Looking for a Covid-19 vaccine? Need your sidewalk shoveled?
Who you gonna call?
Your local news outlet.
Many newsrooms are adopting a broader role in which they don’t just report the news — they help readers find the services they need to navigate their lives. Key to this is using effective communication methods such as texting and phone hotlines to reach the public and listen when they ask for help.
Megan Griffith-Greene, a senior editor of service features at The Philadelphia Inquirer, says traditional service journalism was associated with women’s magazines and listicles, and there was stigma against it not being “capital J journalism.” However, in the past few years she has seen a real embrace of the practice.
Griffith-Greene defines service journalism as “anything that helps people solve a problem.” She wants stories to be actionable and accessible and to speak directly to the reader, which means using “you.” The Inquirer has done many types of service stories like resource guides for the region, pieces that answered COVID-19 questions and explainers.
“People are balancing a lot in their lives right now and there are certainly cases where people see a story and they don’t necessarily know what that entry point is and having an explainer that just very calmly and simply explains, this is why this is important and this is why we’re talking about this right now, is a way of kind of bridging that gap for readers into some of our other coverage,” Griffith-Greene says.
In the distant past, many newspapers assumed more of a service function. The Chicago Tribune, for example, once ran a Public Service Office that gave people advice on veterans benefits and even their taxes. A century ago, the Chicago Daily News operated a health clinic for children.
In modern times, no one is talking about news outlets getting into the health-clinic business, but there is a growing ethic that news outlets must make themselves more useful.
Carrie Brown, the director of engagement journalism for the Newmark School at the City University of New York, says her program focuses on answering community questions.
Service journalism, she says, is “working with communities rather than for them.”
Hotline for COVID-19
The nonprofit Block Club Chicago focuses on providing essential coverage of the city. When the newsroom was being overrun with questions from readers at the beginning of the pandemic, it launched a COVID-19 email newsletter. But Managing Editor and co-founder Stephanie Lulay says Block Club quickly learned that questions surrounding the pandemic were very specific to the asker and their situation.
After receiving funding from a Facebook journalism project grant, Block Club launched a hotline where readers can send in their questions via text, call or email and get a response in English or Spanish within 48 working hours. Since the launch in October, they have answered more than 848 questions.
“We thought that the hotline would be a conduit so we could match people directly with information that they needed that they were seeking,” Lulay says.
While journalists have always answered reader questions, they are doing it now in a more tailored way, Lulay says. The hotline model has allowed Block Club to “help more people because they know help is available.”
One of the best ways to listen is to just say, ‘hey, what do you need from us?’Hannah Boufford, Newsletter and Hotline Manager, Block Club Chicago
Hannah Boufford, Block Club Chicago’s Newsletter and Hotline Manager, says the newsroom has fielded other types of questions tangentially related to the pandemic, such as people looking for rent assistance or places to volunteer. Some of the questions have even informed their reporting.
When Chicago was hit with a major snowstorm, Block Club also helped connect elderly or disabled residents to snow shoveling services. A city program to help residents had been discontinued, leaving neighborhood groups and aldermanic offices to fill the gap. Block Club called offices and compiled a list that broke down services by ward.
Boufford credits listening to Block Club’s audience as the key to success.
“One of the best ways to listen is to just say, hey, what do you need from us? What can we help you with? What can we connect you with? Which is really just the basics of what we’re doing,” Boufford says.
El Tímpano, a reporting lab for Oakland’s Latino and Mayan community, is named for the Spanish word for “eardrum,” emphasizing the need to listen to the community. Founder Madeleine Bair did just that with a nine-month listening tour before launching the lab. She learned that residents were not using websites or email to access information.
“They told us they want news they can use, like, essentially news that helps them take action for themselves and their families and their communities,” Bair says.
Bair says they noticed schools and other community organizations using texting to communicate with people, so they decided to focus on texting to provide resources in Spanish. Over the course of the pandemic, subscribers to the texts grew 250% from March 2020 to March 2021.
El Tímpano visited food distribution sites and other community organizations to get the word out. Since the pandemic started, a majority of the messages El Tímpano has put out are related to COVID-19. They provide public health guidance, which is often difficult to find in Spanish, as well as information about food distribution sites. Now they are helping people navigate the vaccine process.
Bair says people will respond and let them know when a resource El Tímpano has sent out did not work for them.
“It’s a two-way conversation, so as much as we send out information, people also write into us and tell us what sort of information they’re seeing, how the information or the resources that we’re providing are or in many cases are not working,” Bair says.
El Tímpano estimates that 40% of its audience is Mam Mayan, so they have started working with a Mayan community radio station in Oakland that broadcasts in Spanish and the Mam Mayan language. This allows them to share El Tímpano’s information with Mayan community members who don’t speak Spanish.
Centering People in a Crisis
Outlier Media, a Detroit-based service journalism organization, was created by Sarah Alvarez to give residents, especially lower-income residents, the information they needed. Like El Tímpano, Outlier is using texting so that people living without access to the internet can see their reporting, which is delivered in three languages: English, Spanish and Arabic.
At first Detroiters told them they needed to know about housing and utilities, but that changed when COVID-19 came to their community. So, they changed their system to answer questions around the pandemic such as access to Covid-19 testing and health care, food insecurity and dealing with an outbreak while in a prison.
Detroiters can text a number and get automated information or they can speak directly with a reporter and get their questions answered within 48 hours.
Executive Director Candice Fortman says that while Detroit has lots of media outlets reporting on similar issues, there is still a lack of quality information that “centers people who are living in a crisis.” Outlier does more traditional reporting, but it wants to ensure all residents get the information they need first, she says.
People's personal information is a currency for them. So, they handed you over their data and their information, now what? How do you make that information actionable?Candice Fortman, Executive Director, Outlier Media
“Before we ever get to that traditional reporting, we first want to make sure that our core audience, which is our low wealth audience, is secure enough to even be able to live long enough to see that other reporting happen,” Fortman says.
Fortman says that if journalists want to do more service journalism they should start by listening to their community and find a way to make engagement core to their newsroom.
“People’s personal information is a currency for them. So, they handed you over their data and their information, now what? How do you make that information actionable?” Fortman says.
El Tímpano’s Bair says that listening will help a newsroom determine what format is best for their community. Texting might not be for everyone.
“Get to know the community first. Don’t decide what tool or technology or strategy you are going to use until you have a good understanding of the community that you’re trying to serve,” Bair says
The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Griffith-Greene sees pieces of service journalism in stories, but they are often buried. Re-framing a story that already has essential information can make it a service journalism piece, she says.
“Maybe the more valuable piece to spend the time on is telling people what they can do about this information rather than just establishing that that piece of information exists,” Griffith-Greene says.