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All journalism should be service journalism

“Reporters need to think more like teachers, developing new structures and forms that reinforce new information, that place it in the context of what has come before and what may come next.”

One of the best bits of newsroom management philosophy I ever heard came not from a Peter Drucker book or a TED talk, but in a dingy community-college classroom in Queens. “You gotta remember,” the instructor told a class of newly minted cab drivers, pounding his fist to punctuate each word. “That’s a human being in the backseat — not just a piece of meat.”

That may sound obvious, but when we talk about putting the customer or reader first, we tend to do so in the abstract — failing to truly empathize with the flesh-and-blood souls who hailed us for a ride. I covered that taxi class long before there was an Uber for anything, but I sometimes wonder, had the yellow-taxi industry heeded that instructor’s advice, whether it would have fared any better against the ride-sharing revolution.

Newsrooms in 2020 must do better by the readers in the backseat. Why do people come to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, or MarketWatch in the first place? To be informed, yes, but not merely for academic edification: We all want to improve ourselves, to deepen our knowledge and understanding, to learn new skills, new ways of thinking, working and living.

If that sounds like the province of “service journalism,” so be it. The term gets a bum rap. Service journalism must no longer be marginalized as some lesser form of the enterprise: All journalism should be service journalism.

We are all drowning in a firehose of information at the expense of not only our attention spans but also true understanding. Our industry has a moral responsibility to help readers translate all that information into knowledge. Into wisdom.

The psychologist Philip Fernbach said one of the most pressing problems facing public discourse, one only exacerbated by the information age, is the growing gap between what people think they know and what they actually know. (In fact, people have been shown to mistake what they can Google for their own knowledge.) In the next stage of its evolution, journalism can help narrow that gap by giving readers the background and knowledge to truly make sense of the local, geopolitical, economic, and technological developments — and how to apply that new information to their thought and action.

The Roman poet Horace said the purpose of art is to “inform and delight.” Oscar Wilde joked that art was “all quite useless.” To avoid the latter fate, in 2020 we must reclaim the idea of “news you can use.” Reporters need to think more like teachers, developing new structures and forms that reinforce new information, that places it in the context of what has come before and what may come next. We can’t compete as just more content on everyone’s distraction devices.

That’s a human being in the backseat, not just a piece of metric.

Jeremy Olshan is editor-in-chief of MarketWatch.

One of the best bits of newsroom management philosophy I ever heard came not from a Peter Drucker book or a TED talk, but in a dingy community-college classroom in Queens. “You gotta remember,” the instructor told a class of newly minted cab drivers, pounding his fist to punctuate each word. “That’s a human being in the backseat — not just a piece of meat.”

That may sound obvious, but when we talk about putting the customer or reader first, we tend to do so in the abstract — failing to truly empathize with the flesh-and-blood souls who hailed us for a ride. I covered that taxi class long before there was an Uber for anything, but I sometimes wonder, had the yellow-taxi industry heeded that instructor’s advice, whether it would have fared any better against the ride-sharing revolution.

Newsrooms in 2020 must do better by the readers in the backseat. Why do people come to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, or MarketWatch in the first place? To be informed, yes, but not merely for academic edification: We all want to improve ourselves, to deepen our knowledge and understanding, to learn new skills, new ways of thinking, working and living.

If that sounds like the province of “service journalism,” so be it. The term gets a bum rap. Service journalism must no longer be marginalized as some lesser form of the enterprise: All journalism should be service journalism.

We are all drowning in a firehose of information at the expense of not only our attention spans but also true understanding. Our industry has a moral responsibility to help readers translate all that information into knowledge. Into wisdom.

The psychologist Philip Fernbach said one of the most pressing problems facing public discourse, one only exacerbated by the information age, is the growing gap between what people think they know and what they actually know. (In fact, people have been shown to mistake what they can Google for their own knowledge.) In the next stage of its evolution, journalism can help narrow that gap by giving readers the background and knowledge to truly make sense of the local, geopolitical, economic, and technological developments — and how to apply that new information to their thought and action.

The Roman poet Horace said the purpose of art is to “inform and delight.” Oscar Wilde joked that art was “all quite useless.” To avoid the latter fate, in 2020 we must reclaim the idea of “news you can use.” Reporters need to think more like teachers, developing new structures and forms that reinforce new information, that places it in the context of what has come before and what may come next. We can’t compete as just more content on everyone’s distraction devices.

That’s a human being in the backseat, not just a piece of metric.

Jeremy Olshan is editor-in-chief of MarketWatch.

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