Ask A News SEO: Megan Griffith-Greene on service journalism
Megan Griffith-Greene, the service journalism editor for the Washington Post. We were so thrilled to chat about how service-oriented reporting can build more meaningful relationships with audiences
Hello and welcome back. It’s Jessie and Shelby, back from the Week of Spotify Wrapped aka, outing yourself on main week. I (Jessie) will not be sharing mine as my most-streamed albums are god-level cringey. But I will share two non-embarrassing tracks I did love: Later Days and Evergreen.
This week, we were joined by Megan Griffith-Greene, the service journalism editor for the Washington Post. We were so thrilled to chat about how service-oriented reporting can build more meaningful relationships with our audiences.
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ASK A NEWS SEO
What do you consider to be ‘service journalism’?
I have a very broad, expansive definition of “service journalism,” which is: anything that is explanatory, or connects the news to an individuals’ daily life.
I think service journalism has been denigrated in our industry, because it’s associated with women’s magazines – and therefore not “Capital-J journalism”. What’s so exciting, now, is that we’ve turned a corner on that view because of COVID. Everyone realized how much they needed help to navigate the world. It’s been really interesting to see the attitude about service journalism change so much.
In news, we're really good at putting the information – the scoop, the exclusive – first, which is useful and necessary. Service journalism is fundamentally about the same thing: finding information. But one of the hallmarks of service journalism, for me, is that instead of putting the information at the centre of the story, it puts the audience at the centre: How does the news actually relate to and affect my daily life? It's often the same reporting, but the storytelling is structured around the information people critically need and helping people find the answers that will help them.
I also like to say that a lot of service journalism happens informally at bars and at dinner parties, when our friends and family turn to us for help understanding a topic, or figure out what to do; our mom calls us and asks us for advice. When I talk about a service focus for news, I'm talking about extending that same clarity and help to our audience as well.
The other piece of audience-building is that there are so many people who – for so many reasons – do not feel like the news is for them. Our industry has done a lot to disenfranchise people, to make them feel like they’re not qualified to read the news or the news isn’t for, or about, them. And even if you don't feel this way, there are so many reasons you may feel lost in a specific story. You may miss the first few days or weeks of a storyline -- if you have kids or are sick or busy, or even if you've just taken a break from news coverage. Sometimes, even if you’re well-versed in the news, jumping into a story on day four can be very intimidating.
I think that’s the role service journalism can play for news, just making news more accessible. That little bit of an on-ramp for a story.
What does SEO and keyword research look like for service journalism?
It’s an incredibly valuable tool. The core of this is good audience listening. Audience listening is important for a number of reasons. It’s common for journalists to hang out with each other. Our frame of reference can’t be trusted all the time. It’s a really important thing to gut check yourself. Your instincts are good, but they are not everything. Everyone has gaps.
Audience listening helps make sure you include things that matter to people – and matter to people who know less than you do about a topic.
Keyword research is an important piece because Google is our most intimate friend. We ask Google things we don’t ask our spouses or best friends or family. The SEO part of service journalism is assessing the information needs and what people are struggling with, confused about or need to know.
It’s critical that happens at the outset of the story assignment phase. You want to make sure you’re considering all of the things people need. Often the SEO research confirms how you’re already thinking about that story because sometimes they’re really obvious targets. But about nine in 10 times, it will give you something new to consider.
How do you work with the newsroom to think about service journalism and connect it to what they’re writing
The approach is additive. It’s giving reporters more information or new points to consider. It’s taking the guesswork out of what editors think might be valuable. It’s sometimes about validating those editorial instincts.
This is the beauty of the conversations that happen around stories in any newsroom. It’s thinking about what are the important angles to hit. Paying attention not just to the story, but having a holistic approach about how the stories exist together and how we help people find related content they might need. It’s a big part of that process.
It’s a partnership. It's about creating a really collaborative environment where people are open to taking on different angles. One of the outcomes, sometimes, is that not everything needs to be a news story. Sometimes the service story is the story. In some cases, that is the best approach.
That’s something that can feel counterintuitive in our industry, but is a really important message to meditate on. Sometimes what people need is the service story and there are lots of ways to get information, nuance, expertise – and all of the richness we associate with the narrative feature – into a format that is a bit more accessible and action-oriented.
How do you make a high-value, important story more accessible? How do you meet the reader where they are?
To me the core of this question is thinking about how we build a relationship with our audience. It's about strengthening how we are a trusted and valuable source, by making our stories easier to find, understand, use and remember.
There are a lot of storytelling techniques that can help us do this. One of them: I really push for using first- and second-person verbiage in service journalism because it’s all about you, the reader. Using “I” and “you” can be incredibly effective because it builds a totally different relationship with our reader than they’re used to having with a news outlet.
Other techniques that work well: Good signposting, and generally breaking convention when it does not serve us. Not everything has to be in paragraphs of prose.
We often assume that the importance of what we do will carry the day. What we do is really important, there’s no question, but we need to think more broadly about how we show up for people. We have a huge role to play as a connector, between the information people need and the experts we have access to. We have tremendous access that most people don’t have.
Another thing I think about a lot: We’re all in newsrooms because having information makes us feel better. But for a lot of people, there is a lot more emotion attached to news. They’re freaked out about what they do and don’t know, and what might happen. This is a scary time.
A part of service journalism I’m fascinated by is how it can help people feel more in control of their lives and more connected to the world in a way that accounts for the real fear and panic they feel. We’re not softening the news, but we can write in a way that makes people feel calmer and more informed. Even if it’s about bad stuff happening in the world. This is a mental health issue as much as it is an informational issue. There’s a role for newsrooms, in general, and service journalism specifically, to play in making people feel like they don’t have to completely disengage.
What’s one thing you wish you knew when first starting out?
To be clear: I am not an SEO editor, I have just become a bit of a fangirl about how we use SEO to make our journalism more relevant to the audience, and it’s critical to how I work.
The thing that was the most eye-opening for me was reading the exhaustive Google Quality Guidelines. What I wasn’t expecting: At its core, Google is just trying to understand quality. That was really a relief – to think about SEO in that context. As editor, I can understand that – we’re trying to send signals of quality. And that’s really reassuring to editorial teams that it’s not about doing what the robots tell us to do. It’s about showing our work in a way that’s signaling that we’ve created a useful resource. That felt good to learn. It wasn’t the takeaway expected.
When I talk to teams about optimizing stories, that’s what I try to go back to. Yes, there are techniques and things to keep in mind, but at the end of the day, we’re all trying to make something useful; creating something that’s authoritative and signals the expertise and value of our work.
Because it’s easy to think of SEO as a technical pursuit that has nothing to do with daily reporting, and this lesson is just a nice place to return to. We’re trying to create the best resource we can. That’s a good common ground.
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THE JOBS LIST
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The Athletic is hiring a Technical SEO Analyst (Remote).
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Last week, many extremely talented people were laid off. Ours is a tough industry. If you are looking for work, send us your LinkedIn and a note about the role you’re looking for. We will include a list of audience and SEO editors looking to get hired next week.
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Have something you’d like us to discuss? Send us a note on Twitter (Jessie or Shelby) or to our email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Jessie Willms and Shelby Blackley