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March 7, 2010

News Without the Narrative Needed to Make Sense of the News: What I Will Say at South by Southwest

These are my notes. You can help advance the discussion by reading them over and commenting.

Suppose your laptop continually received updates to software that was never installed on your laptop. If you can imagine a situation that absurd, then you are ready to partake in the Future of Context panel that I’ll be part of at the South by Southwest festival in Austin next week.

Here are some of my ideas, questions and puzzlers in advance of that event. I am posting them today in hopes of generating a discussion I can use to improve my performance in Austin. (It’s already happening, see the comments.)

1. Why are we serving people the news without the background narrative necessary to make sense of the news? I first became interested in this problem after listening to The Giant Pool of Money, the awesomely effective one-hour This American Life episode that finally explained to me what the mortgage banking crisis was, how it happened and why it implicated… well, just about everyone. I was grateful, because up to that moment I had absorbed many hundreds of reports about “subprime lenders in trouble” but had not understood a single one of them.

It wasn’t that these reports were uninformative. Rather, I was not informable because I lacked the necessary background knowledge to grasp what was being sent to me as news. On the other hand there was no easy way for me to get that background and make myself informable because the way our news system works, it’s like the updates to the program arrive whether you have the program installed or not! Which is rather messed up. But what do we do about it? The first thing I did is write my 2008 post, National Explainer: A Job for Journalists on the Demand Side of News. So if you want to help me out, start there.

2. Another way of putting the problem, though I admit this is kind of abstract: why are Wikipedia (which specializes in background knowledge) and (which specializes in newsy updates) separate services? Why aren’t they the same service, so that the movie still makes sense, even if you come in during the middle of it, as most of us do? The news industry’s current answer to that question is topic pages, like this one on global warming, which gets linked to in a news story such as this one, “Lawmakers From Coal States Seek to Delay Emission Limits.” Not terrible. (Also see Google’s Living Stories experiment.) But is that the best we can do?

3. The Giant Pool of Money is far and away the most downloaded program in the history of This American Life. It won a slew of awards. Clearly, there was lurking demand for explanation that was going unnoticed and unmet prior to the program airing. This is one of the reasons I created, which is up in beta form. The idea of the site is partly explained in the subtitle: “What’s your question? Journalists are standing by.” (But also see this post, and this report on the idea.) The goal is to surface the hidden demand for explanation and create a kind of user-driven assignment desk for the explainer genre, which is itself under-developed in pro journalism. Are there other ways to surface this kind of demand?

4. My next move is to match up with a news site that has journalists who are skilled at explanation “standing by.” For a little preview of how that might work, see the special page we made for The Nation magazine’s explainer podcast, The Breakdown, with Washington correspondent Chris Hayes. I can’t say its clicked so far, but we will keep trying. What ideas do you have?

5. Why is explanation under-emphasized in the modern newsroom? A number of factors, I think.

What factors should be added to these?

6. Alex Bloomberg, one of the reporters on The Giant Pool of Money, was interviewed about the program’s success and mentioned something that I consider pure gold:

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.

This suggests that if journalists could put themselves in the shoes of ordinary users more effectively they would realize all the places where It was in the news all the time but I didn’t know what they were talking about applies. When you make the journey from “I didn’t know what they were talking about…” on over to “…now I see why this is news,” you’re more qualified to assist others in the system as they travel from cluelessness to informable. (Note that journalism and journey share a common root.) And so part of the puzzle here is: how do we put the news producers into the shoes of users who are getting the updates to programs that were never installed on their news and current affairs hard drives in the first place?

I will keep adding to this post, so please comment and leave links. Thanks!

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After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

The SXSW discussion has its own site:, with ways to add posts of your own, comment on key concepts and get up to speed.

UPDATE, March 17, 2010. The event at South by Southwest went well. We had a full room and good buzz. Steve Myers of Poynter live blogged it, showing considerable skill in that form. Elise Hu wrote a very good summary at her blog. Also see my follow-up post, How the Backchannel Has Changed the Game for Conference Panelists.

You can listen to the event—panel plus Q & A—here.

