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August 13, 2008

National Explainer: A Job for Journalists on the Demand Side of News

This American Life's great mortgage crisis explainer, The Giant Pool of Money, suggests that "information" and "explanation" ought to be reversed in our order of thought. Especially as we contemplate new news systems.

(This is a revised and expanded version of a post that ran at Idea Lab July 17, 2008.)

1. The Giant Pool of Money: Greatest Explainer Ever Heard

Behold the special episode of “This American Life” called The Giant Pool of Money. It’s a one-hour explainer on the mortgage crisis, the product of an unusual collaboration between Ira Glass, the host and force behind This American Life, producer Alex Blumberg, who works with Glass and told the story, and NPR, which lent economics correspondent Adam Davidson. He used to work for the show he was collaborating with.

If you don’t know “The Giant Pool of Money” you really should (here: download the podcast) because it’s probably the best work of explanatory journalism I have ever heard. I listened to it on a long car trip when everyone else was sleeping. Going in to the program, I didn’t understand the mortgage mess one bit: subprime loans were ruining Wall Street firms? And I care because they are old, respected firms?

That’s what I knew.

Coming out of the program, I understood the complete scam: what happened, why it happened, and why I should care. I had a good sense of the motivations and situations of players all down the line. Civic mastery was mine over a complex story, dense with technical terms, unfolding on many fronts and different levels, with no heroes. And the villains were mostly abstractions! Typical of the program’s virtues is the title. It’s called The Giant Pool of Money because that is where the producers want your understanding to start. They insist.

Lots of people have noted how effective the program was. Adam Davidson told NPR’s ombudsman, “By a very long margin, this is the most positive response I’ve ever seen to any story I’ve worked on.” I knew there would be fans of this episode listening, so I asked the people in my Twitter feed what made it different and “explainey” to them.

  • Mike Plugh: Compression of time and space, like in a classic movie, “a broad network of characters into a few representative types.”
  • Liza Sabater “Because when Richard finds out the bank lied about his monthly income, it sums up how the loans were just a scam.”
  • Denise Covert: “Because it used small words. Because it still used big words for those of us who could grasp them.”
  • Scott Karp: No demonizing. Instead, “why it seemed like a good idea at the time… What were they thinking when they were doing all this? And why did they think it would work?”
  • Howard Sherman: It met the ultimate explanatory test. “I could actually explain the mortgage debacle to someone else.” He calls it viral: you can pass the explanatory gains on. “It also made me really angry. Their incredulity was contagious.”
  • “You can almost lust, with the characters, after the money that the idiots have left available.” Oh, sorry… that was me, talking on Twitter.

2. Explanation leads to information, not the other way around

I noticed something in the weeks after I first listened to “The Giant Pool of Money.” I became a customer for ongoing news about the mortgage mess and the credit crisis that developed from it. (How one caused the other was explained in the program’s conclusion.) ‘Twas a successful act of explanation that put me in the market for information. Before that moment I had ignored hundreds of news reports about Americans losing their homes, the housing market crashing, banks in trouble, Wall Street firms on the brink of collapse.

In the normal hierarchy of journalistic achievement the most “basic” acts are reporting today’s news and providing current information, as with prices, weather reports and ball scores. We think of “analysis,” “interpretation,” and also “explanation” as higher order acts. They come after the news has been reported, building upon a base of factual information laid down by prior reports.

In this model, I would receive news about something brewing in the mortgage banking arena, and make note it. (“”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.

On top of that, if I decide to buckle down and really pay attention to “subprime lenders in crisis” news—including the analysis pieces and the economics columnist—I am likely to feel even more frustrated because the missing narrative prevents these good-faith efforts from making much of a difference. The columnist who says he is going to explain it to me typically assumes too much knowledge (“mortgage-backed securities?”) or has too little space, or is bored with the elementary task of explanation and prefers that more sophisticated work appear under his byline. Or maybe, as with this story, the very people paid to understand the story barely know how to explain it. That’s the opening theme of this column from The New York Times economics columnist David Leonhardt, “Can’t Grasp Credit Crisis? Join the Club.

