The Economy of Service Journalism

We talk about service journalism and the economy of journalism. So it makes sense that we should talk about the economy of service journalism.

A quick definition of ‘service journalism’ might be ‘news you can use.’ Service journalism is content meant to improve the reader’s life in a tangible way. Pete Pachal of CoinDesk wrote about service journalism for RJI: “The principal question of traditional journalism is, ‘What is happening?’….And the principal question of service journalism is, ‘What do you do with that information?’ It’s the natural second step.”

As I see it there are two basic forms of economic exchange when it comes to service journalism. One is monetarily closed and the other is open. As with most things – there’s no right/wrong approach. It’s about what serves your goals.

I would contend that what people describe as the “listening” or “engaged journalism” movement is a part of service journalism. Listening puts the oomphf behind service journalism. When you ask and listen to your audience, your response is a kind of service. You listen to the audience, understand their information gaps and fill them.

Most examples of “engaged” or “listening” journalism are monetarily closed. The value that’s exchanged is trust and loyalty. Dollars aren’t exchanging hands but value is being created, which news organizations trade on down the line.

To use business jargon, this is the “top of the funnel.” If you serve 1,000 readers maybe a handful will become subscribers (bottom of the funnel). At Subtext we call these “Engagement Campaigns.” They’re free to the public and we’ve seen conversion rates to becoming a paying subscriber as high as 35% after several months of receiving daily texts.

Because of its position in the acquisition funnel, journalists tend to disassociate the bottom line with this kind of service journalism. Most of the journalism community’s focus here centers around how it can improve the quality of your work. And I believe it’s now accepted as a truism that listening improves the quality of the reporting. It’s with that improved product that a news organization can trade the trust/loyalty for advertising or subscriptions.

The growing service journalism movement is a beautiful thing. It’s a kind of economy with the reader where listening happens and trust is exchanged.

Service Journalism That Tips

At Circa we used to say “The President doesn’t read the news, he’s briefed on it.” Circa’s value proposition was to brief you on the news like you were the President. That was a kind of service. It wasn’t about listening and creating trust. Instead it was about saving time, keeping somebody informed so they wouldn’t have to ‘stay on top’ of the news themselves. Don’t worry, we got you! We heard from a lot of people at the time that they’d be willing to pay us for this service – because that’s how they saw it, a service.

That brings us to a different kind of service journalism. It puts more emphasis on the journalist as somebody doing a job for the audience and thus lends itself more to be “monetarily open.”

Jennifer Wadsworth and Joe Eskenazi, who cover San Jose and San Francisco politics, exude this kind of service journalism. People pay them money and in exchange they are served up morsels of important information – a little each day.

Again – there’s no right/wrong. And I’m confident there are shades of gray between these two. Certainly this second kind of service journalism can also perform acts of listening. Through Subtext the audience will often text back to the reporters and this can lead to stories/sources, etc. Similarly the ‘engaged’ kind of service journalism described earlier can ask for donations and have elements of being ‘monetarily open.’

That said – I do think there is a tendency for the ‘listening’ type of service journalism to work with the community and be free, whilst journalists who work for the community do a service journalism that more directly demands compensation.

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