enough idea — but typically the focus of news organizations is on what’s, well, new.

If you’ve ever survived an analytics meeting at a media website, it probably focused on how recent stories performed, with maybe a little on current trends. This reflects the operations of the site: Certainly, newsrooms value longer-lead projects like features, but generally new articles are short and don’t take much time to produce. And after reporters file something, it’s typically not adjusted after publication in substantive ways (if it is, it’s usually because something went wrong).

There are obviously very good reasons for all of this, but this kind of workflow doesn’t build evergreen content effectively. An evergreen piece — for example, an article that provides a guide to set up a video doorbell — is something that needs to be continually refreshed with current information. The article will build up its ranking in Google searches over time, and a new article (with a new URL) would effectively need to start from scratch. Also, to be a good resource, the writer, or team of writers, needs to put in the time to research and explore the issue, which often means dedicating much more resources and time that typical news story.

“In order to be a service journalist, you have to be a little obsessive,” says Alexis Swerdloff, editor of New York Magazine’s shopping site, The Strategist. “You have to take a lot of time. It is such its own kind of craft — reporting and researching takes a while, and is like a separate kind of skill set.”

Evergreen is a different species of content, and any newsroom planning to make it part of its strategy should define the rules of the road: what’s considered evergreen, and how evergreen pieces can be properly refreshed while preserving their integrity. Depending on the complexity of the subject, writers will often need days or weeks to create the content. 

All this is why any newsroom that’s serious about evergreen content needs staff that is separate – at least in approach – from the reporters and editors covering the news. 

“Having people just do [service content] a little bit on the side is not gonna be like a great,” says Swerdloff. “It’s so clear when service journalism is lazy.”

That said, service journalism also includes the subspecies of semi-evergreen — a.k.a. the “practical follow” — an article that’s based on a news event but provides on-the-ground advice on how to deal with it (think “how to change your password” after an online service is hacked). For newsrooms with little focus on service journalism, it’s a good place to start.

“Accompaniments and follows to daily news coverage is a really natural fit for a lot of local newsrooms,” says Megan Griffith-Greene, editor of service journalism at The Philadelphia Inquirer. “There’s news happening all around you — how can you use that to make better decisions about your life? It gives reporters a really solid place to start and answer some reader questions.”

Leveraging SEO

Reporters usually aren’t the biggest fans of the term “SEO.” For them, SEO often means replacing a clever headline with something more straightforward and dull, a bunch of tedious extra steps in WordPress or whatever CMS you’re using, and a general mindset that feels like you’re appealing to the lowest common denominator.

That’s understandable, but it’s misguided. Paying attention to SEO doesn’t mean tossing creativity, but it does require a recognition that the reader is also a customer, and the customer is always right. Google is really just the middleman in the transaction, and it’s trying to solve for what the writer should be striving for anyway: providing the best resource that answers a specific question.

Virtually every CMS today includes tools for optimizing SEO on a post (a popular one for WordPres is Yoast), though they’re often underused in newsrooms. For service articles, making the headline, dek, and lede search-friendly is something that can’t be ignored, but optimizing for search shouldn’t dull headlines that are filled with keywords. Certainly, SEO means catering to an algorithm (by definition, really), but at the end of every Google search there’s still a human, and your headline needs to convince them to click.

Last-mile SEO tools like Yoast are just table stakes, though. To really build service content that endures, search needs to be factored in from the start. Looking at which search terms win out in a particular subject area in Google Trends is a good start, but it’s worth investing in advanced SEO tools like SEMrush our Ahrefs for deeper analysis. They’re not that expensive, but recruiting experts who know how to best use them can be. However, it’s well worth it for any site looking to create service content strategically.

The ultimate tool: talking to your audience

Service journalism can be tantalizingly effective. A rich, well-written piece that hits the SEO sweet spot can have an extremely long shelf life. Even sites that lack a formal service strategy usually have a notable how-to post or guide that keeps popping up near the top of analytics reports. Service journalism is really just building an operation around that kind of content.

The danger in doing so is the temptation to go beyond your brand’s typical boundaries in a grab for eyeballs (“What time is the Super Bowl?” etc.). That approach won’t have long-term traction — it’s analogous to the idea of simply writing about the Kardashians for clicks; sure, you may get a spike in traffic, but virtually all the readers you attract will simply leave through the back door.

Building a service journalism content strategy means cultivating subject matter experts (even if that subject is your city or town) who are obsessive about creating the best possible resources for readers — all through the lens of the publication.

“Having access to [SEO] tools and being fluent in those tools is sort of a baseline for us,” says Dave Kender, editor-in-chief of Reviewed.com, which is owned by Gannett. “We have to do so with the purest possible journalistic intention, and to be really focused on our readers. If you can craft it right — not just on an article-by-article basis but also how you’re crafting your brand presence — you really help differentiate yourself from everyone else who’s writing on that same topic.”

Doing what Kender’s talking about takes a great deal of patience, and the choices made early in the process (like defining which topics to focus your efforts around) should be deliberate. The ultimate guide here is your brand, which is a North Star for Swerdloff and The Strategist.

“The other day we ran a piece about what a former secret service agent keeps in her purse at all times,” she says. “That is the spirit of the 55-year-old magazine that we are working at seeps into so much of what we do. Because New York Magazine has had the clearest of missions, it’s been so helpful to figure out how to approach other topics.”

You’ll know you’re doing service journalism right when your audience responds to it, sometimes loudly. Providing recommendations and guides to real-world issues creates a different, more intimate relationship with readers, one that often brings out passionate reactions.

“I have been stunned by just how, in such a truly authentic way, Wirecutter’s readers rely on us and care about us and recommend us to their friends,” says Ben Frumin, editor-in-chief of Wirecutter. “I do think service journalism is a very powerful way to create new deep relationships with readers.”

In other words, service journalism — when done right — can create superfans. While it’s important not to focus solely on your loudest readers, keeping them constructively engaged and delighted is how a brand gets built. You can do that through any number of tools, including surveys, social presence, audience-listening tools like Hearken, and giving them an even louder voice through user-generated content (e.g. user reviews). Your readers will guide you on where to focus; if they’re passionate about what you’re writing, they’re guaranteed to be talking about it somewhere on the internet.

But talking to your most engaged readers isn’t the end of the story. The goal of the service journalist is to cultivate that impassioned conversation and process it into something helpful for everyone. Not every reader obsesses over problems, but they all want the most efficient solutions. In the end, the value proposition of service journalism is very simple: The more you can give people back their time, the more they’ll reward you with theirs.

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