A sustainable model for explanatory journalism

Jay Rosen posted a thought-provoking piece at Press Think this week, National Explainer: A Job for Journalists on the Demand Side of News.  The post takes the case of an excellent piece of explanatory journalism - Ira Glass's The Giant Pool of Money, which is a one-hour tutorial on the mortgage crisis - and bemoans the shortage of good explanatory journalism, especially given the possibility that if more people understood a story, they would be prone to seek out more news about that story.   Rosen even suggests that the primary one interesting audience for this kind of explanatory journalism would be other journalists, whose coverage would improve from better background understanding of a complex story.

More thoughts on explanatory journalism, and how it can become a more prominent feature of the news landscape, across the flip...

Rosen has an excellent point, and he voices a frustration I've often felt with news stories, especially complex ones like subprime mortgages: there's often very few places to turn for good background information.  Rosen goes into good detail on why traditional media frequently fail to explain a complex story properly.  Wikipedia and the web in general can be helpful, but they can also be very hit-or-miss.  Wikipedia, in particular, is just not well-geared to explanatory journalism; the best articles in Wikipedia are usually the ones which have had a lot of time to stew, or have been edited and revised again and again by a lot of eyeballs.  Complex news stories, especially relatively recent ones like the war in Georgia, are unlikely to meet either criteria.

I'd love to see explanatory journalism take hold; I think it would help turn the tide in journalism toward improved coverage of important stories.  Fortunately, as Rosen points out, (perhaps unintentionally) explanatory journalism also has a built-in business model, both because it has several potential audiences and because it tends to boost news consumption.  A high-quality, up-to-date, reliable repository of pieces dedicated to explaining the major stories of the day could be a very valuable asset, if properly organized and monetized.

In other words, I think there is an opportunity for the creation of a center of explanatory journalism, whose job is to regularly churn out explanatory pieces about stories of the day.  Such a center could sustain itself by repurposing content for different audiences (people who want to listen to a piece on their iPods; local journalists who want to understand how their region is affected, or who might even want a "cheat sheet" of acronyms and important players in a story); selling reprinting rights to newspapers and magazines; and earning money by directing traffic to news organizations with more day-to-day coverage, whether through ads or otherwise.

Incidentally, if an explanatory journalism center was wise about crowdsourcing and sharing its profits with contributors, the center could even help bloggers sustain their own blogs.  After all, bloggers are extremely well-suited to explanatory journalism - they are voracious news consumers, they tend to pick a very targeted "beat" and pursue it doggedly, they don't have the same kind of deadline and word limit restrictions that traditional journalists face, and they must, to some degree or another, explain the background of a story to their audience in order to provide a reasonably coherent opinion.

Given the neverending financial difficulties at most news organizations, I think that relying on traditional journalists to produce explanatory journalism on a regular basis is a nearly lost cause.   Unfortunately, "The Giant Pool of Money" is almost certainly a special case, not the beginning of a revolution in the way news is done.  If explanatory journalism is to take hold, I think it will need a new business model, located outside the world of traditional journalism, but hopefully interacting with that world and helping to improve it.

PS - I know that I haven't been the best about blogging regularly.  In fact, I think it's been almost a full Friedman Unit since my last post!  I do apologize that, but I'm glad to announce that we're finally turning that corner.  More seriously, I'll try and get back into the game and not disappear entirely.

Tags: explanatory journalism, Jay Rosen, journalism, Media (all tags)



Re: A sustainable model for explanatory journalism

Intriguing idea.  Netroots explanatory journalism could really help to improve national political discourse.  

The potential obstacles I see - getting mainstream journalists to read the stuff on a regular basis, and dealing with the time issue - I can't imagine someone like Wolf Blitzer or Cokie Roberts spending an hour long tutorial on the mortgage crisis.  Maybe you could come up with both long and short versions, short versions focusing on one piece of the larger issue.  

by ProfessorReo 2008-08-15 01:53PM | 0 recs
Re: A sustainable model for explanatory journalism

Yeah, I don't imagine Wolf Blitzer would spend much time with this thing.  On the other hand, it could be very useful further down the pipeline.  Rosen gave the example of a small-town reporter who listened to "The Big Pool of Money" before doing some interviews for a report on how the mortgage crisis affected her town, and the result was a higher-quality piece, with better questions for her interviewees, etc.

by Shai Sachs 2008-08-16 07:02AM | 0 recs
Re: A sustainable model for explanatory journalism

You know, I don't think I've seen or heard one single journalistic piece putting the current Georgia conflict in any context.  Honestly, I'm not sure what the context is.  I seem to remember that South Ossetia has been a flashpoint for a long time, but I actually saw a piece the other day saying that this is all relatively new and the Ossetian conflict is largely a Russian creation.  I don't think this is true, but clearly somebody does.  I've also heard that Russian forces were already stationed in South Ossetia as peacekeepers.  But this isn't something that seems to be mentioned or considered in the coverage.