I spent a good part of the last few days calling people on Wall Street and in the government to ask one question, “Can you try to explain this to me?” When they finished, I often had a highly sophisticated follow-up question: “Can you try again?”

I remember reading this column at the time and feeling grateful that someone at least tried. (He got about a third of the way there.) But Leonhardt’s column wasn’t displayed or classified in the right way. It should have been a tool in the sidebar of every news story the Times did about the mortgage mess. Instead it was added to the content flow, like this: news, news, news, “analysis,” news, news, news, “interpretation piece,” news, news, news, news, “Leonhardt: explain this to me,” news, news, news…

That’s messed up. That’s dysfunctional. We have to fix that.

3. A case of demand without supply?

After the first version of this post ran at Idea Lab, blogger Simon Owens interviewed This American Life producer Alex Blumberg about some of the ideas in it. ““I feel like my constant problem with the daily news media is that either you’re always entering the story in the middle or often at the end,” Blumberg said. “And they don’t do a very good job of talking about the beginning and what got us to this point where it became news.”

Exactly. And that’s a problem. It’s been a problem for a long time, except that no one ever does anything about it. Why? Because they get paid to produce “the news,” not the big narratives that would permit more people to understand that news. But this may be a case of demand without supply. “The Giant Pool of Money” is This American Life’s most popular episode ever. Blumberg told Owens that it beats its nearest competitor by 50,000 downloads. Turns out my reaction was a common reaction:

People were saying things like, “I didn’t really understand this. It was in the news all the time but I didn’t know what they were talking about until I heard that episode.” It was very gratifying because that’s exactly what my intent was. Because that was me; I didn’t understand it either.

The producers of this American Life started with the same feelings I had: ill-informed, overwhelmed, and out of the loop about the “subprime” story. But then they mastered it; and it is that trajectory—from drift to mastery—that the listener takes during “The Giant Pool of Money.” In a way the star of the story is understanding itself. It struggles but emerges victorious.

Simon Owens ends his post with something I told him over the phone: “It’s not only necessary background for the future readers of news, but also the future writers.” I learned this from Meranda Watling, a young journalist working for the Journal & Courier in Lafayette, Ind. Shortly after I started Twittering about “The Giant Pool of Money” she got an assignment to do a story on the local fallout. Watling reports on K-12 education most of the time; here she was pressed into service on a mortgage crisis story.

FREDDIE MAC/FANNIE MAE FALLOUT — Charticle on A1; impact story for back page. A look at what the local fallout will be. Talking to investors, mortgage lenders, house hunters (potential borrowers), real estate agent about what this could mean for this area. Meranda 12 inches w/wire story.

“That was essentially my total direction,” she said. “The idea was to take something our readers would be hearing about on a national level Monday and give it a local spin. Our business reporter was tied up finishing a Sunday package, or he would have done it himself.” Hearing about it on Twitter, she grabbed the transcript of “Giant Pool” and read it before heading out for interviews. Public radio’s national explainer fed local competence, making a journalist in Indiana marginally better.

“I was able to ask intelligent questions of the bankers and real estate agents,” Meranda Watling told me. “Rather than say just ‘how do these changes to the mortgage practices impact us locally?’ and hope they give me an honest answer I understand.” Here’s her story. It wasn’t one of her best, she said, just marginally better because of the same quick gains in mortgage crisis literacy that my other informants reported. Absorbing the explainer “helped me save face, ask the right questions and understand what the bankers were telling me.”

Saving face. Asking the right questions. Grasping what the bankers are telling you. Watling’s reasons for needing it are the same reasons driving the hundeds of thousands of downloads.

4. Start with clueless journalists!

And so I ask you: What’s basic? 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.

So as we think about new models for news we need to think about expanding that little what’s this? feature you sometimes see on effective web sites. That’s not about web design. That’s a whole category in journalism that I fear we do not understand at all.

