5 Reasons to Love Service Journalism

Service is the fast food of the magazine industry. That doesn’t mean it can’t be a full, nutritious meal

Jessica Lockhart
Spring, 2008 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

For years, Lise Ravary had practiced a version of her short speech, so it was hardly impromptu. After a quarter-century of involvement with the National Magazine Awards as both judge and board member, the thought had become too difficult to ignore. Yet again, women’s service magazines had been bypassed in favour of more “respected” magazines. Maclean’s, Toronto Life and that cool new kid on the block, The Walrus, had hogged the spotlight while service titles such as Canadian Living, Canadian House & Home and Chatelaine waited in the wings.

Prior to last year’s awards show, Ravary had meticulously tallied the list of nominees: only about 20 of the 300 had gone to women’s service magazines. So, when the editorial director of women’s titles and new magazine brands at Rogers Publishing stepped up to the podium to accept the health and medicine award for an absentee Chatelaine writer, her well-rehearsed words went straight to the point: “I’d like to accept this on behalf of the much-loved, much-read women’s magazines in this country, who, unfortunately, are not coming up here often enough.”

Customary applause filled the room and Ravary left the stage. But her words hit deaf ears—the complimentary bottles of wine had long ago been emptied, and the crowd had gone through several rounds of drinks. Apart from a brief mention on D. B. Scott’s Canadian Magazines blog, the magazine community glossed over Ravary’s speech.

While service journalism is read and adored by its intended audience, with the aforementioned service-heavy magazines dominating Canadian newsstand sales in 2006, the editorial elite regards the category as entirely forgettable or, worse, trite and insipid. Toronto-based freelancer Astrid Van Den Broek, who’s written her share of service pieces, says her craft is perceived as a lesser form of writing. “I feel like service pieces are seen as the sloppy seconds of journalism,” she says, sometimes deservedly so. Guides to losing weight in time for bikini season, nine different ways to make chicken noodle soup, reviews for restaurants that never earn less than three stars—these stories are hardly the stuff that byline dreams are made of.

But writers’ aspirations aside, service is what hooks readers—providing tips for doing things faster, easier and smarter—and keeps them coming back for more. Don Obe, editor of Toronto Life from 1977 to 1981, credits Clay Felker for first introducing service into New York magazine in the late 1960s. It wasn’t enough for a magazine to be informative and entertaining—it also had to be perceived as useful. As New York journalist Michael Wolff wrote in an anniversary issue, “Felker’s magazine wasn’t so much a guide to the city as it was a guide to being cleverer, hipper and more in-the-know.” Nation-wide, city magazines followed suit. They became the source of where to get the best goods for the cheapest price.

Forty years later, the definition of service remains subjective, but one thing’s certain: while many industry insiders view service as junk food in the spinach aisle, readers keep devouring more. In the spirit of the genre in question, here are five reasons why service is the healthy choice for the magazine industry.

1.  Size doesn’t matter: it’s time to focus on quality, not quantity There’s no denying the nostalgia for the decades prior to the 1990s—that magical period when features regularly ran at 8,000 words in general interest magazines such as Saturday Night. Collectives such as the West Coast’s FCC (whose members include J.B. MacKinnon and Alisa Smith, co-authors of the alternative service cook- book, The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating) have formed to celebrate narrative non-fiction. The Walrus, a general interest magazine that routinely publishes 5,000- to 6,000-word features and is known to have run 12,000-word features, regularly cleans up at the NMAs. In addition, until November 2007, when the NMAF introduced the short feature category, stories of 2,000 words or less were always underdogs against the heavyweight long-form champs. 

Today, feature stories are often limited to 3,000 words—with service pieces coming in at half that or less. But word count isn’t the only thing decreasing: so is the frequency of meaty stories in magazines. “Four or five years ago, I was running a couple of feature-length stories in Western Living every month,” says former editor Jim Sutherland. “By the time I left a year ago, I was having a hard time getting one into every second or third issue.”

Gary Ross, editor of Vancouver magazine, attributes the shorter stories to shrinking attention spans. “Unless you’re a devoted New Yorker reader,” he says, “nobody wants to spend time getting to the end of an 8,000-word story.” Stories that may have run as features 20 years ago, Ross says, are often reimagined as service pieces. “You communicate the same information in more digestible chunks.”

That doesn’t mean chunked-up stories require any less work for the writer and editor—a common misconception. A service piece done well takes hours of painstaking research, numerous interviews and a fresh approach to what may be a familiar story. Freelancer David Hayes recalls the first service piece he wrote for Toronto Life in the ’80s; it was on home renovation. His editor, Stephen Trumper, told him: “You treat this exactly like you’d treat any feature. You do research the same way, you do interviews the same way, you do everything the same way.” The feature ran as the cover story for a Toronto Life supplement. Hayes says, “It felt very much like I could have been doing any story.”

