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What is explainer journalism?

One of last week's big media stories was the purchase of the website Re/code by Vox Media.

Vox wanted to add Re/code, the brainchild of ex Wall Street Journal writers Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, to its publishing portfolio as it required a tech site aimed more to a B2B audience to complement its highly successful consumer site The Verge

Interestingly much of the company’s growth has come from a concept of which Vox.com, and to a lesser degree The Verge, is arguably the leading practitioner, explainer journalism. 

So what is explainer journalism? Is it just a new name for content that news websites have been producing since the first printing presses whirred into action? Or is it something new that has the potential to be genuinely transformative for online media?

Explainer journalism in a nutshell

Put simply, if news content focuses on the ‘Who, What, When, and Where,’ explainer journalism looks to inform the reader of the ‘How and Why.’ It attempts to get behind the news to give the reader background information about a story to ensure that they are able to properly understand events as they unfold. 

It maybe a new-ish concept but its roots run deep in traditional journalism. In the days before the web newspapers would often run stories explaining what is happening in the news invariably, due to the nature of the printing press, the following day or at the weekend. Once the web threw the traditional timetables of journalism out of the window explainer articles have become published as fast as possible after a news story breaks.

Good examples of explainer journalism in print include The Guardian’s Pass Notes which examines both serious and often light hearted issues in a conversational and sometimes irreverent way. A more serious attempt at explainer journalism is practised by The Week magazine which attempts to condense seven days of news events into bite sized chunks.

Why is there interest in explainer journalism now?

Essentially two key things. First is the commoditisation of news. Stories break very quickly and, not surprisingly given the speed that journalists create them, there isn't often  a huge difference in the content between different news sources. It appears too that online readers aren't too fussy about where they get their news from as long as it is a reasonably trusted source and it gets the story first. 

Explainer journalism enables the media provider to at least show some intelligence and insight in its news content. It also attracts search engine traffic too as some readers may be asking ‘Why’ type questions. It can also mean that the media source gets additional traffic from Google News which tends to find space on its opening pages for explainer style content alongside the basic news stories.

Another reason why explainer journalism has become more important is that the media has new tools it can use to enhance it. It doesn't have to be just words. Data can also be illustrated in infographics, while videos of talking heads summarising tricky concepts can be shot quickly and easily.

Who is practising explainer journalism?

There are sites that purely focus on explainer journalism and then there are explainer journalism style articles in a mainstream media. The best example of the former is Vox, whose description of its parent company's purchase of Re/code is a classic bit of explainer journalism. The website even sports the strapline ‘explain the news.’ There are plenty of others from Nate Silver’s Fivethirtyeight through to the recently launched Readfold from MIT Media Labs. The Upshot is an example of how some media companies, in this instances The New York Times, have siloed explainer journalism. Other media like The Guardian have integrated explainer journalism into its news pages.

What’s the future for explainer journalism?

In a fascinating article for Journalism.co.uk digital publishing consultant Adam Tinworth makes the point that journalism is only now starting to evolve to fully embrace the opportunities of the web and leave behind its print heritage.

He says ‘A quick glance at the traffic across your site will probably show you that. In most businesses I’ve worked with, people have expected that something like 70 per cent of traffic would be to new content, and the rest to the archive. The reality usually proves to be exactly the other way around.’

‘This is a very different reality of publishing. It suggests that we’re over-weight in publishing what you could call news and significantly under-weight in publishing other types of content that have longer-term value. That’s what this explainer journalism trend really represents. It’s the tip of an iceberg of web-format content that thrives in the digital environment.’

So maybe by looking beyond the existing way that online newspapers present and update news media companies might find a way of producing content that has real value and continues to attract readers over a longer periods. Surely that's a goal that every publisher should be aiming for.

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