Comments from Twitter helped me realize a key point I’m making: In order for the news to be informative people have to be informable, and simply delivering a steam of newsy updates won’t get us there.

I mentioned the Giant Pool of Money, but as two readers pointed out in the comments is also very effective in explaining the mortgage crisis. It’s an 11-minute video by Jonathan Jarvis.

This Giant Pool of Money spawned its own unit at NPR: Planet Money. In order to explain what a “toxic asset” is, two of their reporters decided to buy one, for real. Man, it makes for great radio and it’s a brilliant example of providing the requisite background knowledge to make sense of toxic asset news.

The South By Southwest panel was put together by Matt Thompson, now of NPR. See his post, parallel to mine: The case for context: my opening statement for SXSW.

Journalists spend a ton of time trying to acquire the systemic knowledge we need to report an issue, yet we dribble it out in stingy bits between lots and lots of worthless, episodic updates…

For the first time, we have a medium perfectly equipped to capture and deliver both episodic and systemic information. How will these two modes of information interact on the Web? What sort of design and storytelling structures must we invent to impart context? Fundamentally, in a medium that’s not constrained by time, what is the future of the Timeless Web?

Matt has been writing effectively about this subject at Especially valuable are: The three key parts of news stories you usually don’t get and his essay in Nieman Reports, Antidote for Web Overload.

Joining us on the panel will be Tristan Harris, the 25 year-old CEO and co-founder of Apture, which makes it simple for users to intuitively get more information without leaving the page.

Tristan’s preview post is up: Context: The Future of the Web. “What news needs is object-oriented journalism in which context is a basic building block upon which to create articles.” (This of course is a reference to object-oriented programming.)

Moderating and leading will be Staci Kramer, who is co-editor and Executive VP of ContentNext Media, publisher of

In The market for explainables Doc Searls builds on this post and points out that when we don’t have stories that explain an issue to us, we fall back on default narratives like, “who’s winning the politics of health care.”

So the easy thing is to go back to covering the compromise bill’s chances in Congress, and the politics surrounding it. That at least makes some kind of sense. We have all our story elements in place. It’s all politics from here on. Bring in the sports and war metaphors and let automated processes carry the rest. Don’t dig, just dine. The sausage-machine rocks on.

Loyal PressThink reader Andrew Tyndall of the Tydnall Report writes about the CBS Evening News trying to develop the explainer genre with mixed success.

Howard Weaver, former VP for News at McClatchy newspapers, in the comments: “Incrementalism in reporting — one or two new facts atop four paragraphs of old B-matter — don’t keep readers well informed. In fact, they may hurt; after while, we give up on chasing every incremental update. When we do tune in, what we get is a brief glimpse of parts of stories.” More Weaver at the futureofcontext site.

While narrative prose will always play a central role in human communication, the future of public service journalism does not reside with “the story.” Serving news audiences today demands the ability to deliver information that is, as Matt Thompson says, “both timelier and more timeless.”

Chuck Peters, CEO of The Gazette Company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a forward-leaning newspaper and broadcasting company, says in the comments that “context is critical.”

However, I can’t see providing that context without changing how we create information in the first instance. Any factual element (photo, incident, quote, data, etc.) can be relevant to numerous contextual narratives. So each of those elements needs to both “stand on its own” and be tagged with as many potential relationships as possible…. We usually create information today in locked-down packaged articles, which block the easy flow of the elements between and among narratives.

Read the rest. Getting disciplined and strategic about tagging may be one way professional journalism separates itself from the flood of cheap content online.

Graphing narrow and broad against shallow and deep to create a matrix, Josh Young complicates our picture in this 2009 think piece that is well worth re-visiting.

In the comments, J-professor Donica Mensing brings up a critical issue: “how to organize explanations about issues that are highly contested.” As Mensing notes, “Explainers aren’t neutral. Actors and motives have to be identified and shaped; arguments over those can be endless.”

Click here to return to the top of After Matter. To see what I am up to on Twitter go here.

Posted by Jay Rosen at March 7, 2010 5:00 PM