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How to Service, Journalistically

I don’t know about you, but I tend to subconsciously associate the concept of “service journalism,” which I’ll describe as reader-focused reporting often towards actionable ends, with the “personal betterment” genre. (Which, by the way, I will always happily dedicate copious amounts of my waking life towards, as I noted in a column about NPR’s Life Kit back in January.) I’m aware this isn’t a strictly appropriate association — not all service journalism is personal betterment, and the extent to which personal betterment is service journalism depends on, I suppose, the quality of the journalism — but I’m similarly drawn by the broadly actionable nature of both categories. What can I say: I like news I can use.

As such, it is with some interest that I’m keeping an eye on the podcast Slate rolled out fresh from the oven this morning, called “How To! with Charles Duhigg.” They’re pitching the project as an enterprise of “investigative service journalism,” which is an accurate enough description, though I’d say it seems a little more like case-of-the-week procedural spliced with advice column DNA. (Think the CBC’s Personal Best, but more straightforward and without the daffiness, I guess?)

The premise, in brief: each episode follows Duhigg, a former full-time veteran of the New York Times and the author of books like “The Power of Habit” and “Smarter Faster Better,” attending to various everyday problems from ordinary people and attempting to solve them by applying classic journalisty methods: talking to experts, research, that kind of stuff. I’d use the term “everyday problem” loosely, though; one of the four episodes dropped at launch earlier this morning is called “How to Rob a Bank,” which isn’t exactly an everyday problem, though I suppose it is an everyday daydream for lots of people. (… people like myself, I should say, fresh off multiple rewatches of Heat as part of research for a Vulture piece.)

How To! will roll out new episodes on a weekly basis, and Audible has bought in as the launch sponsor. Serving as executive producer is Derek John, a multi-talented public radio veteran, who also shepherded the project through the pilot process at Slate.

Speaking of which, we should probably talk about how the podcast fits into Slate’s portfolio. Interestingly enough, “How To! with Charles Duhigg” is the sixth show that Slate has launched this year, and the fifteenth since April 2018. It seems that the past year and change has been a considerably active period for the veteran digital media company, which continues to deepen its podcast position: Slate currently houses over thirty active podcasts in its portfolio, which collectively drove more than 180 million podcast downloads last year. I’m also told that podcast revenue presents more than 28% of its business, and that the company expects the segment to make up half of all revenue by the end of this year.

Another thing to note: the positioning of How To! as an audience-centric vessel of service journalism feels like an extension of Slate’s broader success with advice columns on its site. As Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen noted earlier this month, Slate’s four web advice columns — Care and Feeding, Dear Prudence, How to Do It, and Beast Mode — are collectively becoming increasing traffic drivers for the site. In many ways, How To! can be viewed as a further exploration of that trend.

Anyway, interesting stuff. I’m curious to see where this project goes, but writing this piece also makes me curious to see more straightforward advice podcasts… aside from, like, The Dave Ramsey Show or something.