What’s Working: The coronavirus crisis has lessons for us about service journalism

If service journalism has a time to shine, it’s during a crisis. When things are going wrong, people need good, specific information to deal with the situation, they need to know that the information is trustworthy, and they need it fast — being able to make decisions quickly is fundamental to crisis management.

As COVID-19 spreads around the globe, almost all news organizations have stepped up their output of service journalism. That was inevitable: It’s no exaggeration to say the coronavirus and the world’s response to it is affecting the lives of every person on the planet, and the essence of service journalism is to provide practical advice to make life more manageable, and in the midst of this pandemic that advice is more essential than ever.

That doesn’t mean all the service journalism produced in the wake of COVID-19 is of equal quality, or that every media outlet should necessarily create their own disease FAQ, symptom guide, or hand-washing tutorial. The essential questions of service journalism in this crisis, which are being answered in real time, are whether readers are getting the specific information they need and whether the media is playing the right role.

“There really is a thirst for news, but there’s also a thirst for service,” Elisabeth Goodridge, who heads up coronavirus service journalism for The New York Times, told me. “We thought that before, but now it is just pounded in — people really having questions. One big takeaway is understanding the value readers have on service, but also the extraordinary importance of making sure our service journalism is right.”

Now that it’s been a coronavirus world for several weeks, we have a clearer picture of what works as effective service journalism in a crisis, and how those takeaways might inform the practice more generally. And while this situation is clearly an outlier — not to mention far from over — some lessons to build on top of the fundamentals of a service journalism strategy are emerging:

  1. With centralized information, the role of the service journalist is to add context: With coronavirus, the sources of raw information — for example, the number of infected, the incubation period of the virus, or what current local laws are in effect to combat the disease — are few, and are typically public or government-supported agencies. While a few large media organizations (like The New York Times) will be able to recreate some of that information in continually updated hubs, the role for most newsrooms is to use their sites to point readers to the trusted sources, and updating as often as they can.

    That doesn’t mean service journalists are demoted to mere middlemen; adding context relevant to your audience is important. The Guardian’s FAQ page on symptoms, which ranks highly in Google search, brings in information relevant to the paper’s largely UK-based audience with advisories from the country’s National Health Service (NHS) as well as relevant top-level information about the spread of the disease, testing, and how COVID-19 compares to seasonal flus and other pandemics historically.

    The Guardian also keeps the page current with the latest statistics, which is a good reminder that resources that resonate with readers (and rank highly in search) should be treated as living pieces of content, updated regularly. Be transparent about changes, but don’t shy from making them — the internet makes it easy to preserve history while ensuring readers have the best, most current information.

    “There’s a tremendous amount of information that, you know, six weeks ago no one knew and are desperate for now,” says Goodridge. “Some people don’t know where to go to sign up for unemployment benefits or mortgage relief, so let’s put that all in one spot and continue to update it.”

  2. Google’s role is becoming more active: Big Tech has taken a lot of heat the past few years, in part because of their propensity to allow algorithms to dictate what appears on their (very influential) services. Google was one of the hardest hit, but it responded by playing a more active role in what appears in search. While it’s still algorithm-driven, it’s made adjustments to demote undesirable content while elevating authoritative sources. It’s also created more tools that allow good information to surface to the top.

    This is readily apparent when you Google anything related to coronavirus. Results from the CDC, WHO, and state health agencies are almost always the top results, and if there are news sites listed, they’re usually “safer” mainstream brands like CNN or ABC News (there are exceptions, though). Search results pages (or SERPs, if you want to talk the talk) for coronavirus terms typically include Google’s myriad widgets, such as the news carousel, “common questions,” and sections linking to popular tweets or videos. Google’s also gone the extra, unusual step of creating a fully curated resource page about the disease, complete with a map, a list of common searches, and tips on working remotely.

    It’s clear that when the stakes are high, Google takes a more active role in ensuring the best results have every chance to surface. This is a double-edged sword for content creators. A SERP now has many different ways to reach readers, but larger sites and central authorities (like government sites) tend to win out, even for tangential search terms around a big topic. To compete for a spot on page 1 of Google, editors need to be more targeted than ever (not just which terms but which widgets), with content that truly is the best resource for readers.

  3. Influencers and celebrities are effective messengers: As the crisis has worsened and many countries have transitioned from heightened concern to complete lockdown, information on how to cope with staying home has become almost as essential as information about the disease itself. But anyone following Arnold Schwarzenegger, Selena Gomez, or dozens of other celebrities on Instagram didn’t need to seek out a tutorial on hand-washing — it just appeared in their feeds.

    Celebrity influence is nothing new, of course, but in the context of service journalism, they can be effective at activating their followers, amplifying a specific message and giving it both a wider reach and a longer tail — potentially providing rocket fuel to a generally slow-to-rank-on-Google content strategy.

  4. Data visualizations make good service journalism great: Service journalism is typically concerned with SEO, and that means optimizing things like keywords, titles, bulleted lists, tags, and more. In the race to perfect all that text, graphical elements are often treated as little more than afterthoughts. But if the coronavirus has taught us anything about online resources, it’s that they’re better with a map.

    Or, more broadly, they’re better with great data visualizations — a given for most service journalism as well. Whether it’s recommending the best vacuum or guiding you through a complex password change, a good service piece doesn’t just tell you what to do; it shows you as well. Google might not technically “recognize” a well-made chart or graph, but readers do, and they’ll typically spend more time on a piece with good visuals as opposed to one without.

  5. Newsletters can be a great tool for cultivating loyal readers: A host of publications have launched “pop-up” newsletters in response to COVID-19. Since the crisis is relatively new, the newsletters have a dual role of informing and educating, helping readers understand the virus and its effects, in a way that gets pushed out to them every day.

    This kind of topic-based, educational newsletter is a great model for service journalism outside of a crisis. Often, being of service means guiding a reader through something complex, like buying a car. Many readers don’t just want to make a decision and go; they also want to get a base level of knowledge, and a planned newsletter “journey” — one designed and crafted to gradually baby-step readers through a topic — can be an effective tool at not just educating those readers, but also winning their loyalty as well.

  6. Listening to your readers is always the answer: The golden rule of service journalism is that the reader is the customer, and the customer is always right. Whatever your audience is searching for, you should seek to answer, or at least point to the right answers. If anything, the coronavirus crisis has deepened this truth as people seek more answers about everything from store closings in their area to how to more effectively work from home.

    “We’ve been astonished with the response to our coverage,” says Lynn Jacobson, deputy managing editor at the Seattle Times in Washington state, which has been one of the hardest hit by COVID-19. “Our traffic has been about three times its normal volume. This experience is underscoring a transition for us that was already underway: opening as many channels of communication as possible [with readers] to find out what they want to know.”

    It’s one thing to do the bare minimum of reading comments and Twitter feedback, but many brands are stepping up by reaching out to their audience directly by proactively soliciting questions on social media or even hosting live panels with experts, as CNN has done. More than anything, this crisis has emphasized that journalists are part of the communities they serve. In a time where there’s so much we can’t control, it’s doubly important to have good information about the things we can.

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