How to Do Good Service Stories

By Jack Limpert

When I started at The Washingtonian in 1969, two city magazines were worth looking at for ideas.

One was Philadelphia, which back in the 1960s did the best reporting and civic journalism of any city magazine in the country, maybe of any magazine in the country. Its editor, Alan Halpern, created a magazine that came up with one great reporting piece after another about what was happening in his city.

The other was New York, which had been the Sunday magazine of one of the struggling New York newspapers. When that paper folded in 1967, editor Clay Felker made New York into a weekly city magazine and hired some of the best newspaper talent in Manhattan. By 1970, New York was beginning to do some lively service stories—its Underground Gourmet column was terrific.

One of Felker’s editors told me later that the growing emphasis on service stories came after most of Felker’s top writers had moved on to do books and the magazine’s editors were looking for something else to attract readers.

To get The Washingtonian moving, I tried to do Alan Halpern stories—good reporting on important local people and institutions—and good service stories.

Birth of Service Journalism

If you go back to the early 1970s and look at newspapers and most magazines, you’d probably be surprised at how little service journalism there was. The Washington Post took notice of what we were doing by mostly making fun of our best-of lists. But in 1973 I ran into Meg Greenfield—she was editor of the editorial page at the Post and one of the nation’s most respected journalists. When I told her what I did, she said, “Just remember, I don’t read your magazine for politics. I read it to find out where I can get good Chinese carryout at 10 o’clock at night.”

Whenever people made fun of our best-of service pieces, I just remembered Meg Greenfield’s advice.

Our longtime owner and publisher, Phil Merrill, liked to say that the great thing about paid circulation is that it gives editors good feedback on what readers are interested in.

If you look at the top newsstand sellers of The Washingtonian, and probably of most city magazines, the list will be headed by top doctors followed by best restaurants. Service covers sell, service journalism sells.

But service journalism now is everywhere. The Washington Post, and most newspapers, are full of it. And the digital world is full of it. So what kind of service stories work well?

How to Do It Well

Washingtonian Senior Editor Sherri Dalphonse has been the magazine’s go-to person for good service pieces for 25 years. Here’s how she does it:

During my job interview in 1986, Jack asked if I’d like to do service articles. Fresh out of Syracuse University with a journalism degree, I had to ask: “What’s a service article?” Schools didn’t teach it then.

Some 25 years later, through a lot of trial and error, I have learned a lot more about what a service article is.

I do such covers as great places to work, weekend getaways, day trips, great hair, bargains, top dentists, and Best of Washington. I also handle home design and repair, beauty, fashion, gift guides, and personal finance.

Many of these subjects are ones that city magazines come back to again and again. So it has become a welcome challenge to find a fresh way to do the subject each time.

The first thing I do when I am putting together a service package is to e-mail, call, or meet with a handful of experts in that subject—whether dentists, interior designers, or hairstylists—and ask them what is new in their field, what’s interesting, and what their clients are asking about. I also invite freelancers who know the topic to submit ideas.

With this feedback, I plot out what stories to do. When it’s a good-sized service package, 12 or more pages, I try to come up with a mix of articles that serve at least one of two purposes—to entertain or to help you.

I think the best service sections have at least one good read—something that would grab you even if you’re not interested in the subject at hand. A first-person narrative—say, to accompany a guide to infertility treatments—can make a service section more compelling.

When I was pulling together a section this spring on cosmetic surgery, a popular city magazine topic, a headline popped into my head without any idea what the story might be: The Plastic Surgeon’s Wife.  I contacted one of our best writers and asked her what she could do with that headline. And she was off. In the end, she turned in a terrific read about three surgeons’ wives, each of whom talked openly about the work they’ve had done or want to have done, and about being married to a plastic surgeon. I heard from a number of people, including men, that they read every word of that piece even though they had no interest in cosmetic surgery. That’s my goal—I don’t see the service sections just as copy around which to place ads.

This November, we produced another, 50 Great Places to Work cover package. To come up with our list, we survey thousands of area employees. Because I’ve got a captive audience filling out surveys, I throw in a few fun questions that could be packaged for sidebars. This year, among the questions we asked: What’s the most unusual way someone you know has quit a job? To my surprise—Washington, after all, is not a town known for burning bridges—we got lots of outlandish stories. My favorite: the guy who hired a window washer to write “I Quit” in soap on his eighth-floor office window.

We once did a gossipy article on why so many Washington hairstylists are Turkish for a Great Hair section. For an interior design package, I once wrote a sidebar on how couples often fight about things like fabric choices and paint colors. (“Battle of the Sexes” stories are good territory for these fun reads.) For a beauty section on Botox, fillers, and other “lunchtime” procedures, we found one extremely high-maintenance woman who detailed what she has done every month, all to fascinating effect.That’s the “good read” side. As for the pure service side, you all know how challenging it can be to put together lists and guides: best dentists, top financial planners, great home repair. But those local resources—those names and addresses—are what sell the magazine, and what separates city magazines from national books.

Doing a Survey

I’m a bit obsessive about trying to use surveys to generate as many of these lists as we can. If we can figure out the right groups to survey, and put together a solid survey, I think it gives the list credibility.

