The safe space of service journalism

“The pendulum is swinging back, and at the forefront of that swing will be service journalism and trusted guidance.”

The Battle on Fake News is upon us. We all know about filter bubbles, and we’re now talking about whether this thing is basically unwinnable. Then again, subscriptions and donations to news organizations are way up in the wake of the election. But this debate won’t be settled in 2017.

tim-herreraI come to speak of another front in the greater War Against Misinformation. As it has been since very early days, the internet is filled with untrustworthy garbage. Shady internet listings and SEO spam of yesteryear have given way to our contemporary sophisticated system of targeted CONTENT MARKETING that can find you across the socially woven web. Usually while yelling at you in all caps.

But the pendulum is swinging back, and at the forefront of that swing will be service journalism and trusted guidance. The sole purpose of this coverage is to help people live lives that are more efficient, more productive, healthier, and smarter — who doesn’t want that?

Service journalism is no trend. It’s a classic that newsrooms are dusting off to complement their full news reports. A few recent, excellent examples: Quartzy, Quartz’s new-ish newsletter about “living well in the global economy.” The Hairpin’s fitness column Ask A Swole Woman. New York’s newly launched Strategist. The unstoppable forces of BuzzFeed’s Nifty and Tasty. It’s something we’ve seen here at The New York Times with our curation of Smarter Living stories.

There is even a growing list of publications that put service as a signature value proposition of their publications. Wait but Why (the best newsletter I subscribe to). Financial guidance sites like the always-informative Billfold and new upstarts like The Financial Diet. And, of course, the site that perfected the form, Lifehacker.

My prediction is that 2017 will see a further blooming of great sites and services like this. It will be a highlight of the industry, one of the few safe spaces that will float above the War Against Misinformation. News outlets are going to dive in aggressively.

And there’s money to be made here! Look at The Wirecutter: The recommendations site reportedly drove $150 million in e-commerce transactions in 2015, and earlier this year it was acquired by The New York Times Company for $30 million partly because of its “very attractive” revenue model.

That model has spread to BuzzFeed, Hearst, Vox Media, New York magazine, the former Gawker Media, and more, and it will only continue to filter through news outlets once the success of those becomes apparent (it will, and in many cases already has).

The opportunity here is for news outlets to double down on service and strengthen their position as places readers can consume news and also learn to live better, healthier, and more conversant lives.

Tim Herrera is Smarter Living editor at The New York Times.

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