Try this: Make a list with two simple columns. On the left, write Who, What, When, and Where. On the right column, write How and Why. Then, go to any news site — local, national, or global — or even to a print newspaper and see which questions the stories you see answer.
At most news sites, the hashmarks will fill up quickly in the left column — slowly, if at all, in the right one. That’s the column for explanatory journalism — the new craze of the past year, but built on ideas as old as good journalism itself. Or call it the Wonk Wars as Capital New York and The Huffington Post, among others, have called it.
The stories don’t have to be headlined “Why” or “How” (although they often are, as in Upshot’s “Why Democrats Have a Shot in Georgia,” FiveThirtyEight’s “How a Woman’s Weight Before Pregnancy Affects Childbirth,” and Vox’s “How Israel decides to go to war,” In explaining, though, they have to go beyond the facts that are well reported in other places.
How do we explain this movement, which this week got a new competitor with The Washington Post’s Storyline?
I spoke recently with David Leonhardt, who heads The New York Times’ three-month-old The Upshot about that. (Leonhardt won a well-deserved Pulitzer in 2011 for his economic commentary; I still remember how his unusually clear and candid dispatches from the depth of economic catastrophe differentiated themselves from what else was out there.)
One big reason, he said, is the explosion of easily available data. Another: the more conversational tone of the Internet. You can take more complicated events and explain them in a conversational way. Leonhardt says he trained himself to be a plain-speaking columnist by writing his drafts in Yahoo Mail for months, skipping the formality of Microsoft Word.
Explainer journalism derives from knowledge — and from ignorance. “Our authority comes from knowing what we do and don’t know,” Leonhardt says. It also lets readers know “we’re trying to think it through.” Explainer journalism assumes a certain curiosity and appetite among intelligent readers — and that alone is worth understanding.
All this investment in explainers can be so confusing (“The newsonomics of why everyone seems to be starting a new site”). It’s got its war metaphors, but they’re misplaced. It’s got its data true believers — seeing Nate Silver hold a group of many hundreds of techies in semi-thrall in Austin at SXSW is more than a bit amusing. In fact, though, this movement isn’t one to take lightly or categorize or mistake. It’s a movement into the next phase of digital journalism, one that recognizes our best selves — and could provide a better business route forward. And at a time when robots are learning how to do some basic journalistic tasks, it might provide a route to future employment.
Leonhardt’s staff is profoundly digital — one of the leading edges of the Times’ transformation. Upshot pieces do run in the paper, about one a day, but that’s only a small part of The Upshot’s production. With a half dozen pieces a day and lots of interactives, Upshot is a digital-first operation. Rather than spending time tweaking or crafting a story to fit within the space boundaries and story conventions of print, The Upshot can write long or short. It can use stories in the paper to point to its highly popular interactives (see the middle of the page here) — and in that we see the swivel-chair movement of hybrid print/digital readers that’s a vital part of news business strategy today.
The Times traded one Nate (Silver) for another one (Cohn, from The New Republic). He’s one of a staff of 17. Those people are a picture of how more integrated news teams, using the best skills of the day, will increasingly be organized: editors, reporters, data people, and three full-time designers, the latter both responding to others’ story ideas and originating their own. The Upshot has recruited 10 outside contributors, experts and academics — like historian Michael Beschloss, who writes History Source, and political science Lynn Vavreck. Finally, The Upshot can call on wider ring of non-Upshot Timesmen and Timeswomen; Leonhardt figures about 25 to 30 Times journalists overall have contributed to The Upshot.
It may seem kind of funny, in 2014, that we’re talking amongst ourselves about what exactly explanatory journalism is — or how it might be different from regular, adjective-free journalism itself. That may be the opportunity. At their best, these explainer sites are much more than a fad or a trend. They are a siren call to add greater intelligence to the journalism we do day in and day out. Ask a reader what they want out of their news and they’d say: Tell me what’s happening. Probing a little more, we might hear: Tell us what the real story is. So it’s not surprising that Washington Post Storyline editor Jim Tankersley opens his introduction with: “This is a storytelling site, so let’s start with a story.”