We ask doctors to vote on other doctors. We invite readers to tell us about their best home-repair contractors. I’ve used surveys to find great hair salons—handing out surveys at women’s events, asking them the names of hairdressers they like and don’t. (For that survey, we promised to donate $1 to Race for the Cure for every completed survey and got a great response. For doctors and dentists, promising the chance to win a restaurant gift certificate has generated good response—usually over 20 percent.)

Surveys don’t always work. I once tried to do a weekend getaways section as a sort of  “readers choice” and invited people to vote for their favorite inns, resorts, and more. The section we spun out of that data didn’t sell nearly as well as other getaway sections. One reader told me: “I don’t care what other people think is good, I buy the magazine to find out what you think is good. You’re the expert.” This, though, was before the days of TripAdvisor, so who knows what that reader would say now.

I put as much research as I can into subjects like best hair salons and home repair and dentists because our readers trust these lists. (Woe to the editor who recommends a stylist who ruins a woman’s hair!) Reader trust is crucial. It’s why we never put any companies or professionals on a list just because they advertise. (I make it a point to never look at who is advertising until the magazine is printed.) A business has to earn its way on a list through peer or reader votes or through expert recommendations.

Online Impact on ‘Best of’

I’m often asked how Web sites such as Angie’s List and Yelp have affected what we do. The fact that so many other businesses and publications now have their own ratings and rankings of “best” this and that seems to have eaten into our territory. When our first Great Hair issue came out, in August 1995, it sold almost 60,000 newsstand copies. We did it again every three years or so—in 1998 (47,800), 2002 (50,065), and 2005 (41,740)—but never reached that 1995 newsstand high. Was the problem that newsstand buyers felt like they’d already seen this story? Was it that Yelp, starting in 2004, gave reviews of local salons? Was it that more people were reading our list on our Web site and not buying the magazine? We don’t know. But I do know that while many people see Yelp as one source, they still value our list.  Whenever we publish a list of top hair salons, I’m told by the salons that business immediately increases.

While readers can now get restaurant reviews on any number of Web sites, they still buy our two dining covers: 100 Very Best Restaurants and Cheap Eats. Those two covers, along with Top Doctors, remain our most reliable newsstand sellers every year. Among our top ten newsstand sellers of all time, seven are service covers: three Top Doctors covers; two Bargains covers; one Cheap Eats, our guide to the 100 best bargain restaurants; and one Fall Weekends cover.

Still, we have to keep the subjects fresh. For years Fall Weekends was a very good seller for us but then dropped off. It so happened that a local women’s group had asked me to give a talk about weekend getaways, and I took the opportunity to ask them where they liked to go. And several women told me that between all the activities their kids had on Saturdays and busy workweeks that didn’t leave much time to plan a trip, what they really wanted were day trips—they didn’t want to have to pack or look for a hotel. So we changed the annual Fall Weekends cover to Day Trips, to see how that subject did. In September 2007, Fall Weekends sold about 37,000 newsstand copies. In September 2008, Day Trips sold almost 47,000 copies on the newsstand, and in August 2011 it sold 42,200.

Some Worked — Some Didn’t

While some new ideas have worked out, others haven’t. I thought it would be fun to do a cover called What’s New, and highlight everything new in town in the past year—restaurants, bars, etc. It tanked. People don’t care necessarily about what’s new; they want to know what’s good. Another dog: Let’s Have a Party, a cover that featured all sorts of resources—caterers, music playlists, cocktail recipes—to throw a nice party. Maybe it seemed like too much work for our busy readers, who probably just invite friends over for something simple.

And try as we might, we’ve never been able to turn Top Dentists into as good a seller as Top Doctors. My theory: Most people have dentists they’re perfectly happy with.

Keep it Simple

Art and photography play a key role. The golden rule that Jack taught me about selling service on the cover: Keep it simple. No need to ruin a good seller like Top Doctors or Very Best Restaurants with art or type treatments that are too clever or confusing. I also find that it helps to write potential cover lines before assigning the articles—that way I can gauge whether there’s enough interesting content to grab readers.

Inside, I’ve found the same rule applies. The clearer the organization of the section and the easier it is for readers to follow, the better.

The first two times we did Great Places to Work, we ran typical photographs of people in their offices. The third time we did it, we hired a very creative photographer. He got these professionals in suits to jump up and down on conference tables and do other zany things. That was also the year we decided that instead of run-on text, we’d put the company descriptions in charts, to make it more visual and reader-friendly. Between the wacky photos and the charts, that section got much more attention than the previous two.

When I’m planning service sections, I think: What’s the most eye-catching way I can present this information? Can I turn any type into a chart or graphic? Can I get rid of any running text and instead use photos and captions? Because the battle we all fight now is for a reader’s time and attention. I still think readers turn to city magazines to give them information they trust. The trick now is to give it to them in snappier, more visual ways—which might mean a fun read, colorful graphics, terrific photos, and an easy-to-follow list. Always that list.

First published in the December 2011 newsletter of the City and Regional Magazine Association.

Comments

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