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Nine Questions about Explainer Journalism You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask

A crop of new websites promise to "explain the news." If your reaction is, "Isn't that what journalists already do?", then this is the guide for you.

By Nathan Pippenger

To start with, here’s a disclaimer: The relationships between print journalism and web journalism, between “explainer” journalists and opinion journalists, and between journalists and experts are all really complicated. This is not an exhaustive or definitive account of those stories. This is just some background, written for anybody who might be interested. Most importantly, it employs a template that has become almost emblematic of the explainer journalism style.

1. What is explainer journalism?

Good start! “Explainer journalism” (or “explanatory journalism”) describes a model in which complex news topics—including technical issues like the federal budget—are boiled down for the ordinary reader. The Washington Post’s Wonkblog was (and remains) a major outlet for this kind of writing, but recently Wonkblog chief Ezra Klein left the Post to start a new site called Vox, which is dedicated to explainer journalism. (He took much of the old Wonkblog team along with him, as well as Slate’s Matt Yglesias.)

2. Wait, let’s back up. Is that the same thing as FiveThirtyEight?

Not really. To be sure, FiveThirtyEight is similar in many ways: It launched around the same time as Vox and is also run by a slightly-nerdy, bespectacled thirty-ish guy (Nate Silver) who left a venerable old newspaper (in Silver’s case, The New York Times) to start a web venture. But FiveThirtyEight is dedicated to data journalism, which makes its emphasis slightly different from Vox’s. But the line is, admittedly, somewhat blurry, and other publications have recently rolled out data-explainer style efforts. The New York Times, for instance, recently launched “The Upshot,” on the premise that “many people don’t understand the news as well as they would like.” One of its “highest priorities will be unearthing data sets — and analyzing existing ones — in ways that illuminate and explain the news.”

3. Why are people doing this?

There are at least two ways of answering this question. The first is by reference to media economics: Ezra Klein and Nate Silver have built incredibly popular news sources, and many big institutions, jealous of the traffic, are following their lead. There’s an increasingly-crowded marketplace for the “explainer” style (especially when it incorporates visualized data—witness the rise of the grating, and increasingly ubiquitous, “X, explained in one chart” headline trope).

But as the explainers themselves put it, they’re not just chasing clicks. They’re filling a hole in journalism. According to Ezra Klein, too many journalists think of certain topics as “vegetables” or “spinach.” “It’s a terrible attitude,” he says. “If we can’t take things that are important and meaningful in people’s lives and make them interesting, that failure is 100% on us as writers. That is entirely our fault.”

4. Wait, isn’t that what newspapers and magazines already do?

Ah, now you’ve hit on the controversy! Lots of journalists who cover “vegetable” beats—say, the federal budget—don’t exactly appreciate Klein’s suggestion that they have a grudging attitude towards their own work. They already see their job as making complex issues accessible and vital to the average reader. And over the last decade, they’ve witnessed a devastating series of newsroom layoffs which have left many experienced journalists out of work—people who brought decades of knowledge to their writing. It must sting, then, to be told be a coterie of young journalists (many of whom have little or no traditional reporting experience) that Things Must Change because the old guard is failing at its job. This issue is even more sensitive when it comes to foreign affairs, since many old-fashioned print journalists (like Daniel Pearl and Anthony Shadid) have died in war zones in order to bring what Klein calls “vegetable” stories to American readers. It’s not hard to see why these reporters might feel a touch of resentment when told their work is too context-heavy for the average reader, and needs support from a young writer who can write most of a piece without leaving their desk.

5. This is all a bit insider-y. Can we take a music break?

Sure!

6. Sites like Vox are getting lots of attention, though. Doesn’t that show there’s a demand for something different?

Well, they’re certainly popular. A recently-leaked internal New York Times memo showed that Vox Media (which includes Vox.com and sites like The Verge and SB Nation)’s traffic* exceeds The Wall Street Journal’s, and institutions like the Times clearly see Vox as a major new competitor. (That helps explain The Upshot.) And to be fair, it can be refreshingly direct when journalists start at square one and are willing to meet readers where they are. After all, as the defenders of explainer journalism insist, it’s better to raise the level of knowledge—by whatever means work best—than to simply scold readers for not already having a working knowledge of complex issues. Besides, much of that writing is very well-done!

7. What about the readers? Do they find it interesting? Condescending? Or both?

The short answer is: It depends. Like any kind of writing, explainer journalism can be done poorly. And as critics have rightly noted, it’s unrealistic to assume, as the style’s champions tend to do, that explainer journalism can be extended to anything. Some issues are just too complex to be succinctly and fairly explained to lay audiences by non-specialist journalists—who are working on deadlines, remember! As Teju Cole has noted:

And in less-careful hands, it’s easy for explainer journalism to become extremely condescending. (Have you noticed the intentionally dumbed-down, cloyingly didactic tone of this post? It’s an unfortunate downside to quite a bit of the genre.) After all, there are plenty of people who don’t understand quantitative easing, but who also don’t need to be spoken to as if they were four years old. Explainer journalism is at special risk of forgetting this lesson: Respect your readers. CNN, for instance, won’t soon live this one down.
CNN Headline.png

8. Ok, so these places can be a little tone-deaf. But are they partisan? Do they have an angle?

Another excellent question. You’re getting the hang of this! Many of Vox’s staffers have written for liberal outlets (Klein first rose to prominence at The American Prospect; senior editor Brad Plumer was formerly of The New Republic; executive editor Matt Yglesias and foreign-affairs writer Zack Beauchamp are both alumni of ThinkProgress). Klein has asserted that “politics makes us stupid,” and he has a palpable desire to transcend what he sees as uninformed partisan bickering. But some writers, like New York’s Jonathan Chait, argue that whether they like it or not, Klein and his peers are caught in a political game. In America, empiricism is liberal, Chait says. That’s just a political reality, since today’s conservatives tend to discount facts that clash with cherished beliefs. “The empirical evenhandedness of the new data journalists is a wonderful contribution to American public life,” Chait writes. “It is, however, anything but politically neutral.”

9. Hi, this was all too long, so I skipped to the bottom. What’s the take-away?

A handful of new websites, the most prominent of which is Vox.com, are attempting to become one-stop shops for essential information and context on just about everything that’s in the news—especially topics which are often thought of as dry, boring, or too technical for ordinary people to understand. These sites tend to rely on young writers, many of whom don’t have a traditional background in reporting, and who often aggregate data from other sources to provide context for confused readers.

This is a noble goal, and in many cases it’s done very well—but the devil is in the application. There’s a mushy worldview at the core of “explainer” journalism that assumes the ability of a hardworking writer—usually not an expert, but a smart generalist—to boil down the most complicated issues into an easily-grasped core. Priding itself on clarity and straightforwardness, it downplays the distorting effects that inevitably result from trying to portray an issue in “simple” terms that anybody can understand (even if they lack background in a topic). Privileging information over opinion, it tends to adopt the worldview of the college-educated, highly Internet-conscious, socially liberal upper middle-class, and present its particular set of biases and concerns as more or less akin to “understanding” the news. It’s accessible, informative, usually smart, and often entertaining—but don’t be seduced: it’s less revolutionary, and more parochial, than its evangelists realize. And you shouldn’t be embarrassed to point that out.

*Correction: This post initially stated that Vox.com, not the broader family of Vox Media sites of which it is a member, outpaced the Wall Street Journal’s traffic. The language has been corrected. Thanks to Carla Correa for noting the error.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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