Why the rise of sites devoted to explanatory journalism is a trend worth celebrating

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Everyone complains about the weather but no one does anything about it, a famous curmudgeon once said. The same criticism could have been made — until recently at least — about the media’s relentless focus on instantaneous news, thanks in large part to an explosion of real-time tools for instant journalism like Twitter and YouTube. But there are signs that this wave is being compensated for somewhat, thanks to an increasing number of digital efforts aimed at adding context, structure, background and analysis.

One of the most prominent examples is Project X, the as-yet-unnamed new venture from former Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein, who was hired by Verge and SB Nation owner Vox Media to build something he has described as a combination between Wikipedia and a breaking-news service.

But there are others as well, including at Klein’s old home the Washington Post, where the newspaper said it is hiring to build a new data/storytelling effort. The Wall Street Journal and New York Times have also announced plans to build and/or expand features devoted to explanatory journalism — the latter as an attempt to fill the hole left by 538 blogger Nate Silver, who is now expanding his own venture at ESPN. And Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media arguably fits in this group as well because of its focus on opinionated analysis.

We need help making sense of the news

Klein’s description of Project X seemed to befuddle some traditional media watchers, because it wasn’t clear what exactly the site will be about or how it will work (which I’ve argued is actually a positive thing). Nevertheless, Klein’s motivation for what he is trying to build is clear: to bring background and context to stories that often seem to lack it — thanks in part to the industry’s relentless focus on being first rather than adding value. As he described it:

“We are better than ever at telling people what’s happening, but not nearly good enough at giving them the crucial contextual information necessary to understand what’s happened. We treat the emphasis on the newness of information as an important virtue rather than a painful compromise.”

This ongoing Wikipedia-fication of journalism is undoubtedly a beneficial one. If there is one market need that is being well served at the moment, it is the market for instant news hits — within minutes of an event, there are literally hundreds of thousands of tweets, blog posts, videos and photos posted, to the point where even making sense of them all becomes a huge challenge. That’s a problem most media outlets (both online and offline) have contributed to rather than trying to resolve.

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What’s new isn’t always what’s valuable

It’s worth noting that there have always been sites that have tried to contribute to this movement towards context and understanding, and here I’m thinking of places like Snopes — the original debunking machine, which has been joined recently by similar fact-checking efforts from Gizmodo blogger Matt Novak — as well as other ventures aimed at bringing useful facts to light, such as Homicide Watch and Politifact. Reddit has a great feature called “Explain It Like I’m Five.”

As Politifact founder Bill Adair pointed out in a recent post at the Poynter Institute, this kind of “structured journalism” has the potential to add much-needed context to stories of all kinds, not to mention acting as a check on some of the worst of the misinformation that circulates online. And newer services that are trying to contribute to the fact-checking landscape, such as the Washington Post‘s expanded TruthTeller project and Storyful (now owned by News Corp.) are also clearly a welcome development. As Adair put it, quoting Reg Chua of the site Connected China:

“Editors need to get beyond the idea that what’s new is what’s valuable. Sometimes it is. But sometimes it’s accumulated information and knowledge that is valuable.”

Be in the understanding business

To this group, I would add features like SB Nation’s “StoryStream” — which tries to group related articles and backgrounders together, so that readers can see the arc of a story at a glance and then dive deeper into whichever part they wish — and even Circa, the mobile news-reading app founded by Ben Huh of the Cheezburger empire, which allows readers to “follow” a story and then get periodic updates about it. Over time, this approach arguably creates a story with much more context than many readers get from the just-in-time news writing many outlets provide.

I’ve argued for some time that with the advent of so many real-time publishing tools like Twitter and Facebook, and what Om has called the “democratization of distribution,” there is not much point in being in the actual “news” business any more, apart from the business of providing early access to market-moving information (and perhaps not even then). The news is all around us, almost everywhere, at all times. Trying to sell it is like trying to sell oxygen or dirt — we already have more than we could possibly want.

Instead, I think more media entities should be in the understanding business. What there is arguably a market demand for is context and smart analysis of all the breaking news that flows over us like a tidal wave, and that demand is increasing rather than decreasing. Is that something people might pay for, or something that can be monetized in related ways? Perhaps Project X or one of the others working on these efforts will prove that case.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Docent

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