In a recent post about an ethnographic study of news consumption sponsored by the AP (the pdf is here) Ethan Zuckerman summarized one of the researchers’ findings:
“News consumers in the US get lots of facts, quickly updated and delivered through a variety of media. But they get very little backstory to help contextualize the facts delivered, and rarely get follow-up stories, or speculations about the future.” Zuckerman doubts that the AP intends to provide much of that, even though it would be a worthy service and the study it commissioned says there’s a need.)

To close this, here are the striking things for me in the story I told you.

  • The journalists doing the explaining started with zero distance between themselves and the users; they were clueless! “Start with clueless journalists”— how often does anyone recommend that? And it’s not that I’m recommending it. I’m saying that any commonly shared opacity is a signal of deep public need that can only be met by outstanding story-tellers who are reporters too.
  • National explainers like “The Giant Pool of Money” feed the rest of journalism in two ways: 1.) creating that scaffold of understanding in the users that future reports can attach to, thus driving demand for the updates that today are more easily delivered; 2.) allowing the rest of the press to catch up quickly and deliver better reports. A product with two uses like that should be successful. (But that doesn’t mean it will be easy to get there, especially in the current climate of disinvestment and economic crisis.)
  • Too often when journalists use the term “in depth,” their reference point is not the user’s missing knowledge or the depth of field required to actually grasp a story, but rather other quicker, shorter forms of news. I can’t even count how many TV journalists have patiently explained to me that “four minutes is a long time in network news.” And it is… relatively speaking. But if journalists continue to think this way—measuring “depth” by relative length—they will never fix what’s wrong with the news system.
  • The question of which editorial “shop” will—or should—come to specialize in national explainers is an open one. I don’t know. But it would certainly be logical for Pro Publica to develop the form. (Are you listening, Paul Steiger?) And I would be surprised if this American Life doesn’t do it again. Of course the reason we don’t see more of them is they don’t break any news. But without them the news system will remain broken.

* * *

The Librarians are wondering if there’s room for them in the National-Explainer-Stream.

And these people took notice (“explanations in plain English”). To me it’s a classic example of unclaimed territory in the editorial sphere.

Public Note for Howard Rheingold’s Digital Journalism students. A possible project:

Crash Courses: If you read the post you are at, National Explainer, and two from Matt Thompson’s project, (see Newsless? and Ten Questions for Journalists) you will absorb the idea that new information (“news”) unaccompanied by the background narrative required to understand it is not very informative. We need to fix that. Design an elegant five-minute “crash course” for an issue or problem that is repeatedly in the news—meaning, the necessary background for understanding the updates—and produce it as a text, an audio download and a video presentation on the web.

For reference (and to start getting ideas) see Electing a US President in Plain English (“A short and simple guide to understanding the U.S. election process”) from and Planet Money’s glossary, from, and this newsy subject topic page from the New York Times. Three different attempts to get at the problem.

Posted by Jay Rosen at August 13, 2008 11:18 AM   Print


The need for this sort of context is ever-present. It turns up literally every day in our news consumption.

For instance: This week the Georgia story leads. So: how many readers who are just following the basic news stories about what Russia's up to and whether there's really a ceasefire and what the US candidates say have the slightest clue about the backstory of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, American support for the Georgian president, and so on? How many Americans understand that, however belligerent and dangerous Putin's invasion has been, it was Georgia's military move on South Ossetia that actually triggered this crisis? And once you understand that, and begin to see the larger narrative here -- "American leaders egg on Georgian ally to stand up to Russia, then leave Georgia hanging when they can't deliver a full-scale Cold-War-crisis response" -- the story looks awfully different.

Context really is everything. Maybe the very word "context" is part of the problem, since it suggests a secondary level of explanation, and you're arguing -- rightly, I think -- that we should start making that more of a primary effort.

Posted by: Scott Rosenberg at August 13, 2008 1:08 PM | Permalink

Right. I think "context" is part of the problem because everyone agrees that of course we need more context, context is good, context is everything, "out of context" is bad. And on and on. But it's such a familiar "good" that we don't really think about what it requires, and we still see it as secondary, not primary. Or a paragraph of "context" is assumed to take care of it.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 13, 2008 1:20 PM | Permalink

Context as ingredient and container...

