Building a Better Explainer: NYU and ProPublica Will Collaborate and Share What They Learn

PressThink has an announcement to make! ProPublica is making it at the same time. (Here's the official press release.)

30 Nov 2010 9:57 pm 9 Comments

The Building a Better Explainer Project

ProPublica, a non-profit that produces investigative journalism in the public interest, and NYU’s Studio 20 program, which is focused on innovation in journalism, announced today a joint project to experiment with new ways of doing “explainers,” a form of journalism that provides the essential background knowledge necessary to follow events in the news.

The goals of the project are to improve the art of explanation at ProPublica’s site and to share what is learned with the journalism community.

The Building a Better Explainer project will extend for the remainder of the 2010-11 academic year. Graduate students working under NYU professor Jay Rosen, and consulting closely with the editors of ProPublica, will:

* research best practices in explanatory journalism;
* collect relevant knowledge from other disciplines about how users absorb complex subjects;
* pick one of ProPublica’s major investigations and produce model explainers suitable for publication at;
* experiment with different ways of delivering critical background knowledge, using all the tools of the web
* investigate how to make the explainer genre more interactive with web users;
* share their findings with ProPublica and the wider journalism world.

“An explainer is a work of journalism, but it doesn’t provide the latest news or update you on a story,” Rosen said. “It addresses a gap in your understanding: the lack of essential background knowledge. We wanted to work with the journalists at ProPublica on this problem because they investigate complicated stories and teach what they’ve learned to other journalists. It seemed like a perfect match.”

“Orienting readers and giving them context has long been a key component of good journalism,” said Eric Umansky, a senior editor at ProPublica. “But the Web allows you re-think what forms that can take and how it should be done. We’re thrilled to be working with Studio 20 and Jay on experimenting with that.”

Bringing clarity to complex systems so that non-specialists can understand them is the “art” of the explainer. For instance, an explainer for the Irish debt crisis would make clear why a weakness in one country’s banks could threaten the European financial system and possibly the global recovery. A different kind of explainer might show how Medicare billing is designed to work and where the opportunities for fraud lie.

“Good explainers are engaging, not only informative,” said Rosen. “They lower the barrier to entry to news stories that are difficult to summarize in a headline.”

The project site is Explainer.Net, which launched today. It will be edited by the Studio 20 team. The site will highlight outstanding work in explanation, interview skilled practitioners and update interested audiences on the project’s progress.

Now for the background on this project…

It begins two years ago, with This American Life’s hugely successful one hour documentary, The Giant Pool of Money. To my mind it’s the greatest explainer ever heard. That led to my 2008 post, National Explainer, which is about a flaw in the model of information acquisition that got built into the existing news system:

In this model, I would receive news about something brewing in the mortgage banking arena (“”Subprime lenders in trouble: check.”) Then I would receive some more news and perhaps keep an even closer eye on the story. After absorbing additional reports of ongoing problems in the mortgage market (their frequency serving as a signal that something is truly up) I might then turn to an “analysis” piece for more on the possible consequences, or perhaps a roundtable with experts on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer. I thus graduate from the simpler to the more sophisticated forms of news as I learn more about a potentially far-reaching development. That’s the way it works… right?

Wrong! For there are some stories—and the mortgage crisis is a great example—where until I grasp the whole I am unable to make sense of any part. Not only am I not a customer for news reports prior to that moment, but the very frequency of the updates alienates me from the providers of those updates because the news stream is adding daily to my feeling of being ill-informed, overwhelmed, out of the loop. I respond with indifference, even though I’ve picked up a blinking red light from the news system’s repeated placement of “subprime” items in front of me.

My conclusion was: “If the providers of information aren’t providing the basic explainers that turn people into customers for that information, they don’t deserve those customers and won’t retain them. If explanation is required for information acquisition, then the explainer comes before the informer as a pre-requisite. We typically have it the other way around.”

Meanwhile, Matt Thompson, then a fellow at University of Missouri, now at NPR’s Argo project, was thinking along similar lines. To actually understand the biggest stories in the news we need to know “what just happened” and we also need a grasp of the “longstanding facts.” One without the other doesn’t work. But typically we only get the “what happened” part. He later refined those terms. The news system, he wrote, gives us “episodic information,” but a series of episodes cannot actually inform us.

Hundreds of headlines wash over us every day. And part of why many of us engage in this flow is because we have faith that over time, this torrent of episodic knowledge is going to cohere into something more significant: a framework for genuinely understanding an issue…

But mounting evidence indicates that this approach to information is actually totally debilitating. Faced with a flood of headlines on an ever-increasing variety of topics, we shut off. We turn to news that doesn’t require much understanding – crime, traffic, weather – or we turn off the news altogether.

It turns out that in order for information about things like the public option and budget reconciliation to be useful to you, you need a certain amount of systemic knowledge to be able to parse it. You need an [effective] framework for understanding health care reform before the episodic headlines relating to health care reform make any sense.

It used to be impossible to provide this background because space was at a premium and broadcast time was precious. But in the digital era the scarce resource is the user’s time and attention. And, as Thompson pointed out, a stream of context-less updates is not a productive way of informing people who have limited bandwidth and an abundance of information options.

“Suppose your laptop continually received updates to software that was never installed on your laptop.” This was the way I put it at the South by Southwest panel in Austin that Thompson and I were on, along with Tristan Harris of and Staci Kramer of We called that event “the future of context,” and created a separate site for it with essays and guest posts by others. (See: You can listen to the SXSW panel here.)