This isn't a way to defend Russia's actions.  But a little context would go a long way in all of this.  I used to think journalists just assumed we were all up to speed on our world history.  But I think I'm realizing that they don't really know themselves and the pressure of churning out two or three pieces a week precludes them from actually learning anything.

by the mollusk 2008-08-15 02:28PM | 0 recs
Re: A sustainable model for explanatory journalism

Yeah I agree... after a great deal of reading I finally came to conclude that Georgia "invaded" South Ossetia.  But why?  If it's Georgian territory, why did they have to?  And why the hell were the foxes (Russians) put in charge of the henhouse?  "Russian Peacekeepers in Georgia" sounds a little bit like "Iranian Peacekeepers in Anwar Province."  Talk about folks with a vested interest.

It's hard to find a reason to justify Russia's enormous response, but understanding how and why it began is the key for getting everyone to sit down and shut up again.

by auronrenouille 2008-08-15 04:55PM | 0 recs
Re: A sustainable model for explanatory journalism

Er.  Anbar Province, not Anwar.  Although Iranian Peacekeepers in Egypt would probably be just as ridiculous.

by auronrenouille 2008-08-15 04:57PM | 0 recs
by RandomNonviolence 2008-08-15 06:45PM | 0 recs
Re: Background on Georgia

I think this thread gives a good example of the kinds of questions that could be answered by good explanatory journalism (as well as a couple of good examples of actual explanatory journalism.)  There's demand, and even a bit of supply (some of it provided by top-notch bloggers, too).  The supply just needs to be organized a bit better, and properly monetized, to create something sustainable.

by Shai Sachs 2008-08-16 07:07AM | 0 recs
Re: Background on Georgia

Thanks for the links.  I'll give them a look.

But your response proves my point almost exactly.  Three out of four links you provided are from commondreams.  This is exactly the problem.  Anderson Cooper or Katie Couric need to say "And now, seven uninterrupted minutes of history on the Georgia-Ossetia-Russian conflict including a one-minute explanation of why Georgia was not admitted into NATO."

Is that too much to ask?

by the mollusk 2008-08-18 08:35AM | 0 recs
Re: A sustainable model for explanatory journalism

Jay Rosen isn't worried as much about the so-called pros as he is the citizen-journalism model that is creeping in via blogs and sites like this and Kos, for example. The so-called pros are either adapting to new models of journalism or going down with the ship crying and flailing all the way.

Stop looking to the institutional media to change or offer anything of value. It's a waste of time. They still reach the widest audience, but that audience is shrinking. Within a generation they will be marginalized even further and new models will be the mainstream. That's his point...

by mikeplugh 2008-08-15 04:22PM | 0 recs
Re: A sustainable model for explanatory journalism

I'd love to see more "explanatory journalism" - I was and am very disappointed at the striking lack of information about the source of the Russia-Georgia conflict.  I'm an attorney, a history major in undergrad, and I still don't feel like I have a firm grasp on what happened and why it happened, in terms of why South Ossetia and Abkhazia are in Georgia to start with and what sparked this particular conflict.  All of a sudden there was a war, and the news assumed we knew why it was going on.

by auronrenouille 2008-08-15 04:52PM | 0 recs
Re: A sustainable model for explanatory journalism

Exactly.  I hear this a lot, and feel the same way quite often.  It's easy to see how celebrity news and he said/she said reports are slowly replacing substantive reporting - on top of all the other pressures on news media, it's just a lot easier for most people to understand that kind of reporting.

Day-to-day journalism, and even week-to-week journalism like you might see in the newsweeklies, simply doesn't do a good job of explaining background; it's not structured for it.

by Shai Sachs 2008-08-16 07:14AM | 0 recs
Re: A sustainable model for explanatory journalism

Um, I hate to break the news to the new, new believers in journalism, but if you look at the history of journalism and at some of the most well-known, respected "journalists" throughout history (No! I am NOT talking about bloggers, very few of whom are journalists), the "explanatory" piece is a HUGE part of the journalist's job description and thus journalism. "Explanatory journalism" is not and should not be a separate entity, sustainable or otherwise (whatever the h*** it means to be "sustainable" in journalism). This just completely misses the underlying problems in journalism.  

The problem isn't that we don't have a "sustainable model for explanatory journalism"; the problem is that most universities don't focus more attention on this significant piece of journalism because they are dealing with a pretty dumbed-down student body that doesn't have a clue, for the most part, about the role and responsibility of real journalists. (Just look at the blogosphere and its very biased writing/reporting, not to mention the terrible use/abuse of English, if you think "explanatory journalism" would cure it).

The other problem in journalism is that many, many journalists by and large are also increasingly members of the aristocratic class, who get their jobs/careers through family, family friends, connections, not by virtue of their excellent journalism skills, experience, knowledge or understanding of the craft.

As long as we have a) universities that are forced to focus on basics (English usage, grammar, punctuation, style to increasingly dumbed-down students, and not on the more significant parts of journalism; b) journalists that aren't hired for their writing/ reporting/analysis skills; and c) journalism that continues to be dumbed-down by "blogging" (which is, essentially, sophisticated cut-and-paste, with gossip and entertainment/eyeball-grabbing value), we will have this problem.