Rosen: "Context may sound like it means something. It's more like motherhood and apple pie in the realm of concepts; who could ever be against more context?"

Posted by: Tim at August 13, 2008 2:05 PM | Permalink

Via email from Conor Friedersdorf, a former student of mine at NYU.


Excellent stuff -- you articulated stuff I haven't been able to since I heard and loved that episode.

Let me add one point. This American Life could execute that episode only because week after week, they keep listeners engaged with excellent storytelling. You know that reaction everyone had to "subprime mortgage" stories, where they'd flip the channel or turn the radio dial whenever they came on? Well the listeners of This American Life didn't do that when they found out that week's episode would delve into the topic. The reaction wasn't, "Oh no, another one of these stories," as it would've been if they encountered the story elsewhere. It was "thank God, This American Life is going to explain this to me."

It's partly a matter of earning enough trust from your audience that they willingly gamble on you with their time.

And it is partly a matter of training the audience to expect something good, rather than something specific.

Is that unclear? Here's what I mean. Think of the Slate model of journalism versus The Wall Street Journal middle column model of journalism. If you go to Slate, you're sure to find something that interests you enough to click on. This is partly a function of great headline writers. It's also a function of editors who have a knack for capturing the zeitgeist, and putting an interesting spin on it. The topics I read about on Slate are usually already somehow interesting to me, or at least something about the way they're spun is interesting to me.

But the Wall Street Journal middle column -- I assume I don't know anything about whatever topic they're writing about on a given day, and I certainly wouldn't read anything else about that topic were it not there in the middle column. The WSJ has trained me to expect really interesting stories there, with great anecdotal leads of the best kind, nut grafs and context that convinces me the story is important and relevant, etc.

For me, This American Life and The Wall Street Journal Middle Column are two places in American journalism where I'll read whatever is there, regardless of the topic, because I'm there for the storytelling.

All this leads to this question: If the Cleveland Plain Dealer or USA Today or KFI would've published or aired Giant Pool of Money, would anyone have stuck around long enough to discover it was great? Or would they have turned away, as they do with all other stories on that topic, because those media outlets haven't earned the benefit of the doubt from their audiences, and because they haven't trained them to expect good things?

I'm not sure what the answer is.



Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 13, 2008 2:57 PM | Permalink

Conor -- I would add 60 Minutes to that WSJ middle column category.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at August 13, 2008 4:09 PM | Permalink

My sense is that part of the problem stems from how we get our news these days. That process has gone from being concentrated on a few sources to being spread across very many sources--fragmenting enough that we can't follow the underlying story nearly as well as we used to.

Much, or maybe most, of the problem may be an absolute lack of background, context, depth, completeness, or whatever we might call it (though that's what I take a lot of the pretty basic purpose of weekly and monthly magazines to be). But part of the problem nevertheless is that we simply tend to miss it. Or maybe we read the in-depth piece in daily publication A but then find the later pieces in daily publication B and C don't conform to A's narrative, including new themes or threads or characters, perhaps, or omitting familiar ones.

I think there's something to trying to bring about a deep reorganization of the news: turning it inside-out to focus on newsmakers and topics, events, and issues--not the constant barrage of blog posts, articles, headlines, and facts.

When blogs link to one another--participating in a conversation--they do so largely to keep the context consistent. When one blogger adds breaking details to an ongoing story, he not only links to other bloggers' posts, but he likely shapes the way he conveys the facts he's breaking. In a sense, you might say that bloggers anticipated our fragmentation problem. Their balm--our balm--is links. It's not being afraid to write, "Jane wrote about this before, and I'm picking it up from there, but go read her first for context." So one blog post, and the facts and opinions it contains, bows to the story in order to serve up some context, etc.

This is also what aggregators like Memeorandum or Google News try to do when they cluster many news stories about the same topic or event.

