Back when I was writing for print magazines on a more regular basis, most editors made a distinction between “service journalism” and other kinds of news and feature writing. Not news and not long-form feature or narrative writing, service journalism provides strongly consumer-oriented information, usually designed to help readers make purchasing decisions of one kind or another. Being the narrative snob that I was, I generally loathed this kind of writing. Being the freelance writer that I was, however, I generally took such assignments when I could.
More recently, I’ve been looking at journalism and media from a new perspective, trying to bring to bear my last half dozen years or more in and around tech and startups. Part of what I’m interested in, of course, is the evolution of journalism and media in general. And part of what I’m starting to realize is that all journalism is service journalism, in one way or another. And therein may lie a signpost.
What’s interesting to me is the parallel to digital marketing and the value of audiences: readers, viewers, members and users are more valuable to marketers at the moment they’re making a purchasing decision. Hence the emphasis on reaching targeted and qualified traffic. For marketers, it’s often more valuable to get in front of a few people whom you know to be interested in the product you’re pushing than it is to get in front of a larger number of people who may or may not care. Hence the value of service journalism: the readers who pay the most attention to a fashion magazine article on makeovers, for instance, are likely buyers of lipstick and eye shadow. If I’m a makeup company, I want the ad space across from that page — and I’m a lot less interested in the ad space facing an article on politics. If I’m a movie company, I want the ad space across from the reviews page. And so on.
But general-interest media companies — companies that do “journalism” proper (like The New York Times, for instance) — face a curious problem in that the product they’re pushing is not the topic of an article, but the article itself. This is part of what’s been so troublesome for them in trying to build (or rebuild) audiences that monetize well in a new (digital) medium. What’s been striking me lately, though, is how closely general-interest news and information resembles service journalism, if viewed from the correct perspective.
Take the upcoming presidential election. Whether you’re reading about Romney’s tax returns, Obama’s comments on entrepreneurship, or our allegedly broken electoral system, you’re also gathering information that will help you decide who to vote for.
The same goes for a host of other not-immediately-purchase-or-product-related content that nonetheless helps inform a range of decisions. Stories on the economy might help guide you as to whether now’s a good time to look for a new job. Similarly, reading about the Mars Rover may expand your notion of the possible — both for the space program and for yourself and the people around you. Even a complex story about a mining venture in Afghanistan can inform your choices as a consumer and civic participant. It’s a stretch, of course, to call those last two examples service journalism, but I don’t think it’s inappropriate — and I do think there’s a helpful lens in it: In one way or another, almost all journalism can be called service journalism insofar as it informs a reader’s decisions, whether in the near term or further down the line.
And that’s the small insight here: Journalism is generally taken to have the broad and lofty goal of “informing the public” of various events and situations. It is then the reader’s responsibility to make informed decisions based on that information. But what if those decisions were surfaced more in the writing process? What if journalism’s lofty goal were to help readers make very specific informed decisions about the very specific topics that are dealt with in a given article, whether it’s makeup purchases or political choices or even the existential question of who we are or can be?
This is almost too simple an idea to mention, but I don’t think it’s top of mind for most journalists on an everyday basis. There’s a difference between writing an article that examines the various sides of an issue like genetically modified food additives, and writing an article that helps the reader choose whether to consume and/or support such things. If it were more explicitly a piece of “service journalism” it might read differently — and attract a more focused and monetizable audience. Maybe there’s a middle ground between so-called “unbiased” reportage, and baldly market-driven product reviews. Maybe there’s a way to make more articles more useful to more people, simply by keeping in mind what decisions the article may be driving — by keeping in mind the specific audience segment that’s being targeted by the article, and the specific decisions that audience needs help in making.
I doubt this is what’s going to “save” journalism. (In fact, I don’t think journalism quite needs saving, though that’s a matter for another post.) But I do think it can help editors and publishers think more productively about how to provide a product that will generate more revenue in an age when that task has grown difficult.