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Here comes The Upshot, the new explanatory journalism effort from the New York Times

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Ever since Nate Silver left his perch at the New York Times and took his FiveThirtyEight blog to ESPN, where he subsequently launched an ambitious experiment aimed at data-driven journalism, the NYT has been working on a new venture aimed in part at filling the hole he left, and also at competing with the “explanatory journalism” of Ezra Klein’s recently launched Vox project. The new effort from the Times — known as The Upshot — debuted on Tuesday.

In a post on the project’s Facebook page, editor David Leonhardt, formerly the paper’s Washington bureau chief, said that the idea is to give readers some help in understanding complex stories like Obamacare, inequality and the problems in the U.S. real-estate market. The Upshot will “build on the excellent journalism the New York Times is already producing,” he said.

“We believe many people don’t understand the news as well as they would like. They want to grasp big, complicated stories… so well that they can explain the whys and hows of those stories to their friends, relatives and colleagues. We believe we can help readers get to that level of understanding by writing in a direct, plain-spoken way, the same voice we might use when writing an email to a friend. We’ll be conversational without being dumbed down.”

A boom in journalistic explainers

That sounds very much like the mission statement behind Vox, which Klein started after joining Vox Media (the company behind sites like The Verge and SB Nation) when his offer to start a new venture funded by Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos was turned down. But the second part of Leonhardt’s description of The Upshot sounds very much like FiveThirtyEight’s mission, namely reporting and analysis based on data sets.

“The world now produces so much data, and personal computers can analyze it so quickly, that data-based reporting deserves to be a big part of the daily news cycle. One of our highest priorities will be unearthing data sets — and analyzing existing ones — in ways that illuminate and, yes, explain the news. As with our written articles, we aspire to present our data in the clearest, most engaging way possible.”

One of the biggest strengths that The Upshot has going for it, as Leonhardt mentions, is the existing firepower and resources of the New York Times, which theoretically gives the new project a foundation from which it can work without having to reinvent the wheel for every story. In a sense, The Upshot is an attempt to act as a kind of internal aggregator and explainer for the NYT’s own content — something the paper has typically allowed external players to do, apart from ventures like its topic pages.

Journalist, aggregate thyself

This kind of approach is one that a number of media-industry observers have recommended, including Nieman Journalism Lab director Josh Benton, who mentioned on Twitter how traditional media outlets should do more with the data in their own stories — the way the Pew Research Center does with its new site FactTank — instead of always leaving that role to others.

In addition to Leonhardt, the new site will feature writing from Josh Barro, Nate Cohn, Neil Irwin and Derek Willis and will be using the graphic and technology skills of former NYT science editor Laura Chang and former technology editor Damon Darlin. Leonhardt said he also wants the new project to “feel like a collaboration between journalists and readers” in the same way that some NYT blogs like Tara Parker-Pope’s Well blog are:

“We will often publish the details behind our reporting, and we hope that readers will find angles we did not. We also want to get story assignments from you: Tell us what data you think deserves exploration. Tell us which parts of the news you do not understand as well as you’d like.”

One unanswered question that The Upshot will have to confront: Will readers want to get smart aggregation and/or analysis of the context behind New York Times‘ stories from a unit within the newspaper itself — however well-meaning — or would they prefer to get it from somewhere else?

Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Shutterstock / Ivelin Radkov

6 Responses to “Here comes The Upshot, the new explanatory journalism effort from the New York Times”

  1. Comrade Stanley Krauter

    Explanatory journalism is just another worthless gimmick.

    Consider the federal tax code. There have been many news reports on the federal tax code since the 1986 reforms and everyone knows that the tax code has been repeatedly corrupted. But the voters have never done anything to stop Congress from enacting at least one tax deduction for every lobbyist with a campaign contribution or a free meal. So all of the “explanatory journalism” by the many reporters since 1986 has been a complete waste of time. The only positive accomplishment was the money the reporters earned for entertaining both voters and politicians with gotchas. More important, this problem could be overcome if reporters would just start communicating like teachers instead of entertainers. But this will never happen because reporters think their time is too valuable to be wasted on communicating more effectively.

  2. Susanne LaFrankie, MA

    Excellent idea. The challenge will be to create plain spoken content without dumbing down the information. This is how we at BrowningDudley create messages for our clients to use in media interviews, presentations and other communications.

  3. Hal Davis

    Actually, the Quakers had a higher goal than having the U.S. “stand firm against fascism.”

    This is from “SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence”:

    We speak to power in three senses:

    To those who hold high places in our national life and bear the terrible responsibility of making decisions for war or peace.

    To the American people who are the final reservoir of power in this country and whose values and expectations set the limits for those who exercise authority.

    To the idea of Power itself, and its impact on Twentieth Century life.

    Our truth is an ancient one: that love endures and overcomes; that hatred destroys; that what is obtained by love is retained, but what is obtained by hatred proves a burden. This truth, fundamental to the position which rejects reliance on the method of war, is ultimately a religious perception, a belief that stands outside of history. Because of this we could not end this study without discussing the relationship between the politics of time with which men are daily concerned and the politics of eternity which they too easily ignore.

  4. Dean Hovey

    News organizations don’t need “special projects” if they discontinue “he said/she said” journalism. Why aren’t the data available to support a position (or undermine its legitimacy) used in the plain-vanilla news story? One suspects that the problem is corporate ownership and the tearing down of the wall between news and commerce that was traditionally in place some decades ago. With just a half-dozen super-media owners in the United States, it’s hardly surprising that the “news slot” has been sacrificed to blandness (no one’s offended) and entertainment. “Speak truth to power,” a phrase coined by the Quakers during in the mid-1950s, called for the United States to stand firm against fascism and other forms of totalitarianism. Seems like a sound principle for any and all news organizations.

  5. KJ Wojciechowski

    I myself am wondering whether this space is getting a bit crowded all at once… While Vox is neat, and 538 is experiencing some start-up growing pains, the NYT, as you wrote, will have many journalistic resources to throw behind this venture (not that Disney/ABC doesn’t).

    Will one of the new players get squeezed out/absorbed? And why did Wapo refuse to back Ezra Klein’s project? Is Bezos counting pennies and backing away from online ventures? (Duh, no).