Content Marketing

A Brief History of Explanatory Journalism

By Natalie Burg April 23rd, 2014

Roy Peter Clark remembers when his mentor and editor of The St. Petersburg Times, Gene Patterson, began “preaching for the perfection of an ‘explanatory journalism'” in the 1980s. Clark himself wrote an essay on the topic, “Making Hard Facts Easy Reading” for the Washington Journalism Review in 1984—the same year Ezra Klein was born.

Listening to online buzz, one might get the idea that Klein, Nate Silver, and their contemporaries invented the idea of writing news that explains the news, even though the first Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism was handed out in 1985. Though Klein was quick to clarify in the comments of a recent article by Clark that he isn’t trying to take credit for the existence of explanatory journalism, he and a handful of others are undeniably on the forefront of explanatory journalism’s resurgence. Klein’s Vox, The New York TimesThe Upshot, Bloomberg’s QuickTake, and Silver’s newly re-launched FiveThirtyEight are just the crest of the wave.

What’s behind it? Let us explain. Clark describes explanatory journalism’s beginning as a conversation about breaking down complex issues for the ease of readers through simple sentences, accessible tone and the slow introduction of new concepts. Early Pulitzer Prize winners in the category included a six-part New York Times series on Star Wars, the Strategic Defense Initiative, and a series in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution exploring the declining effectiveness of antibiotics and pesticides.

Seems like pretty important stuff for people to understand. As the world becomes more complex, the need to translate jargon and data overload into comprehensive, understandable reports only grows in importance. And one thing the internet has done for the world is make it more complex.

Why now?

If the internet is now a data flood, the recent surge in explanatory journalism seeks to be the ark that helps us survive it. The Upshot’s editor, David Leonhardt, said that data will be at the heart of the publication, even if their stories aren’t bogged down with numbers.

“We aim to appeal to the many people out there who wish they understood the world a bit better,” he wrote. “We will build on all of the excellent journalism The New York Times is already producing, by helping readers make connections among different stories and understand how those stories fit together.”

While the internet may be contributing to the data overload that has driven a renewed demand for explanatory journalism, it’s also the reason why the practice is more possible and effective than ever. As NYU journalism students explored in a partnership with ProPublica, online tools allow for better presentation of explanatory reports, including video, infographics, aggregators, podcasts, micro-sites, interactive guides, flowcharts, and connecting with audiences.

Perhaps nothing shook the world into connecting the power of big data and news more than Silver’s perfect state-by-state prediction of the 2012 presidential election. If oceans of complex data can predict a presidential election, what else can it do?

Numbers are only one type of data ripe for translating into digestible content. When complex news stories break over time, they’re often reported in small chunks without any context.

“If there is one market need that is being well served at the moment, it is the market for instant news hits,” wrote Mathew Ingram for GigaOM. “Within minutes of an event, there are literally hundreds of thousands of tweets, blog posts, videos, and photos posted, to the point where even making sense of them all becomes a huge challenge.”

Journalist Lara Setrakian sought to overcome that challenge by launching Syria Deeply in 2012, a site focused on news surrounding the crisis there. Through reporting, video, analysis, a conflict map, and other features, Syria Deeply provides context to a long-developing story that much of the world follows in snippets. According to GigaOM, Setrakian has plans for future sites, such as Arctic Deeply, spreading the in-depth coverage to other topics.

Explaining into the future

The history of explanatory journalism may span decades, but its future on the internet is just beginning. Setrakian and Silver’s projects were the forerunners, but Vox, QuickTake, The Upshot, and the new FiveThirtyEight are all less than six months old. While Poynter’s Rick Edmonds warned Digiday that explanatory journalism is “fairly difficult category to monetize,” given the unlikeness that casual news followers will be dedicated and motivated readers. But the rush into the market by so many big names seems to push back on that skepticism.

Ingram, in fact, called explanatory journalism “a trend worth celebrating” in part because of how the democratization of distribution has taken all of the value away from breaking news as we know it.

“The news is all around us, almost everywhere, at all times,” he wrote. “Trying to sell it is like trying to sell oxygen or dirt—we already have more than we could possibly want.”

So what’s the refined product that you can distill from the abundant resource of news? An explanation of what it all means, powered by potent new technology.

Anyone hoping explanatory journalism could be the silver bullet for the future of journalism should take heed, as analysts are already musing over its limits. But the fact that it has a future at all is exciting enough for many. That includes Clark, who sees this new generation of explanatory journalism as a breakthrough in the conversation his mentor began 30 years ago. We may finally help “readers make sense of a more complex, technical, and cluttered world.”

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