Charlotte Empey, former editor of Homemakers and Canadian Living, agrees that when it comes to process, service isn’t all that different. “Bad copy, lazy copy, stories with no concept—they’re not good enough for service,” she says. “Service needs to adhere to the same standards of excellence as any other kind of journalism.”

2. Selling copies doesn’t mean selling out.  A quick scan of newsstands reveals more women’s service titles vying for readers’ attention. But in the past half decade, grocery checkout classics have been forced to share rack space with the bastard love child of fashion magazines and catalogs: the magalog.

When Lucky launched to immediate success south of the border  back in 2001, Canada followed. St. Joseph Media released Wish in August 2004 and Rogers Publishing started LouLou in late 2004. Suddenly, so-called shopping mags were hot and a new category was born. “Magalogs were it,” says Matthew Mallon, former editor of Vancouver magazine. “All our fancy-schmancy 5,000-word essays about public issues were unnecessary interruptions of cool stuff to wear, eat or sit on.”

In 2003, when Mallon had the task of redesigning Vancouver, he saw an opportunity to prevent the magazine from drifting in the all-shopping, all-the-time direction. Instead, he tried to duplicate Clay Felker’s New York. The new Vancouver would represent the city, warts and all, with a combination of issues and smart, critically informed service journalism. Now, Mallon thinks his vision was naive and idealistic. “I wanted to try and make the magazine an actual city magazine,” he says, “rather than an ad delivery mechanism.”

While the redesign was critically successful, winning Magazine of the Year at the Western Magazine Awards for the B.C./Yukon category in 2006, it was criticized by The Vancouverite blog for “pretending to be a big cosmopolitan magazine.” Mallon’s model proved financially infeasible, and almost three years after the magazine’s transformation, he was fired. Gary Ross, a Saturday Night and Toronto Life veteran, took over the editor’s chair.

Under Ross, packaging became more important. He encouraged smaller stories—the more diverse information crammed into the magazine, the better. While Mallon’s September 2004 issue featured articles such as, “Transit Strikes: Megaprojects Versus Small Businesses,” and, “A Hard Place: Refugees Face the Prospect of Zero Legal Aid,” Ross’s September 2006 issue on service included: “Renovation Hell (Home Renovation)” and “Wind, Water, Money: The Growing Popularity of Feng Shui.” The result? A  25 per cent increase in newsstand sales for 2007, which Ross partly attributes to the service-oriented covers.

While Mallon admits that well-done service is part of a healthy mix in any magazine—and may boost sales—his concern is that advertisers aren’t comfortable with service that really serves. “It became clear to me that a successful city magazine was aimed pretty squarely at comforting the comfortable, ignoring the afflicted and creating an extremely advertising-friendly environment,” he says. “Toss in a couple of features for awards season and you’re done.”

Even Ravary, one of service journalism’s biggest champions, acknowledges that magazines have to be careful not to disservice their readers by selling out to advertiser demands. But her solution is simple: “If we rewrite press releases, if we pay homage to the big beauty advertisers, then we deserve all the scorn that’s heaped upon us,” she says. “Do your work with integrity.”

3. Check the “best before” date. The content is fresher than it appears Women’s magazines are often accused of recycling ideas, information and articles—a charge editors don’t necessarily deny. Service grows wearisome when we read, for the third time, to drink lots of water (Chatelaine: January 1999, April 2000, August 2001); how to get your body beach-ready (Flare: July 1998, April 2000, June 2001); and to always eat breakfast (Canadian Living: April 2004, September 2005, March 2008). Service doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, repetitive.

But consider this: recycled features are often seasonally motivated and high newsstand sellers. This obvious point—being timely for the reader—sometimes isn’t so obvious for ambitious magazine editors. Once, as editor-in-chief of Elle Quebec, Ravary decided to ignore Christmas altogether after hearing complaints about the stressful nature of the holiday. “It was a huge mistake,” she says with a laugh. “There are anchors in our lives that we want to read about.”

Similarly, every year Chatelaine runs a feature on foods, but each time it incorporates new medical research and focuses on a new angle. It’s not an exaggeration to say the genre’s success relies on the enthusiasm and creativity of writers and editors. For example, Hayes once wrote a story for Toronto Life about car washes—a pretty mundane topic. But throw a car wash trade show and some dazzling new technology into the mix, and suddenly, the world of soap and suds is more than just another chore. More recently, explore magazine’s July–August 2007 cover boldly promised to tell readers, “How to Make Love in a Canoe.”

Done right, service journalism is like a favourite casserole: the ingredients might involve a few leftovers, but with some spice and fresh ingredients, it can have an entirely new flavour.

