In recent months, the world of journalism has seen an increased focus on “explainer” news sites. Examples include new sites like Vox, Newsbound, FiveThirtyEight and The Upshot by The New York Times. The demand for explanations in the news is growing.
Taking a step back, I think it’s interesting to think about why it’s happening and what it could mean for the future.
Let’s start with the goal: If you set out to explain something, your goal is to increase understanding. So, explainer news sites seek to help their audience understand the news. In fact, “understand the news” is the subtitle of Vox.com.
But don't we already understand? It's easy to assume that "explainer" journalism means journalism that's dumbed-down and/or focuses on the least common denominator news reader. I don't think this is the case. Understanding doesn’t always come from simplifying or making an idea more basic. The best understanding comes from building context and the discussing the big picture as a foundation for understanding. Here’s how I think about it:
- Normal news: This is what happened today
- Explainer news: This is why what happened matters
To make sense of today’s news, a broader perspective is often required. Those who know the backstory of an issue are more likely to understand the granular news stories that flow to us in daily headlines. Understanding begets interest - and this is where I think the true opportunity lies...
Explanations Create Customers of News
Jay Rosen, NYU Journalism Professor and media critic has been talking about explainers and journalism for years. His PressThink blog post from 2008 about the job of explainers in the news was a big influence on me and still rings true. That post focused on an episode of radio show/podcast This American Life called The Giant Pool of Money. It’s explains, with amazing clarity, the mortgage crisis.
Rosen describes what happened after listening the the show:
I noticed something in the weeks after I first listened to “The Giant Pool of Money.” I became a customer for ongoing news about the mortgage mess and the credit crisis that developed from it…‘Twas a successful act of explanation that put me in the market for information.
Through a great explanation, he became a customer for ongoing news. It put him in the market for more information. Isn't this what every news organization wants - to increase customers of news?
I think this is why explainer news sites are popping up and may be successful. They will serve a valuable role in helping consumers build a foundation of understanding regarding stories that interest them. They will help create customers of news stories.
Want to see what I mean?
The two minute video below by Vox is meant to explain the big picture of Bitcoin - and how it is like the Internet in the 80s. It's not difficult to imagine how this video could put people in the market for more granular news about Bitcoin because it answers a question that many great explanations ask: why should I care?