‘Readers are looking for empathy and candor’: WaPo audience editor on how pandemic reporting is service journalism

Throughout 2020, journalists across the country have shared their best practices for working through the pandemic. As we approach 2021, we’re asking what they learned this year and what they hope to learn in the year to come. 

(Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Name: Steven Johnson

Current job: Audience editor, Washington Post

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What are the main lessons you learned this year from your reporting that you’ll use next year?

Johnson: For something as stressful, complicated and long-lasting as the pandemic, readers are looking for empathy and candor. They’re asking journalists to level with them about what they know and don’t know. Almost everything becomes service journalism: How does this keep me safe? How do I stay hopeful? How do I live my life like this? Those lessons, which are really about caring for readers’ attention and humanity, apply to all sorts of stories.

How did your work change during the pandemic?

Johnson: I hadn’t considered myself an advice journalist, but it turned out that’s exactly what readers wanted. My teammates and I spent a lot more time just listening: going through thousands of readers’ questions, asking them about their lives, trying to think longer-term about the issues that would stick after the first waves of news. I was able to connect with readers a lot more directly than before, be a little more personal, and they really appreciated that.

What do you hope to learn or cover in the coming year?

Johnson: We’re going to keep finding new ways to reach people, especially as many stay isolated. And I hope reporters generally get a chance to revisit stories that may have gotten lost in the crush of breaking news this year, and keep covering how people are recovering through loss.

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