Posted by: structureofnews | July 30, 2014

Explain This

ExplainKen Doctor, as always, has a smart post about the renewed focus on “explanatory journalism” with the rise of such sites/verticals as Vox, the Upshot, Storyline and FiveThirtyEight, and asking a critical question:  What’s the bottom line?

If, in fact, in a world awash in Who/What/When/Where, readers value the connecting of dots, they’re more likely to pay for it — and to pay more for it.

Is that true?  Ken makes a strong case for the higher value of Why over Who/What/When/Where, and it’s certainly true that the world is flooded with commoditized “news” – what-just-happened stories – that drive their value and price down.  And so the relative value of contextual, explanatory news makes lots of sense to me; and what I’d argue is that we can and should do more to turn out more Why? content more regularly and more efficiently to really drive value.

But to do that we’ll need both to focus much more and – you guessed it – structure our content more.

First, back to Ken’s post, which lays out the case for explanatory journalism clearly and succinctly.  As he notes, it isn’t something new or something confined to the FiveThiryEights of this world, but a core part of daily journalism at the best news organizations in the world.

The Wall Street Journal, the FT,  The Economist, and The New Yorker are just a few of the news outfits that have long based their products on making the world a little more understandable for their readers. More recently, sites as far-flung as Quartz and the Netherlands’ De Correspondent have joined that group. What they have in common: the ability to price up for readers, or charge premium rates to advertisers, or both. Might they be on to something?

But that kind of great journalism is expensive – not to mention inherently inefficient – and as revenues at news organizations have suffered and news cycles have shortened, there’s been a temptation in many newsrooms to get on the “hamster wheel” of content generation – focusing on giving readers more and faster in an effort to keep up with competitors and drive page views.

To be sure, there’s also been a trend back to deeper investigative reporting in some newsrooms, based on the theory that it’s precisely that kind of differentiated content that will bring more dedicated and loyal readers/subscribers – an argument very similar to the one Ken makes.

The main issue – and Ken flags it well when he discusses the challenges local papers face in trying to follow this model – is that good content, whether investigative or explanatory, is more expensive and slower to produce.  Even if it does generate more revenue, will it cover its higher costs?

If explainer journalism really can up the intelligence quotient among it readers and get more of them to pay for digital news (take note: Pew, Knight, grad students in search of dissertation topics), then how does more of the local press can get there? That’s a big mountain. It’s hard to regain the lost knowledge already excised from newsrooms. Some of the younger, less well-paid staff hired as replacements have the ability to do the work — but they need to both be led and allowed to do it. The trade needs a Watergate-like makeover, one that would encourage the smartest people with the best storytelling-like skills to be come into it and to stay. That’s a matter of both money and culture.

And money, certainly, isn’t in big supply in most newsrooms.

So what’s a struggling newsroom to do?

I won’t repeat all the points I noted in my post the other day about building content in a structured form that allows it to be repurposed, recombined and reused to provide more context and insight.  Look at Politifact, where fact-checking of a single claim can be combined in various ways to show how other similar claims have turned out – sure, that recombined information may not be as richly reported or as well-written as a long feature on some Senator’s track record, but it provides insight and context at speed and relatively low cost.  In Connected China, the addition of any single new fact or data point potentially enriches the entire database, because of the new connections that can be created from it.  It’s all part of the argument for a structured journalism approach to this kind of news and information.

And so too is the need for focus.  The best news organizations in the world have the resources to cover a wide range of topics, from news to explainers to investigations, and more power to them.  But smaller newsrooms can’t afford to go as wide if it means they can’t go deep on any given topic.  And going deep sporadically on multiple topics – schools quality one day, drug-taking in sports the next month, corruption in city hall next year – isn’t much better; it both doesn’t allow for systematic gathering of information that could be repurposed nor offers readers something specific they can count on getting on a regular basis.

And that second issue – the building of a “product promise” (you can see I’m spending too much time with the business folks here) that your site/publication will keep readers up to date and help them understand a specific topic very well, is a critical part of building an engaged user base.

Going deep is, as Ken suggests, a good way to build audience loyalty and probably revenues.  It’s also a way to build more efficiency in how you can create good, insightful content.  And since resources are finite, it almost certainly means trading away breadth.

But if we get better, deeper journalism – and more importantly, a more informed readership – as a result, what’s not to like?

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