Storytelling

How the Explainer Changed Digital Media Forever

Let’s suppose you want to learn about Brexit. You could go to a legacy news outlet like the The New York Times and search the archives. If your preferences skew a bit more modern, you could take your question to an outlet like Vox, which specializes in SEO-friendly explainers. Or you could compare both to see two places cover the same topic in very different ways.

The first approach yields a timeline of newspaper articles, which you can piece together to create a full story. The image below reveals what you get when you plug “Brexit” into the New York Times app, which is coincidentally the first thing I look at every morning. Notice the articles pop up out of chronological order. (It’s not clear what order they’re in.) You have the choice of listening to a podcast episode, reading an op-ed, checking breaking news, or digesting a collection of quotes from European citizens on the subject. In this view, you get nuanced pieces to a puzzle, but you never get the whole thing.

New York Times Brexit explainer

On the contrary, if you route to an outlet like Vox and search the term “Brexit,” you’re greeted with this:

  1. Britain’s roiling Brexit crisis, explained (and updated regularly)
  2. Brexit: 9 questions you were too embarrassed to ask
  3. What’s going on with Brexit, explained in under 500 words
  4. Brexit: what happens when Britain leaves the EU
  5. The latest Brexit drama, explained
  6. The Brexit deal was defeated in Parliament. Here’s what happens next.

The upside of Vox’s style is that the audience is spoon-fed important information framed around questions the new stories inspire. The downside is that Vox rarely breaks stories, so its information is mostly aggregated. Aggregation is an old practice in journalism, and digital transformation has only encouraged it. But Vox is often credited (or blamed, depending on whom you ask) for heralding the modern explainer format.

On the whole, digital media doesn’t just tell stories anymore; it answers questions and anticipates follow-up inquiries, delivering explanatory content on intricacies you might have missed. Gone is the impetus to build a narrative from disparate headlines that once fell on readers. But who molded the media landscape this way?

A quick explainer on explainers

Vox launched in 2014, around the time ESPN acquired FiveThirtyEight, the data-explainer site run by Nate Silver. That same year, The New York Times launched The Upshot, the Grey Lady’s best attempt at a Vox-y project.

When all three websites came to life, The Guardian‘s James Ball penned a nervous op-ed about it. “It’s worth thinking about what we actually want the standard fare of our data journalism—or explanatory journalism, if you prefer that more marketable description—to become,” he wrote. “And how much is too much—are we being over-served, under-served, or have we now hit the Goldilocks point?”

Ball wasn’t able to predict that Vox’s staff and readership would skew disproportionately white, straight, and cis-male, but that has become a notable snag in the Vox paradigm.

It’s not just accusations of bias. Critics say explanatory journalism can be patronizing, simplifying complex stories for readers who ingest most information on their smartphones while doing something else.

To counter, Vox founder and editor-at-large Ezra Klein believes the explainer is the only logical format for a modern media company “where everything is archivable, where it’s all linkable, where it’s embeddable, persistent, and length isn’t a problem.” He described the Vox mission to The Content Strategist and other reporters at a recent press event.

Of course, Klein couldn’t simply write explainers for his readers on request, and when he began to amass a team around him, he realized journalists weren’t always the right hire. “Obsessives first,” Klein said. “That was the thing. We hired a lot of people who were not journalists. In fact, a lot of people who are at Vox now or have come through Vox, who are the absolute best at the job, weren’t hired out of journalism.”

Vox assembled professionals at the top of their fields by asking them to explain what they did to capture a curious audience. “I can teach you to report. I can teach you to pick up a phone,” Klein said, “but what I can’t teach is that obsessive passion and interest in a topic that will make you seek out the updates and teach yourself about it, and read the reports on it, and read down into the footnotes, whether or not anyone is paying you to do so.”

Vox pays creators, of course, and hiring curious people and letting them off the leash led to a big part of Vox’s content strategy: the explainer that beats a reader to a question. Some of Vox’s best straightforward explainers in the last few years include this infographic visualizing data on Earth’s biodiversity, a piece on psychedelics, and this article on impeachment. You’ll notice the latter is broken into sub-questions that Vox assumes might arise when one asks, “Can we impeach President Trump?” Some of Vox’s coolest explainers answer questions you may not have been curious about until you saw the link, like “Why do rappers talk about Grey Poupon so much?”