And no numbers of schools, institutes, centers, or courses in "explanatory" journalism will diminish it.

by mabelle55 2008-08-15 06:55PM | 0 recs
Re: A sustainable model for explanatory journalism

I think your sweeping generalizations of the blogosphere are unfair and perhaps a bit ill-defined - see Chris Anderson's amusing thoughts on words that have lost a lot of meaning when applied to populations of limitless size and diversity.  There certainly are at least a handful of bloggers whose mastery of a subject is exceptional, and who would do a fine job or writing background pieces; I'm thinking of people like Juan Cole and the academic economic bloggers like Brad DeLong and Atrios.

In any case, your analysis of what ails explanatory journalism is certainly very interesting.  It sounds to me like you're arguing that there are structural problems at the university level which are leading to a lack of proper background in news reports.  That's possible, but it does seem to me that in many cases, there just isn't enough space for all the background that's needed on a given story.  A complicated story like the mortgage mess or climate change could require pages and pages of background, and there's just no room for that in any newspaper these days.  (Although I'll grant that some periodicals, like the New Yorker, do make room for that kind of story, from time to time.)  Maybe in some golden age of journalism there was room for that kind of thing, but those days are long gone anyway.

At the end of the day, though, all you're really saying is that the current journalistic establishment isn't sufficient to do good explanatory journalism.  That's basically what I wrote above and what Jay wrote in his piece, although you have a different take on why that is.    I'm still not clear why it's not possible to do an end-run around the journalistic establishment and create a sustainable repository of explanatory pieces.  There's demand, a bit of supply, and plenty of monetization opportunities.  If the numbers work out, why not?

by Shai Sachs 2008-08-16 07:56AM | 0 recs
How to get them to read it, though?

Even if there was such a resource, I don't know if journalists would follow it. It isn't like they can't research this sort of thing now, but it isn't like it's something their editors are pressing them for, it's not a job requirement.

Nor is it clear that, even if they did this sort of research, that there'd be room left in their stories for this kind of background on even an occasional basis. If they go the extra credit route and add it in, editors can just clip it, and it usually ends up at the bottom anyway, where people are least likely to read. Inverted pyramid has trained all parties involved to dis whatever's at the end.

I agree that this is the sort of thing they should be doing more of. Your argument is sound, but I'd guess that it'll be a long time before it sees use in the establishment media as more than a frame of critique.

by Natasha Chart 2008-08-15 07:20PM | 0 recs
Re: How to get them to read it, though?

Well, keep in mind that beat reporters are just one potential audience.  Bloggers, policy makers, and the general public are other potential audiences, meaning that there are that many more potential revenue streams from repurposing, advertising, etc.

As for whether or not this kind of content would ever find its way into an actual dead-tree newspaper story - perhaps, perhaps not.  But I can easily imagine a newspaper which wants to rebrand this kind of content and place it on its own site, as a sort of added-value "reader's guide"; so the explanatory journalism center would sell rebranding rights, not reprinting rights.

by Shai Sachs 2008-08-16 07:23AM | 0 recs
Re: A sustainable model for explanatory journalism

Thanks for your post, Shai, and the suggestions, which add to what I wrote.

Small correction:

"Rosen even suggests that the primary audience for this kind of explanatory journalism would be other journalists, whose coverage would improve from better background understanding of a complex story."  I didn't say the primary audience would be other journalists; I said that would be one use and I gave an example.  

Couple of adds:

I really like what auronrenouille said above, "All of a sudden there was a war, and the news assumed we knew why it was going on."  That's exactly the point I wanted to make in my post.  What a screwed up assumption that is! Anyway, this piece in the Washington Post is a rather good explainer for the "Russians invade Georgia" stories we have been reading.

Here's an example of an open source initiative that provides crucial background information.  It's not an explainer, but a timeline, which is a similar kind of resource; and it's the work of many hands.

by Jay Rosen 2008-08-15 08:42PM | 0 recs
Re: A sustainable model for explanatory journalism

Thanks for the correction!  Sorry about the slip-up, I'll correct it above.

Also thanks for the pointer to ePluribus's timeline project!  I wasn't aware of that, and it seems like that kind of resource would be a really interesting complement to an explanatory journalism organization.  Certainly, it would be useful to the contributors trying to keep the background information up-to-date.

It also occurs to me that the "unit" of explanatory journalism is kind of hard to define.  Take the case of Katrina, which is one of the stories in the ePluribus timeline project.  That story has maybe a half-dozen spin-off stories: FEMA, oil price hikes, recovery efforts, Davis-Bacon, and so forth.  Each one of those sub-stories needs background.  (What's Davis-Bacon?  How has management of FEMA evolved in the last few administrations?  etc.)  I guess from that point of view, a wiki would probably be the best infrastructure for the online repository of explanatory pieces, since it makes expanding on a sub-topic quite easy.

by Shai Sachs 2008-08-16 07:32AM | 0 recs


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