With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, many newsrooms began pouring energy and resources into producing news that audiences could use to navigate the crisis as it pertained to their lives — whether they were dealing with sickness or job loss, adapting to at-home schooling and childcare, or merely trying to make sense of the whole rapidly changing situation.
The Philadelphia Inquirer, which had recently installed a service desk, had already been focused on the “news you can use” approach, applying it to reporting from across the newsroom. But the pandemic prompted the desk’s expansion, leading not only to stories that helped Philadelphians stay safe and informed regarding COVID-19, but also to projects that helped readers make decisions relating to the civil rights protests, voting, gun ownership and more.
We spoke with the Inquirer’s service features editor, Megan Griffith-Greene, about how the service desk works with the rest of the newsroom, the twin principles that shape its work — and why it’s time for journalists to start giving “service journalism” the respect it deserves.
Q: Tell us about your role and the role of the service desk as a whole.
A: The Inquirer’s service desk is relatively new. I took it over in November 2019, and we expanded it significantly in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic, when everything in the world was new, and hard, and scary and confusing. There was an undeniable need for clear information about how to make sense of everything that was happening around us, what the rules were, what the science meant, and how to stay safe.
I now have three dedicated writers, and also work with reporters and editors across the newsroom to identify and execute service-focused ideas.
I have a very expansive view about what service journalism is. At its heart: It’s about connecting the news to our readers’ lives. OK, so now they know what’s going on, but what can they do about it? How do they use the information we provide to live better lives? Make smarter decisions? How can they better understand what’s happening and feel more engaged in the world because of it?
Our two main goals as a desk are creating stories that are actionable and accessible. Actionable stories are useful and practical; they help people make better decisions. Accessible stories mean they are easy to read, understand and remember, and we use a variety of techniques to break up the text and make it easier to absorb. We use active and conversational language, talk directly to the reader, and use subheads, bullet points and bold text to draw the eye and let people know what’s important. People shouldn’t have to hunt for the useful takeaways; we should always clearly signpost what people will learn from a story and make it easy to find the information that is relevant to them.
Service journalism is about connecting the news to our readers’ lives. OK, so now they know what’s going on, but what can they do about it?
We make our stories easy to find through search, so people can locate clear and accurate information, and we try to build evergreen content, updating it when necessary, so when people do find it, it’s the right information.
On the desk, we work on a number of themes, including the pandemic (what the rules are and what’s safe), community and racial justice (how to make sense of and engage with this moment in our history), economic impact (how to access resources you need), and civic engagement (how to be better engaged in your city and understand your rights). We also oversee our Curious Philly Hearken project, where readers ask us questions and tell us what stories they want us to report.
Some of our bigger projects include:
- Answering specific reader questions about the pandemic (submitted through our Curious Philly Hearken embeds)
- Our tenants’ rights guide
- A how-to-vote guide, which we were thrilled to be able to offer in five languages because of an API grant
- A series on how to safely enjoy Philly during the pandemic
- Our Black and Blue project about the history of police violence against Black people in Philly
- Our breakdown of current pandemic rules in Philly, Pennsylvania and New Jersey
- Other evergreen resources including what to know if you get arrested at a protest, an explainer about gun rules, what to do if you’re denied unemployment, how to be an ally to the trans community, and others.
Q: Do service stories always originate from the service desk, or does your team ever take reporting from other areas and adapt it from a “service” perspective?
A: We do both. We collaborate with other desks in a number of ways. The service capacity of a newsroom is greater when it’s part of how everyone thinks about their work, and not siloed to one editor or group of reporters.
So, often, we’ll flag ideas to a specific desk, and they can take it on themselves, work with us, or let us run with it, and they can be as involved as they want or have time to be.
And often desks flag their own ideas — and great ones! And I am here to support those stories in any way it’s welcome and helpful, from the initial brainstorming to formatting suggestions to editing, or all of the above. There’s been a real enthusiasm across the newsroom for this kind of work, which fills me with joy.
The service capacity of a newsroom is greater when it’s part of how everyone thinks about their work.
One thing I often say: Many reporters are already writing service; they’re just weaving the information into their pieces. So my challenges to them are: How can we center the reader’s needs? How can we make something that will be useful in weeks or months? How can we make the information easier to find and use to take a specific action?
Q: You mentioned your team has expanded since the beginning of the pandemic. What was the strategy for doing that and how did you advocate for it to happen?
A: There’s been great support from the top in building our service muscle in the newsroom; it has been a priority for longer than I’ve been in the role. The pandemic was the first real test to see what that could really look like. It was part of a much bigger strategy, at the beginning of the pandemic, on how we could best deploy resources to take on this new reality, not knowing how long the pandemic would dominate our lives. As it turns out, quite a long time. It was quick thinking, and it was a really smart way to think about how our desks could better serve readers. And one desk that got a significant boost was service.
And it paid off immediately. We started by focusing on answering really narrow questions about the pandemic, and presenting clear, straightforward information. Can I get the coronavirus from mail or food delivery? What stores are offering seniors’ hours? Should I wash my clothes after I go outside? How can I make a mask? What should I do if I’m laid off or furloughed? People were feeling really lost and confused, and we were here to tell them: It’s OK, here’s what the science means; here’s some advice. Don’t panic.
Since then we’ve expanded the kinds of topics we take on, but not that fundamental approach, which is about making people less afraid and more informed: It’s OK, we’re here to help.
Q: How do you track how audiences are engaging with reporting from the service desk?
A: Absolutely! It’s important to measure what’s working and what’s not, and use that data to inform decisions. We have an excellent analytics team here at the Inquirer that I lean on for insight to help make decisions and evaluate the gains we’ve made. One thing that’s important is that we’re building a stable of evergreen stories that will continue to be useful over time, which is a little bit of a different race than news stories are running, but it’s still important to check our assumptions both about our story choice and how we’ve packaged it.
Q: Do you think misconceptions about service journalism get in the way of doing reporting that is truly useful for people?
A: Hoo boy. I could write a novel to answer this question. I get a little evangelical about how service journalism needs to be central to how any newsroom thinks about its mission. It’s endlessly fascinating to me that traditionally, newsrooms think that service work is not capital-J journalism. It comes out of a very old-school, and outdated, idea of what we do. Somehow, “serious journalism” is seen — by a decreasing cohort — as only Pulitzer-worthy, 10,000-word essays in the Atlantic or New Yorker or New York Times, and “news you can use” is derided, associated with listicles, how-to’s, and women’s magazines (don’t even get me started on the incredible sexism that underlies this association).
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good, deep longread. I love investigative journalism. But if we think of what we want to be as newsrooms, who we want our readers to be, and how we want to function in our communities, we have to think about not just getting the information, but making it actionable and accessible, about increasing understanding, making people feel informed and giving them the tools to be more involved. In a way, modern journalism is about service. It’s reader-centric, and uses the tools we have to make our stories easier to read and understand.
Which is how, as a newsroom, you become essential to readers.