'Explanatory journalism', another fad or a real opportunity?

30 Apr 2014  |  Peter Houston 
'Explanatory journalism', another fad or a real opportunity?

The driving force behind this new-fashioned name for an old-fashioned endeavour, however poorly articulated by the tag, could represent a real opportunity for publishers, says Peter Houston, founder of Flipping Pages Media.

I'm all for people creating catchy labels to help the rest of the world understand what they do, but explanatory journalism? Is that actually any different from just journalism?

The label is wrong for two reasons. First, journalism is inherently explanatory - at least good journalism is. Second, the implication that until now no journalist has ever managed to explain anything properly, is nonsense. The Pulitzer Board has been rewarding that worthy pursuit since the mid-80s.

But the driving force behind this new-fashioned name for an old-fashioned endeavour, however poorly articulated by the tag, could represent a real opportunity for publishers.

The rising stars most closely associated with the explanatory journalism fad are predominantly data-inspired, if not data-driven, news sites and generally do things a little differently. In the US, FiveThiryEight, Vox and most recently The Upshot lead the pack. Here in the UK, The Mirror's Ampp3d and the Guardian are best known for flying the explanatory flag.

This 'new' style of news reporting flared up at the meeting point of an increasingly complex news agenda and data-centric visual web technologies. Rather than write thousands of words trying to explain the relevance of the latest quantitative easing figures, sites like Ampp3d present slick charts and graphs designed to illustrate a point made in the accompanying, often brief, text analysis.

None of this is really new. Readers have adopted a DIY approach for years, using Wikipedia to fill the gaps."

What I find most interesting about the explanatory journalism trend isn't so much the techniques or the formats used as the inferred audience need for deeper context. Data journalism sites are targeting people that want a real walk through, rather than the superficial surface skim that we've all come to know and love (or loathe) on the web.

This might be because life has become so complicated, we're desperate for insight; it might be because we're tired of the fluff; it might just be that we want to show off to our friends down the pub. Vox Cards, published under an 'Understand the News' strapline, offers readers the perfect bluffers guide to complex current affairs.

Whatever the reason, there's a developing place for content that provides comprehensive background information on very specific topics. And that's the opportunity for publishers.

Back when space was limited by print budgets, magazine publishers had few places to put in-depth, single-topic content. Supplements did the job to some extent, but with scope generally limited by the availability of advertising and sponsorship revenues.

In the Tardis of digital publishing, every publisher can now create extensive explanation archives outside print's space-time continuum. Digital space is effectively limitless and investment in background packages that give context to fresh content is an investment in the long tail that most publishers would benefit from.

From new product launches to celebrity obituaries, every piece of current content could benefit from historical or analytical information that adds value to the audience's understanding of issues as they unfold. Stories are better told with the additional context of a 'what went before' package.

And the package is the thing. The new wave of 'explanatory' sites focus on data that is publicly accessible, but they take care of the filtering and present their analysis in easily digestible chunks. No one wants to sift through government spreadsheets for themselves, just like no one really wants to have to go off to another part of the internet to search for context.

None of this is really new. Readers have adopted a DIY approach for years, using Wikipedia to fill the gaps. But as Joe Lazauskas, Editor-in-chief of Contently said in a recent blog post: "It's like everyone woke up and realised, 'Hey, the Internet lets us explain things in depth really easily!'"

If publishers have the resources and the skills, they should jump on the 'explanatory journalism' bandwagon and start creating graphs and charts and illustrative animations to deepen their readers' understanding of the issues they cover.

Even if they don't, they should still encourage their journalists to take the time and use the limitless space available to them online to write up background material and satisfy the audience's need for context and keep them with you longer.

Peter Houston is a media consultant and founder of Flipping Pages Media.

Twitter: @Flipping_Pages.

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