Posted by: Josh Young at August 13, 2008 5:31 PM | Permalink

I think the piece works so well because it is essentially a parable. They managed to reduce the complexity of the whole mess to a very simple narrative while holding on to the underlying truth. Strip away the jargon, justifications, and jingoism that we normally get in these kinds of stories, and you're left with something that's almost an aphorism: the lure of a giant pool of money will entice people to cut ethical and moral corners. Layer that on to the experiences of real people who are exemplars of the types involved and you have an explanation that goes beyond the story itself. Our minds can easily fill in much of the backstory. We can extrapolate from the individuals whose voices we hear out to the larger community. Now, the stories we've heard in the press that were either incomprehensible or just random human interest pieces suddenly come into focus. Best of all, this story makes us better citizens. I'm much more able to evaluate the various policy proposals being put forward to address this crisis than I was before. I'm a pretty serious policy wonk, but I think anybody who'd heard this story was better informed than I was before I heard it.

Posted by: William Ockham at August 13, 2008 7:13 PM | Permalink

Isn't this the traditional task of newsweeklies?

Posted by: trotsky at August 14, 2008 10:34 PM | Permalink

Hell no. Newsweeklies are about packaging a week's news and making it seem tidier, "tighter" with more of a plot, than seven days of fragmented news reports can possibly offer. The newsweeklies mostly simulate understanding; they don't go back and try to explain the whole thing from zero, as "Giant Pool of Money" did.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 14, 2008 11:58 PM | Permalink

"Giant Pool of Money" worked because it is "newspaper journalism" as described by Cline and Merritt.

Posted by: Tim at August 15, 2008 11:03 AM | Permalink

You state that the media does a poor job of providing the backstory to the news. Perhaps news organizations (or "norgs" as Jeff Jarvis calls them) ought to create wikis that are maintained and edited by their staff, and are accessible to news consumers.

Posted by: Billy Dennis at August 15, 2008 5:03 PM | Permalink

The really neat thing about the "Giant Pool of Money" explainer is that, afterwards, it doesn't leave an astute listener asking, "Yeah, but what's the other side of the story?" Despite the occasional loaded word or phrase, I felt as if I had THE background story, not anybody's "side" of it.

Which, by the way, is typically very unlike "60 Minutes".

Posted by: TRAINED AUDITOR at August 15, 2008 9:16 PM | Permalink

Andrew: I'm with TA; I would not add 60 minutes to the explainer honor role. Their segments are too often morality plays.

Here's a good example of an explainer that's necessary for all the "Russia invades Georgia" news we have been getting of late.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 16, 2008 12:51 AM | Permalink

Interactive Visual Explainers-A Simple Classification
First published September 01, 2003

[top newspaper editors] wanted newspapers to rise above the stigma of being merely a "disseminator of facts" and play a more active role. They wanted to be "news explainers" first.

Posted by: Tim at August 16, 2008 1:08 PM | Permalink

In science we have the convention of the review article, which takes a whole bunch of more focused, technical reports and ties them together so that they form a coherent picture. General journals such as Science and Nature have a standard section in each weekly issue where they always publish two or three reviews. There's even a specialty publisher, Annual Reviews, who produce highly influential books containing nothing but review articles in each of 37 different subject areas.

When a scientist wants to investigate research in some new area of knowledge, the obvious approach is to look at the latest textbooks in the area, then find the review articles, then use them to look at the in-depth monograph volumes, followed by the specialized, polished journal articles, the less polished but more current conference proceedings, and finally the cutting edge but not fully vetted preprint archives and tech reports on personal websites. At each level you get less background explanation and stronger assumptions that the reader is fully up to speed on the concepts and issues. But each article also has references back to other articles for more context. The phrase "for a review, see (ref1,ref2, etc.)" is practically obligatory.

Why doesn't journalism have a similar structure? Is the news review article an empty ecological niche waiting for an entrepreneur to fill it?

Posted by: Dean Loomis at August 16, 2008 6:54 PM | Permalink

Thanks, Dean. A most interesting comparison. I think the concept of the review article is a good one, and quite apt.

It's going to have to be an entrepreneur because journalists suffer from a curious defect in taking on this particular task: they think they already do it, and they don't. It's hard to invent something you believe you are already doing.

