Service journalism is having a moment.

Newsrooms large and small are discovering — and in some cases, rediscovering — that they can find traction in giving consumers practical information, on subjects ranging from voting to student debt to COVID-19, in a confusing world. With midterm elections approaching, economic concerns multiplying and the pandemic grinding onward, the opportunities for news organizations to help their audiences navigate these uncertainties — and build trust with those audiences in the process — are growing.

It’s perhaps not surprising that some big players are doing this kind of journalism. The Wall Street Journal wrote a whole book based on getting practical information to people about student debt. The Miami Herald weighed in last year with a newsletter for new residents to the booming city. As we wrote in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted an expansion of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s service desk, which provided stories aimed at helping Philadelphians stay safe and informed as the virus spread. The Washington Post recently hired an editor (from the Inquirer) to oversee service journalism. 

But the local and even hyper-local level may be an even more fruitful area for this kind of work. News organizations in these spaces are well positioned to do it, as they seek to make better connections with their communities by serving them useful and practical information — voting guides, “how to” stories and updates on government resources in times of crisis, for example. Some news organizations such as Outlier Media in Detroit and El Timpano in Oakland, California, have even been founded on the idea of service journalism and created a business model around it. 

two masked people distribute KALW voter guides

Volunteers Kelly Egusa (left) and her dad Mike Egusa (right) distributed KALW voter guides in East Palo Alto. Photo courtesy of Kelly Egusa.

Much of this kind of journalism is rooted in deep listening to community needs through engagement in various venues — e.g. in-person, or over messaging apps or text. Some outlets that have experimented with service-oriented stories have found that they not only help people navigate their communities, but also support local civic engagement, strengthen relationships with communities that often distrust media and build foundations for new sources of revenue. 

Moreover, efforts to fill a community’s information needs can also expose information gaps, leading reporters to a different kind of story: accountability journalism through an exploration of reasons those gaps exist. If community members are not getting the information they need about critical services such as vaccines, where or how to vote, or where to access help in housing or health care, it might just expose neglect or oversight on the part of the agency administering a program — and help government officials understand what systemic repairs they need to make.

The American Press Institute has supported several experiments in guiding audiences to practical information, with small grants through our Trusted Elections Network Fund and Local News Ideas-To-Action Fund. They have empowered local news organizations to help their communities understand ballot initiatives, safely vote, access housing and other local services, and participate in decisions about local development. We expect that API’s new Election Coverage & Community Listening Fund, an initiative aimed at helping newsrooms better listen to their communities for election-related coverage, will also include experiments in this kind of work.

Those who have experimented with these ideas so far have reported several lessons that could be useful for others thinking about similar projects. Here are four that we heard more than once, and which we thought would be helpful for others.

    • Meet people where they are — even if it’s not on your main platform. 

KALW, a public radio outlet in the San Francisco Bay area, used a small grant from API’s Trusted Election Network in 2020 to develop 7,000 print voter guides that volunteers hand-distributed to communities with the lowest voter turnout rates. 

“That was a really great engagement opportunity that we haven’t done before — going door to door and interacting with people and making sure to give people information where they needed it, where they could get it, because they weren’t necessarily listening to KALW,” Ben Trefny, KALW’s interim executive director, said during a recent Zoom discussion of how news organizations devised projects to guide audiences to practical information.

    • Ask people what their information needs are — if you want to understand them. 

Finding out a community’s needs to help fill its information gaps is often rooted in deep listening through engagement in various venues, either in-person or over messaging apps, where technology allows a two-way street between publisher and audience, deepening the relationship.

Nuestro Estado in South Carolina, which serves immigrants in the region with a focus on the undocumented population, wanted to find ways to move beyond Facebook to inform its audiences about the availability of public services like hurricane warnings. “We realized people needed information in real time,” said CEO and Publisher Fernando Soto, so they developed a way to communicate with people via WhatsApp and SMS messages.

“That was really important because now we’re able to have that direct communication, and not just make assumptions on what we think the community wants to know which are based on our experience and our perception,” Soto said. 

    • Collaborate and communicate with local community groups or agencies for a sense of what people are lacking. 

In designing its website to help people navigate a housing market where rents are high and housing stock is low, the Keene Sentinel in southwestern New Hampshire first interviewed the agency that helps people find housing to find out what clients are asking them about, said Cecily Weisburgh, the paper’s executive editor-digital. Then they turned to the people seeking assistance themselves — asking them about their experiences and what they felt was missing from the process. 

“We found that to be a really vital conversation to have,” Weisburgh said.

At KALW, which also worked deeply with community groups to discern voter needs for its voter guide project, Trefny calls this working “from the inside out” rather than having journalists parachute into communities they’re not very familiar with.

    • Inform future work with what you learn from such projects.

Once a news organization establishes a template for service journalism, such as a voter guide or a website for helping people with COVID-19, the experience can pay off in the long term by providing a template for future efforts. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, QCity Metro in Charlotte started reporting on how the virus was disparately impacting the Black community. In the process, QCity Metro “learned to appreciate what that kind of practical information could do,” said founder and publisher Glenn Burkins. The team was then able to take that template, he said, and apply it to election coverage in 2020, a year when there was rampant confusion and misinformation circulating about early voting, mail-in ballots and other processes, all exacerbated by the pandemic. The election template “is something we could bring back year after year,” he said.

In all of these projects, newsroom leaders agreed that the idea of “service journalism,” which some might call utility journalism, has evolved from its old days of repurposing government information without thinking through some basic questions about that information: whether it’s actually useful, which parts of the community benefit from it and whether there are gaps that leave some people feeling like the information is not designed with their needs in mind. 

As Soto put it: “It’s much more intentional.”

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