Back when distribution was hard and space scarce, news was one new thing after another. Now there’s explainer journalism to serve as counterpoint to that.
Quick definition: Explainer journalism gives users the background knowledge they need to understand the stream of updates to a story. Another way to say it: explainer journalism specializes in the “why” and “how,” so that the “who, what, when, where” make more sense. The aim is not just to deliver the latest news but to increase the number of people who understand the story well enough to follow future developments in it.
The vast sea of content on which the modern news consumer floats has room for many kinds of journalism, and there’s demand for the kind that helps people “understand the news,” as category leader Vox.com puts it. Other leading sites are Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight for ESPN, the Upshot section of the New York Times and Wonkblog at the Washington Post.
In many ways explainer journalism is not a recent development at all. The Pulitzer Prizes have had a category for “explanatory reporting” since 1998. (“…illuminates a significant and complex subject, demonstrating mastery of the subject, lucid writing and clear presentation.”) Slate magazine introduced explainers (“answers to your questions about the news”) in 1998.
What’s different today is that with digital publishing the norm, space is not scarce. With podcasting the time available to explain things expands. And with many more publishers feeding much more “stuff” into the system, the need for background and context is more obvious to more people.
In 2009, Matt Thompson, now an editor at the Atlantic, called explainer journalism an “antidote for web overload.” But it was also journalism’s answer to Wikipedia, which served some of the same purposes but without the engagement smarts that good journalists could add. As Thompson said:
After years of working in online newsrooms, though, I had hit upon a secret — talking to journalists was like having the decoder ring without having to do the work. If I didn’t understand a story or why it was important, I could ask a metro editor about it. Without fail, she’d lay out the history and context in lush narrative detail, often with entertaining depictions of the players involved and fun asides with snippets of political trivia. Ten minutes of conversation with a good reporter could unlock the fundamentals of a beat so thoroughly I’d walk away feeling like an expert on the topic. I started to realize that “getting” the news didn’t require a decoder ring or years of work. All it took was access to the key pieces of information that newsrooms possessed in abundance.
In this sense explainer journalism takes something journalists have always been good at — storing background and context in their heads — and turns it into a genre and specialty. But it’s a bit more than that. News is not everything of value in journalism. As Ezra Klein, founder of Vox.com, put it when the site started: “New information is not always — and perhaps not even usually — the most important information for understanding a topic. … The news business [is] just a subset of the informing-our-audience business — and that’s the business we aim to be in.”
Explainer journalism thus realizes the “one new thing after another” method was never that great for the users of news.