Andrew Golis, Vox general manager and VP of network development, said some of the best explainers answer questions that haven’t occurred to readers yet. Or, as he put it, “The ones that make you say, ‘Oh, I’ve never really thought about that before.'”

Golis believes Vox’s editorial viewpoint reflects its internal culture. “Vox was born at a moment of wild change in the American machine,” he said. “It is amazing to me how much the culture of data consumption, reader attention, and optimizing in a thoughtful way, is baked into the brand.”

The post-Vox explainer

Did the Vox experiment, an entire media brand based around explainers, ultimately work out? For Vox’s investors, sure. For readers? Well, it depends on who you ask. Today, explainers coming from Vox, FiveThirtyEight, and The Upshot remain the format’s gold standard. But, these publishers swim upstream in a river full of cheap imitations.

At the event, Klein clarified that a great explainer adds context to a simple question. “There were explainers before Vox, but they were fundamentally pretty different,” he said. “The audience they seemed to have in mind was somebody who wanted to know about an issue, but didn’t want to know much. It was like we all imagined a reader who’d say, ‘Tell me about Obamacare, but very little about it.’ It was like three paragraphs, right? Like definitions. News for kids. And that wasn’t my experience of digital media audiences at all.”

Klein bet his audience was smarter than that because he had listened to reader feedback as a young reporter. “When I would get e-mails from readers, and when I would talk to people, their question was never, ‘What happened today in Obamacare?’ or ‘What’s going on today?'” he said. Instead, he’d get emails from readers drilling down into specific sub-topics. They’d ask, “how do premiums work in the new health care act?” or “What is the individual mandate?”

He grew frustrated without any useful resources to send his readers.

“I would think, ‘We do such good coverage of this. Why don’t we have anything for this person? Why is it on them to know that six and a half months ago, we broke one article explaining the foundational questions about what we’re doing?” He searched around, discovering there was a huge gulf between news and encyclopedic information. “What, they could go to Wikipedia? That’s it? That’s what the entire news industry had for them?” Eventually, Klein gathered the funds—$40 million—to launch Vox as a remedy.

Vox’s team used (and still uses!) search engine data as a loose inspiration for their editorial calendar, but they nix any story that doesn’t add anything to a simple query. “Search is a very easy thing to be inspired by,” Klein said. “It’s whatever people are asking about today in the world. That’s the viewer centered answer.” However, content that follows this equation…

Popular Google search term + aggregated information from other sources = viral content

…quickly stifles both creators and their audience. Writers and video producers don’t want to churn out formulaic faire, and readers can’t develop an emotional attachment to the brands that generate it. As a result, media becomes homogenous and boring when it’s saturated with lazy explainers.

Are explainers the future of content marketing?

After Vox set up this content model, it was easy to expand into an explainer podcast, a Netflix series, a YouTube channel, a Snapchat Discover content, and brand-sponsored projects from its content marketing wing, the Vox Explainer Studio. The latter, founded in 2017, has already created explainer content for Google, Microsoft, MailChimp, the Gates Foundation, and Walmart, defining how content marketers can muscle in on the explainer format and use it to their advantage.

The explainer format is especially conducive to content marketing because it positions the writer as an authority figure—or, as marketers put it, a subject matter expert (SME). The educational aspect also helps brands avoid reporting on conflicts of interest or criticizing their own industries. Just like Vox, a B2B brand that’s committed to content marketing wants to educate and entertain a captive audience by writing about the industry they occupy. If you’re explaining why your brand offers the best product or service in the game, you need to put that claim in context. For example, a bank would do well to publish explainers on all the financial topics they can counsel clients in: retirement accounts, playing the stock market, investing, cryptocurrency, whatever.

Mint is a shining example of a brand using explainers to flesh out its content hub. Like Vox, they strive to create trustworthy content and contextualize relevant news stories for their audience. Their “WTFinance” vertical stands out in particular, explaining subjects ranging from compound interest to credit scores.

The goal is the same, whether you’re a brand selling a product or a digital media company commodifying attention. You have to educate, entertain, and own your audience. Explainers are an easy way to do all three.

If a brand listens to its audience’s pain points, concerns, and curiosities for inspiration, but constantly digs deeper for audience-centric angles, it will, like Vox, find a unique editorial voice. Producing truly great explainers won’t just elevate that brand above its competitors; it could place it among top tier digital publishers.

Image by Tero Vesalainen
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