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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