In the 2001 study that Tim points to above (senior editors at 70 percent of the newspapers with circulations above 20,000 responded) we find: "When asked about six specific roles that a newspaper might play in its community, editors ranked the role of 'news explainer' above all others," including breaking news and being a "watchdog." Some 54 percent rated explainer first or second in importance.

And yet these are the same editors who ran story after story about the mortgage crisis without even attempting what This American Life did. So yeah, it's a niche waiting to be filled. But the people who might do it are the ones who realize what's not being done.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 16, 2008 11:54 PM | Permalink

The authors of review articles in the sciences are themselves scientists -- frequently, the same scientists who are doing cutting-edge work in a narrow specialty. In other words, experts in the relevant subject.

How many journalists are genuinely expert in any subject? Most of the things journalists do depend on networking: knowing who to ask questions of, persuading or intimidating those who are reluctant to answer. I don't wish to denigrate those skills, but they aren't at all related to the knowledge-in-depth that writing an review article calls for. Therefore journalists are no more likely to be qualified to write such articles than a random person posting on the Internet is ...

Posted by: Michael Brazier at August 18, 2008 1:48 AM | Permalink

yes! most of the journalist just grab the ideas from different articles of different writers on the same topic and post it with there name.

writing service

Posted by: martha at August 18, 2008 4:57 AM | Permalink

The explainer works regardless of one’s expertise in the financial area. One was able to see this story from the unique circumstances and emotions of those involved up and down the chain, and that complete fault or innocence did not necessarily reside at any particular link. The wonks benefit by having the human effects put to the figures.

Connector might be a better term for this form of journalism. The crux of the piece for me was when, toward the end of the program, Adam Davidson asked Steve Pennington, the IT guy at the big Wall Street investment firm whether he saw lives in the labyrinthine computer lists detailing the 16 million shares of loans he was tracking for his firm. Davidson was linking the technical to the emotional not only with the subjects of the piece, from Wall Street at the top of the subprime chain to the homeowner at the bottom, but also for the readers, from the financially sophisticated to the unsophisticated. Maybe one needs to connect to a story in order to begin to understand it. (Interesting observations arise when one thinks of coverage of other issues such as the Iraq War in terms of enabling the public, outside of those directly involved, to connect to it factually and emotionally.)

Notable and welcome absences from the explainer were the phrases that so often pass for context these days: “Officials from the Bush administration said …” / “leading Democrats responded …”

A quibble with the context, however: the explainer ignored deregulation of the banking and loan industry that has occured since 1980, as described in this May 2007 article by Heather Tashman in The Banking Law Journal (see The Evolution of Subprime Lending), loosened interest rate restrictions, extended the use of variable rates and balloon payments, and allowed more types of financial service providers (eventually even allowing them to merge with insurance companies) offering more varied types of loan products. The subprime problem may not have been possible, or at least diminished in severity, under regulations in effect as of 1980.

A significant difference between being at the top or bottom of the chain is that these stories only seem to come to the attention of the public when the top of the chain starts feeling the pain. (Not coincidentally, legislation to relieve the pain often seems to start at the top as well.) The explainer makes it pretty clear that those at the bottom of the chain were struggling much earlier, discussing, for example, those who borrowed further on the market value of their residence in order to be able to continue making payments on their existing loans.


Jay makes a great point regarding Russia-Georgia. I consider myself reasonably in tune with current events compared with others. However, I was fairly busy the first day or two that this hit the headlines and my cursory interaction with the news during this time put that exact thought in mind: “Russia invades Georgia,” which was reinforced by immediate condemnations of Russia from many of the usual suspects. I did not realize that hostilities had actually started between Georgia and its South Ossetia province until I had time to delve into it. (A pipsqueak like Georgia going after somebody has little front page cachet, but Russia, the old Communist menace, going after the pipsqueak is stop-the-presses.) I suspect that a large percentage of the public still possesses my original, incomplete impression.

These two takes regarding the Russia-Georgia-South Ossetia conflict from two readers at Josh Marshall’s who have spent extensive time in the Ukraine provide a good example of how context itself can be a point of political debate.

