A sustainable model for explanatory journalism
by Shai Sachs, Fri Aug 15, 2008 at 12:28:40 PM EDT
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.