His further explanation of explainer journalism is right on, but it also poses a big question to the craft: Isn’t storytelling what we’re supposed to be doing? Isn’t that what readers expect? I don’t mean novelistic imagery and lots of scene-setting, though that’s often welcome — just simply telling us what the story really is, as far as we know it.
Leonhardt makes the point that such journalism is far from new and isn’t limited to the new set of sites. He’s a fan of both Silver and Klein and points to long-time explainers-without-portfolio who have been doing this work for a long time: The New Yorker’s Jim Surowiecki, The Wall Street Journal’s David Wessel, The Washington Post’s Steve Pearlstein, and Felix Salmon, formerly of Reuters and now at Fusion. It’s no accident those are mainly business writers; that’s Leonhardt’s own background. The complexity of business and economics demands better connecting of the dots. But so does so much of the rest of the news. (The Upshot, for instance, has already excelled at covering health care — and the World Cup.)
It’s this class of complicated how-and-why questions that we all need to understand. There are huge, hairy issues everywhere: immigration, climate change, economic inequality, health care, education. These are global, national, and local issues.
Tankersley has explained that Storyline is about the nexus of people and policy. That sums it up well — and, again, should be what news stories are doing everyday. That’s journalism’s contribution to democracy, at least when it’s well done. It’s not “extra.” Tankersley is among the numerous journalists who know that. Maybe “explainer” or “storytelling” journalism will help reawaken newsrooms and news people to that basic mandate.
How did we find ourselves in a world where there are two kinds of “stories”? The first kind, apparently, disgorges facts. That’s the kind you’ll probably find a Google News search. Google News — still a laundry list of a product — specializes in the Who/What/When/Where. It’s all there in glorious repetition, its only hierarchy imperceptible to humans and a comfort to some algorithms somewhere. That’s what algorithms, without human leadership and curation, will get you today. Where’s our How and Why news search engine?
Then there are the stories, old school and new explainer school, that tell us how the facts fit together.
Of course, at top-drawer publications like the Post and the Times, these aren’t really two separate kinds. Some of what both do every day is explainer journalism — but they haven’t always explained that well to themselves or their readers. The Upshot and Storyline, then, force the issue more widely, asking basic craft questions about the kind of journalism that should be produced today.
Curiously, I think the readers are ahead of the journalists. What’s the difference between the reborn, digital-embracing, globe-reaching New York Times and the rest of America’s (local) press? It’s not mainly business model, or even reach: It’s authority. You read the Times to understand. Sometimes it does a better job of that than others, but its great success in reader revenue shows us its audience gets that part of the value equation. Yes, readers can get the facts of the Gaza War free in so many places, but they can’t get a volume of rich, contextual stories from both sides of the conflict elsewhere every day.
Key to the connect-the-dots phenomenon: the death of the traditional news cycle. The Internet has obliterated second-day stories and third-day “analysis” pieces, eating them before lunch each day. It’s largely made mincemeat of weekly commentary sections and newsmagazines which tried to make sense of the week that had been. If second-day stories are gone, then first-day stories have joined them. Today, readers expect as much understanding within the news of the day, as soon as journalists can crank it out. Newspaper — in print or online — can no longer get away with headlines like “Airliner shot down over Ukraine” 18 hours after the news blitzed smartphones and social feeds everywhere. And yet, more than few did just that. First- and second-day stories should now be artifacts of another civilization.
Yes, this bit of creative destruction has also created hamster-wheel operations, intended to get any set of facts out first and to pump ever more news content onto the web. At the same time, it’s pushed the best journalists to connect the dots more quickly. When most readers say they expect journalists to tell them what’s happening — whether that’s the latest outrages reported out of Kharkiv or city council in Kalamazoo — they mean connect the dots. No, they don’t want opinion — they want to know how the facts fit together to make an understandable whole.
