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Sept. 1, 2020, 2:05 p.m.
Business Models

When you’re supposed to stay at home all the time, service journalism fills a new role

Service stories used to exist apart from, and as a respite to, the news. In pandemic times, that no longer makes sense.

Once you start looking for it, you see service journalism everywhere. Tips on how to make face masks fit better, reading lists to learn about institutional racism, advice to help a friend deal with anxiety. Forces on both sides of the news producer/consumer equation are driving this uptick: these stories, broadly defined as those that offer actionable advice, are relatively easy to report remotely. They’re also in demand among consumers who are looking for guidance on everything from finances to mental health to dinner ideas. This shift toward reporting that helps people not just learn but do something predates the Covid-19 pandemic, but at a time when many have questions, service journalism provides answers.

At its core, modern service journalism is about helping people live better. Media’s trajectory toward more and more interpretations of that principle has been sped up by the pandemic. Today, consumers crave the clarity that a well-reported how-to piece or thorough product review can provide. A story format that was fodder for many defunct lifestyle magazines is particularly well suited to digital media, which allows readers to access material whenever they need it. Traditionally, service stories exist apart from, and in many ways as a respite to, the news. But advice-oriented content that ignores the unprecedented context we’re all living in? That simply doesn’t make sense.

In 2016, the New York Times launched Smarter Living, a collection of concrete tips and tricks from across the paper, as a newsletter and online-only section. “When we started Smarter Living, one of our big, long-term goals was to change newsroom behavior and get to the point where desks were really thinking what service means for their section,” says Tim Herrera, Smarter Living editor. “Four years later, every desk has built their version of service into their core areas.” (Smarter Living, which still centralizes advice but also produces many original stories, started appearing in the print Business section weekly in 2018.) The Times’ latest ad campaign has a notable focus on its expanded service coverage, designed to “help readers adapt to the new demands of daily life.”

Vox’s Eater at Home launched in late March and strays from the site’s food industry news and analysis norm to offer cooking tips. (There’s some overlap with shopping recommendation site The Strategist from New York Magazine, which was acquired by Vox last year.) The New Yorker’s online vertical on “What to read, watch, cook, and listen to under coronavirus quarantine” features Netflix picks alongside expert voices, like an interview with a clinical psychologist on “Supporting children’s development during the pandemic.” The New York Times’ At Home section, online and in the Sunday paper, takes a similar approach to the early days of Smarter Living, plucking stories from different desks like Food (dinner recipes) and Arts (streaming concerts); it launched this year to “help readers thrive in a setting where work, school, family and recreation come together within a single space.”

Christine Cyr Clisset, deputy editor at Wirecutter, says that in the early days of the pandemic, the team shifted to producing a lot of “reactive coverage.” This was unusual for the site, which usually focuses on longform product reviews. (It was acquired by The New York Times in 2016.) The shipping delays and limited stock of the early days of the crisis resulted in stories like “What to do if you can’t buy a top-rated thermometer right now.” Clisset says that her team closely monitored stock levels and price gauging in an effort to feature the best products available at a reasonable cost. When the initial panic started to transition into a “new normal,” Clisset says she saw an increase interest in work-from- and workout-at-home content. Stories like “8 cheap alternatives to pricey home office gear (and you probably already own them)” and “How to DIY your own dumbbells, weights, and more for home workouts” came out of this period.

Life Kit, NPR’s podcast packed with “tools to help you get it together,” premiered at the end of 2018. Managing producer Meghan Keane says she and her team had just started to feel comfortable with the format they’d developed when Covid hit and they realized Life Kit couldn’t “just be an evergreen encyclopedia anymore.” Since March, the team has played with formats, incorporating more two-way interviews centered around the news mixed with high-production value shows that seem removed from it. “Working a few late nights here and there isn’t fun, but we were helping no one if we kept with our schedule that we had,” says Keane, who normally plans out shows three months in advance. For Life Kit, the new schedule flexibility Covid demanded also enabled producers to react to the growing social justice movement following the killing of George Floyd, and incorporate timely stories like “A Black mother reflects on giving her three sons ‘the talk’…again and again.

Keane often thinks of something one of her colleagues, Tonya Mosley, co-host of NPR’s Here and Now and host of KQED’s Truth Be Told, once said to her: “If you make something for everyone, you make something for no one.” Instead, Keane says, “I want Life Kit to be for everyone in that they can open up our podcast feed and find something that speaks directly to them that might not speak to another person.”

One advantage of the volume of digital service content is that every story doesn’t need to have broad appeal. There’s room, and even incentive, for individualization. While some will be fans of particular shows or sections, many will invariably come to stories as a result of online searches. While the events of recent months have untethered seasonal anchors like back to school preparation, they’ve also provided a new set of questions for news outlets to tackle.

Rachel del Valle is a writer living in New York. She previously wrote for Nieman Lab about quiet.

POSTED     Sept. 1, 2020, 2:05 p.m.
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