What’s working: Service journalism is having a moment

This new RJI series will take 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 and talk about what’s next. Then it will be time for the next idea and the next three-column package.

If I asked you what you thought was the most successful article in the history of Mashable, a site where I served as the lead tech editor for seven years, you'd probably guess an impactful story that got a lot of recognition — perhaps this exclusive on the inner workings of Apple or the cultural treatise that helped elevate the term “yuccie” into the lexicon. A savvy media observer might guess it was simply a fleeting snippet of celebrity coverage, preferably involving a Kardashian, that happened to hit the bullseye of the zeitgeist online and was thus rewarded with ultra-virality.

In fact, it was none of those things. The top story in the site’s history was a “day two” article about a security vulnerability called Heartbleed. It’s a distant memory now, but in 2014, Heartbleed briefly terrified the world when it exposed a terrible weakness in fundamental web technology, meaning it had the potential to bring down the defenses of all kinds of websites, including banks.

Mashable’s piece was heavily researched and provided a guide to which industries, companies, and individual websites were the most vulnerable. It also pointed readers to which specific accounts they should be most concerned about, and how to change passwords on those sites.

In other words, it was an urgently needed piece of service journalism, and the fact that it remains the site’s most-linked article six years later shows just how powerful this kind of resource can be.

What service journalism means in 2020

Service journalism, of course, is a new term for an old idea: giving readers good, practical advice — what to buy, where to go, how to do a certain thing — to make their lives easier. While service journalism shares the same standards of truth and fact-finding as regular reporting, it requires a different approach. The biggest shift: The reporter’s lens moves from the subject to the reader.

“The principal question of traditional journalism is, ‘What is happening?’” says Dave Kender, editor-in-chief of Reviewed.com, which is owned and operated by Gannett, publisher of USA Today. “And the principal question of service journalism is, ‘What do you do with that information?’ It’s the natural second step.”

In the context of service journalism, the reporter becomes more trusted guide than intrepid reporter. They still relentlessly pursue facts, include relevant context, and even sometimes speak truth to power, but they do so with respect to a reader’s particular needs in that moment (usually expressed by a Google search).

The execution of service journalism is somewhat different from traditional “stories” as well. Service pieces are almost always designed to answer specific questions. That means labeling — headlines, subheadings, and keywords become doubly important. The overall length of a service article can vary as much as any story, but since thorough explanations tend to win out, longer is typically better. Service journalism tends to be more evergreen, templated, and planned.

And it’s much more relevant in today’s news media landscape than it used to be.

The rise of the SEO site

Why does service journalism suddenly have renewed importance? The short answer is Google and SEO have retaken the point in building audience. The long answer involves understanding Facebook’s role in the media landscape, and it explains why many digital newsrooms often have trouble prioritizing service journalism.

In the early 2000s, media companies were at the mercy of Google and other news aggregators. Then, in the early 2010s, Facebook looked like it was going to be a reliable audience engine for digital media. But the spigot was cut off in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The news media’s share of the digital ad market was thinner than ever.

In the Facebook era, entire media companies prioritized “shareable” content to appeal to social media users — which tended to reward stories that were timely, provocative, and ultimately disposable.

While the media world was chasing empty calories of Facebook shares, another type of site was iterating and perfecting the art of SEO.

SEO has always been a part of digital media strategy, but for sites based on content marketing, it’s the only game in town. These sites play a huge role in online content: Search for any health issue, and you’ll see results from the Mayo Clinic or WebMD, but you’ll also see less recognizable names. Sometimes they’re run by a brand, but more often they’re little more than an official-sounding URL full of content designed to encourage visitors to buy things, which earns the site commissions. (This, of course, is the affiliate revenue model.)

Like news media companies, these sites have a business that revolves around content, but they’ve put all their eggs in the SEO basket, often putting extensive data operations at the core of their business. Some have strong editorial policies that put the reader first. Others aren’t quite so stringent, and, without any institutional history of journalistic standards, might obfuscate the best reader advice depending on who’s paying them.

“There has been a proliferation of sites, large and small,” notes Ben Frumin, editor-in-chief of The Wirecutter, a reviews site owned by The New York Times. “And I’m positive not everybody holds themselves to the same standards that we hold ourselves to.

“It’s unfortunate [they] might show up on page one of Google.”

How solving problems builds reader trust

The SEO-driven environment answers why service journalism is newly important today, and why it’s in the best interests of newsrooms everywhere to invest in it,  for their own good and the good of the readers they serve.

The rise of SEO marketing didn’t happen in a vacuum — it simply followed trends of online behavior. As Google has gotten better at its self-stated mission of organizing the world’s information, it’s trained everyone doing research online to make the search field their first stop. Searching in Google used to be typing out a couple of keywords and hoping for the best; now Google can parse complete sentences and phrases, respond to natural language, and even interpret context (your location, the time of day, what you’ve searched in the past, etc.). You don’t just search “Ikea shelf” anymore, you search “best hacks for setting up a Billy bookshelf.”

Newsrooms should recognize those same trends, which logically translate into devoting significant resources to service journalism. While smaller newsrooms may not be able to match the extensive data operations of some of the larger SEO marketing companies , the brand of a journalistic institution still counts for a lot in the minds of readers. And in the case of reviews and recommendations, there’s often the opportunity for affiliate revenue, which can help pay for building out a service journalism operation (and perhaps even more).

“When someone Google’s information they need in the community that they’re living, there’s a recognition of that of that brand… a recognition of expertise,” says Megan Griffith-Greene, editor of service journalism at The Philadelphia Inquirer. “That gives us a natural advantage over some of the random sites that you pull up. That actually goes [toward] helping build trust with our communities, too.”

But at the end of the day, the reason to place greater emphasis on service journalism isn’t just because it’s good business, or because of the duty to guard against questionable SEO-driven sites. Service content — helping readers find good solutions to real-life problems — allows media companies to connect with their readers in a special way. The opportunity isn’t just to inform the reader; with a good service piece, you can delight them as well.

“It is stunning to me what a deep and powerful relationship you can develop with readers,” says Wirecutter’s Frumin. “They will be your biggest advocates, they will be your biggest marketers, and they will be your biggest evangelists, when you provide a service to them that is so valuable and so deeply thoughtful and personal.”

And that ultimately is why service journalism deserves to stand alongside — not beneath — the “capital-J” variety in today’’s news media landscape. Done right, service journalism is about meeting your readers where they are. It demands listening to audience behavior and feedback, and the tools to measure those things are more plentiful and accurate than ever. If journalism is about arming the people with information so they can better deal with the world, service journalism does exactly that, one how-to at a time.

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