Those Kalamazoo readers — like many in the vast reaches of America who depend on local newspaper companies to deliver their news — have heard very little about “explainer journalism.” There’s an increasing divide between national/global journalism and local journalism. Digital business models overvalue national/global and greatly undervalue local.
Local newspaper staffing in the U.S. is off 30 percent, or about 18,000 people. But beyond that, several hundred thousand years of local knowledge have been lost at the same time. Let’s say the average laid off/bought out journalist had 12 years of experience; that would be a cumulative loss of about 216,000 years of local knowledge. Local daily newspapers have traditionally been disproportionately in the Who/What/When/Where column, but some of that now-lost local knowledge edged its ways into How/Why stories, or at least How/Why explanations within stories. Understanding of local policy and local news players has been lost; lots of local b.s. detection has vanished almost overnight.
The best local columnists often told readers what was really happening, given their real community knowledge and their ability to offer voice. Now many of them have been shown the door, higher-priced casualties of an industry that has largely chosen to cut its way to continued profitability rather than invest in its future. So most local papers, as I’ve seen them, aren’t even players in the wonk wars. They are connecting fewer dots, rather than more, even as our sense that readers want more is growing. At a local news level, less and less is explained to us.
Given cutbacks, many newspaper publishers and editors have elected to go wide rather than deep. I see that in my local Santa Cruz Sentinel, a Digital First Media-owned paper (for now, at least). It’s an above-average daily, winning scads of awards. Its coverage of the county’s long-term water problems, among a couple of other topics, has been superior and dot-connecting.
Day in and day out, though, its hard-working reporters go wide, and the result is too often single- or couple-source stories that mystify rather than enlighten. The Sentinel, to be sure, provides a unique and valuable service every day — building a data bank of happenings. Even as I try to convince friends to subscribe, I often find I need a decoder ring to make sense of a story. In Wednesday’s edition, perhaps one story could be considered an “explainer.” To be clear, I’m not asking that all stories be explainers — just more, the ones that require it.
Which brings us back to business argument. If, in fact, in a world awash in Who/What/When/Where, readers value the connecting of dots, they’re more likely to pay for it — and to pay more for it. That’s the business rationale for the Upshots and Storylines. The New York Times now depends on its readers for most of its revenues; satisfy those readers more deeply, with understanding, and they’re less likely to cancel subscriptions and more likely to pay more each year. The Post, too, knows that explainer journalism — part of its bigger national play — is a key part of its value proposition to readers. Bonus: Smart, well-tweeted, well-shared Upshots and Storylines burnish the larger brand, and that helps sell premium-priced advertising. (A check of the Times’ most shared stories often finds Upshot pieces among the top 20.)
For the Voxes and FiveThirtyEights, the business rationale shares the brand- and audience-building elements, but it lackes that critical reader-revenue component — so far, at least.
If we define “explainer journalism” too narrowly — just naming Vox, FiveThirtyEight, The Upshot, and Storyline — we miss the point. The new wave doesn’t define it. The new wave reawakens our appreciation of it.
The Wall Street Journal, the FT, The Economist, and The New Yorker are just a few of the news outfits that have long based their products on making the world a little more understandable for their readers. More recently, sites as far-flung as Quartz and the Netherlands’ De Correspondent have joined that group. What they have in common: the ability to price up for readers, or charge premium rates to advertisers, or both. Might they be on to something?
If explainer journalism really can up the intelligence quotient among it readers and get more of them to pay for digital news (take note: Pew, Knight, grad students in search of dissertation topics), then how does more of the local press can get there? That’s a big mountain. It’s hard to regain the lost knowledge already excised from newsrooms. Some of the younger, less well-paid staff hired as replacements have the ability to do the work — but they need to both be led and allowed to do it. The trade needs a Watergate-like makeover, one that would encourage the smartest people with the best storytelling-like skills to be come into it and to stay. That’s a matter of both money and culture.
I asked David Leonhardt about bringing Upshot-like craft to the regional/local press. “You don’t need 17 people to do it,” he said. “You can do it with three people.” From his lips to local reader’s eyes.