4. Packaging is more than just a pretty wrapper. Despite their proven audience appeal, fresh and honest service articles still fight for attention at the National Magazine Awards. Since 1985, Canadian Living has won only nine honourable mentions. Chatelaine has earned a total of 56 since 1977. The Walrus, however, won 93 in its first four years alone. “There was a growing chorus of people who were concerned that their work wasn’t being adequately recognized,” says Kim Pittaway, president of the foundation. “The awards recognized a wide range of narrative stories, but not a wide range of service stories.” Pittaway has been pushing for the inclusion of more service categories ever since she joined the NMAF as a board member about 10 years ago.

But the creation of three new service awards in 2003 didn’t cause everyone in the industry to stand up and cheer. “Those are the categories people are least excited about judging,” says Sutherland, himself a former NMA judge. “I’d probably rather judge essays or one of the more journalistic categories.” It could be this kind of attitude, which is pervasive in the industry, that explains why the shiny golds and silvers for service are often handed out to decidedly non-traditional service stories. In 2007, the Walrus, a magazine not exactly known for its service journalism, earned two silvers in service categories, while Canadian Living and Chatelaine went home empty-handed. It was a judging decision that left Ravary even more disappointed. “Are they magazine awards?” she asks. “Or are they serious journalism awards?”

These were the kinds of questions Empey asked herself last year when the Walrus won silver for Nora Underwood’s “The Teenage Brain,” a story about “why adolescents sleep in, take risks and won’t listen to reason.” Although the article fell into the service category simply by being “explanatory” (the NMAF’s definition of service at the time of the 2007 awards), it didn’t feature any of the characteristic structural elements of a service story—there were no instructional subheadings or advice. It could have just as easily been entered into the health and medicine category.

Canadian Living had done that story five years earlier when it was really news,” says Empey. “And I thought we’d done a really strong package.” The Canadian Living article, “Hardwire Your Teens’ Brain for Success,” by Kristin Jenkins, was a sharp contrast to Underwood’s. As well as presenting the information in narrative form, Canadian Living offered a guide for parents. Accompanying the story were sidebars featuring conversations with real-life teenagers and parents, information on why adolescents need more sleep, as well as an explanation of the MRI studies conducted on teens.

Canadian Living didn’t even bother to enter the story into the competition. Empey doesn’t remember the specific reason why not, but says it was probably because the service categories aren’t taken seriously or given importance.

In November 2007, the NMAF board addressed the issue and unanimously voted to change service-related content in the program. In addition to creating a new category for service story editorial packages (which takes into account the complete collaboration of a service story including the illustrations, sidebars and writing), the board redefined the categories. Service was reclassified as “informational,” and the how-to category as “instructional.”

Although the foundation made an effort to recognize service journalism, the category remains ambiguously defined, allowing for the entry of any story with informational content. “I don’t think it’s the foundation’s job to come up with a definitive definition of service,” says Pittaway. “We trust the editors know what they’re doing is a service article and that they’ll submit it accordingly.” But this won’t stop articles from the Walrus being judged alongside articles from women’s service books.

“There’s a sense that the only valuable stories are the ones that are big and groundbreaking,” says Empey. “The challenge—when it comes to the magazine journalist community—is which is more important, but I don’t think the reader gets snobby about these kinds of things.”

5. It doesn’t hurt to offer food: readers can’t think on an empty stomach. While advertisers indisputably play a role in the content that appears in magazines, it’s clear that the women’s books and city magazines answer to a more powerful god. “There’s no doubt that most readers want service,” says Mallon. “It’s the crack cocaine of the magazine industry world.” Ultimately, readers determine content by voting with their cash, which, according to Pittaway, is an important sign of credibility. The numbers say it all: in 2006, Canadian Living, for example, earned nearly $5 million on newsstands, and in 2007 maintained 388,953 subscriptions over a six-month period. Meanwhile, the Walrus maintained 37,106 subscriptions for an entire year. 

Magazines such as Chatelaine and Homemakers regularly receive mail from readers thanking them for their advice. Homemakers even publishes pictures of crafts or recipes readers have made with guidance from the magazine. Sutherland agrees that service doesn’t appear in magazines because editors or publishers are enthusiastic about it, but because it’s what readers want. “Magazine editors are not involved in a conspiracy,” he says. And despite his own efforts to include more features in Western Living, he acknowledges that longer stories don’t thrive in the marketplace: “All magazines end up looking the same—service oriented—because that’s what readers buy.”

Ravary, for one, despite her small protest at last year’s NMAs, says she isn’t basing editorial decisions on the advice of her peers. “What the industry thinks—whether service matters or doesn’t matter, or any of those prejudices—doesn’t keep me from sleeping at night,” she says. “All the industry can do is meet reader expectations and exceed them.”

In the end, if magazine editors do their jobs and create content that engages readers from the contents to the back page, service stories become the teaser to a book full of great stuff. “You have to hope there is an intrinsic interest in the magazine,” says Ross. “So maybe after people finish reading about where to get great pastrami sandwiches, they’ll actually read a profile about their mayor.”

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