Posted by: rollotomasi at August 18, 2008 8:05 AM | Permalink

Jay, excellent and insightful post. In addition to the points you raised, though, I do think the audio medium offers tremendous advantages for stories like this. Voices bring a story alive, hold an audience and can convey doubt, regret, suspicion and an array of emotions that provide invaluable context. Hearing the reporter (doing it right) can also dispel pre-conceived notions of his/her biases. And while I dont pretend many of us could match the brilliance of This American Life, I think print journos (with web outlets) should be thinking about telling some stories this way instead of in text, because it just might be more effective. (Plus, the script can always be re-purposed).

Posted by: Jonathan Krim at August 19, 2008 11:33 AM | Permalink

Interesting because I was perusing Pew Research Center for the People & the Press biannually media consumption survey because I got fascinated by their three questions to guage high political knowledge. Only 18% could correctly answer all three, and the media audience with the highest response, (The New Yorker/Atlantic Monthly) still only got a 48% correct response on all three.

Back in 2007 Pew did a more indepth survey of political knowledge asking 26 questions of issues in the news (at the time).

The responses were equally bad. But I could see a model know of the "you never explain why this new development about Georgia/the prime minister of Great Britain, Wall Street" matters so information goes in one ear and out the other, the same way I can never recall the outcomes of baseball games I've attended.

News as trivia isn't retained. In fact its shunned. And then when Americans are polled about political facts we always come out looking like dumbasses.

Posted by: NewsCat at August 19, 2008 1:26 PM | Permalink

It's partly about time. It takes time to provide context--time for research and understanding and a willingness for the reader/listener/viewer to devote time to consuming. And that is my main point. Publishers and networks would be willing to devote more resources to back stories if the audiences were willing to consume them. It's the now-old MTV generation issue: short attention spans, quick bites of info, too many distractions. You seem to be arguing that if we build it they will come, but I think we are past that.

Posted by: David Pollock at August 21, 2008 3:17 PM | Permalink

If we build it they will come? I am not saying that, no. And I am long past believing it, David. It's a formula for confusion.

In this post, I am telling you a story about "The Giant Pool of Money." This American Life and NPR built it, and sakes alive, the people came. They came to this--a complicated explanation of a banking story--more than they ever came to anything on that show.

Which as you know is a great story-telling show. That kind of response--the success of this episode intellectually, and in market terms--is important... but not decisive. It's telling us something. We should try to hear it. That's all I am saying in this post.

But not, "if you build it they will come," which will always go awry. But who ever believed it? It's one of those ideas that wouldn't exist if people didn't need to dump on it. How dumb is, "If you manufacture it, it will sell...?" They deserve each other, those two.

Hey, the Librarians are wondering if there's room for them in the National Explainer game.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 22, 2008 2:19 PM | Permalink

re: "the explainer ignored deregulation of the banking and loan industry that has occurred since 1980"

Subprime Mortgage History

re: "if you build it they will come"

Never works for the legacy minded. Always easier not to build than risk time & money on an unknown.

Of course, if you don't build it ... don't complain when someone else does, cuts into your business model and gets rich in the process.

Posted by: Tim at August 24, 2008 4:30 PM | Permalink

Public Note for Howard Rheingold's Digital Journalism students.

A possible project:

Crash Courses: If you read the post you are at, National Explainer, and two from Matt Thompson's project, (see Newsless? and Ten Questions for Journalists) you will absorb the idea that new information ("news") unaccompanied by the background narrative required to understand it is not very informative. We need to fix that. Design an elegant five-minute "crash course" for an issue or problem that is repeatedly in the news--meaning, the necessary background for understanding the updates--and produce it as a text, an audio download and a video presentation on the web.

For reference (and to start getting ideas) see 1.) Electing a US President in Plain English ("A short and simple guide to understanding the U.S. election process") from and, 2.) Planet Money's glossary, from, plus 3.) this newsy subject topic page from the New York Times. Three different attempts to get at the problem.

This assignment is "open source." That means anyone can adapt it and use it in a course. Just let me know by emailing me off the front page of PressThink.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 6, 2009 11:34 PM | Permalink

From the Intro