The Austin event was a success: the room was packed, the tremors continued for weeks after. This convinced me that the future-of-context puzzle was important to the rebooting of news, and that a lot of people were tuning into it. In May of 2010 I started discussing with editors at ProPublica a possible collaboration in which my Studio 20 students and I would try to build better explainers for them. They were receptive.

So that’s what we are going to try to do. We will start by researching what’s working now, and by going beyond journalism to fields that might know something journalists should know. In the spring of 2011, we’ll devote a whole graduate course (18 students, two instructors, plus consultants) to producing explainers that we hope ProPublica can publish, as well as a kind of tool kit to make the task easier. At the project site,, we’ll post highlights from our research, solicit help, and publish interviews with thinkers and do-ers who are pushing the practice forward.

We can’t fix the flaw in the old system’s model of information acquisition; that’s baked in. But while we’re building a better news system we should be trying to avoid the mistakes of the past.



As a relatively recent convert to being a “news about news” junkie (ramping up slowly over the last 2-3 years or so), this is one of the few experiments in journalism that I totally understand and am excited about. Ironically, I encounter the explainer problem when reading about other experiments such as new funding paradigms ( for example), in that I don’t know enough about old journalism funding paradigms for new models to make much sense to me. So the art of the explainer is not just important in journalism, but *any* field of interest with new updates.

This problem is also wider in that whenever you’re in a field, it’s pretty hard to know how much background to give, even in an academic paper. Here, as a law student, I’m thinking primarily about the legal academy: Student notes tend to give way more “unnecessary” background than articles by professors because we have no guidelines as to what within a field is background that people should know, and what is new. Obviously there’s a spectrum there, and if you can discover some sort of guideline or best practice for determining where background might end and new information begins in news, it would be interesting elsewhere as well.

I’m excited to see where this will lead.

You’re right. That’s why one of the things we are going to be doing is ranging wide into other fields to see how this problem has been approached there. We hope to drag back to journalism what we find.

Congratulations, Jay. The Giant Pool of Money is indeed the gold standard. I think the Planet Money experiment has also provided some sterling examples what not to do. Sometimes their gift for making the counter-intuitive fascinating devolves into the contrarian-for-the-sake-of-contrarianism and condescension: “We’re going to demonstrate how everything you know is wrong if it kills you, dammit.”

So many journalistic organizations with a legacy, the so-called MainStreamMedia, were created in the world of a 24-hour news cycle: not only morning newspapers but also, in mimicry, evening newscasts on television. When the cable news channels came along and then continuous news online, the first instinct of most of these legacy media was to speed up, seeing their 24-hour publishing cycle as too slow.

What the quest for the Explainer shows is that the 24-hour publishing cycle was, at the same time, too fast. True, there are some types of journalism that are too old and stale under a daily publishing regime; also true, there are other types that disappear too quickly. The Explainer, an interactive piece of sidebar journalism that stands next to and overarches a story’s quotidian developments, is as natural a response to the collapse of the 24-hour news cycle as a continuously-updating ticker is.

(I say that the Explainer must be interactive to respond to Andrew’s comment, above. The level of detail on offer has to be variable in order to handle variable levels of pre-existing knowledge)

The looming redesign of Gawker represents a crucial development in this rethinking about the balance between evanescent and longstanding pieces of journalism. It reverses the relationship between the breaking news and the sidebar, making the sidebar the prominent piece, placing the passing headline on the sideline. I find Felix Salmon’s lengthy reflections illuminating.

Jay, I wish you luck with this. This could be one of the most important improvements in news gathering, if you can start a movement. There are the occasional explainers in many papers and fewer on TV, of course. But finding a way to develop and deliver the info. along with each related story would be a great advancement.

Having just finished “The Shallows” by Nick Carr, I hope you find a way to deliver the background in a way that encourages the reader to stick with it. The lack of distractions with the explainer might help the reader to hang in there, as I’m sure many of these will be lengthy. An alternative—or really a complement—would be to deliver the info. in a non-narrative format, a PowerPoint or interactive graphic. (That, of course, may be counterproductive to having the consumer stick with it.)

But I look forward to what you achieve.


It might sound cliche or tired but it’s true: “With great power comes great responsibility”. Explainers are wonderful because they present a non-ideological, and objective (as close as one can get) view of whatever issue they are attempting to cover.

Explainers are looked upon for “the real” version of events. But if an explainer sneaks in ideology, opinion, etc they are doing almost more of a disservice than CNN, FOX, or MSNBC because at least with those organizations they don’t try to obscure the fact that they’re presenting news marketed towards a specific demographic.

Explainers can be very informative but they also can be very dangerous. I’m not accusing anyone in this endeavor of the negative side of Explainers, I just hope you’re aware of its pitfalls.

One other note: Who will be behind these explainers? Journalists, experts on the particular subject covered, or both?

NorCalNative says:

Jay, I’m a big fan of your thinking and belive you have an important role pushing journalists in the right direction.

I’m also a big fan of the ProPublica site, but am curious that to these folks cannabis simply doesn’t exist. I wonder how a site dedicated to open journalism has managed to avoid one of the more interesting and politically-loaded topics of our day.

Why should this bother anyone? Well, if you believe as I do, that prohibition works directly against democracy due to the patchwork of laws and prejudices called drug policy, then the war on cannabis is also a war on personal freedom and democracy.

But ProPublica has NOTHING to say about this topic? Is this a form of censorship I need to worry about?

How is it possible great journalistic minds can pretend this issue doesn’t even exist? I just don’t get it.

What can be more important a role to journalism than fighting propaganda? Do you feel that their blind spot on cannaibs is troubling at ANY level?

No. ProPublica makes no claim to comprehensiveness. This is not a censorship issue.