(This blogpost borrowed from and was largely inspired by this one.)
Once a week, I will write an explainer article about a piece of news. Good explanation is largely what journalism lacks today. That’s no secret, since a lot of news is broken almost instantly over Twitter and other social media. The tale is familiar: a story bursts into life in 140-character form, and perhaps a longer piece gets fleshed out during the day. But after that, the stories fail to capture the contextual relevance of the news. Readers, the exact people we try to seduce with our speed and ability to process information, begin to distrust us. That distrust is borne from the industry’s animal-like focus on being first while missing meaning. Not enough has been done to address the problem, and major players are starting to notice.
Ezra Klein, former Washington Post blogger, was hired by Verge and SB Nation owner Vox Media to create the as-yet-unnamed Project X, something that he’s described as a Wikipedia-and-breaking-news hybrid. Klein’s old stomping ground, the Washington Post, is hiring to build a new data/storytelling effort. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have also announced plans to expand explanatory journalism. Pierre Omidyar, founder and chairman of eBay, recently launched First Look Media, a news site focused on opinionated analysis.
Perhaps Klein describes it best: “We are better than ever at telling people what’s happening, but not nearly good enough at giving them the crucial contextual information necessary to understand what’s happened. We treat the emphasis on the newness of information as important virtue rather than a painful compromise.”
This isn’t an extremely new criticism of journalism, and other explanatory projects exist today: SB Nation’s “StoryStream,” Reddit’s “Explain Like I’m Five” and the Washington Post’s expanded TruthTeller venture. Now, however, industry experts are viewing analysis as a potential investment opportunity. Rather than asking the question, “How can we get the information first?” journalists are asking themselves, “How can we make the information better?” And when the information is better, will people want to pay for it?
This is an important shift in thinking. Ad sales and subscriptions aren’t the only ways to boost a news outlet’s revenue. In fact, I believe they can’t be. I believe that attitude almost sunk journalism, in the first place. I believe that attitude is the kink in the industry’s system, today. Journalism is like any other industry—technology, health care, agriculture—in that if you want to get people to pay a premium for a product, you must improve that product. To improve the product, you must invest. Perhaps that’s why eminent entrepreneurs like Pierre Omidyar and Jeff Bezos have stepped into the chaotic news sphere—they see investment opportunities.