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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.

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. “ďI feel like my constant problem with the daily news media is that either youíre always entering the story in the middle or often at the end,Ē Blumberg said. ďAnd they donít 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 didnít really understand this. It was in the news all the time but I didnít know what they were talking about until I heard that episode.” It was very gratifying because thatís exactly what my intent was. Because that was me; I didnít 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: ďItís 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 ó 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 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