News explainers have been a hot topic of discussion recently, with the Upshot, Vox, and FiveThirtyEight all launching this year. At first I was skeptical–shouldn’t all journalism be explanatory?–but after reading things like this post by Jay Rosen, I’m convinced of the need. And Vox’s Ezra Klein explains the problem with a focus on “news” at the expense of explaining:
It’s trite to say it, but the news business is biased toward, well, news. There are plenty of outlets that tell you what happened yesterday, but virtually no organizations that simply tell you what’s going on. Keeping up on the news is easy, but getting a handle on an ongoing situation that you’ve not really been following is hard.
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.
The more I think about this kind of journalism, the more I think we need it at every level. Here are a few sketches for what might make “Vox Local” something we can’t live without:
- State and local campaign donation information.
- Environment/development issues (debates over green space, local pollution information, concrete neighborhood effects of development, park statistics and data, etc.)
- Employment data (biggest employer in the area, stats on historic influx/outflow of jobs, surveys about local business climate, numbers of different kinds of workers, etc.)
- Longstanding political debates
- Facts and figures about public transit (what is the history behind advertising on our city buses? how many people ride the train? what are the different proposals for high speed rail into the city? etc.)
- Comparisons with cities of similar size (economy, number of childrens’ parks, funds spent on infrastructure, cost of internet access, etc.)
- Impact of neighborhood associations, charities, nonprofits, etc. in the area.
- Sports. History (when was that baseball field built), potential (what can we do to get an NBA team), and info (how many grads of our local high school end up in the NFL?)
- Religious facts/figures about the area and how they play out in real life.
And the list goes on and on. I think the potential for meaningful comment debates and discussions could be even more exciting at a local explainer site, as well, because the participants would be your neighbors and friends rather than unnamed placeless commentators. Local matters, and Vox Local (I think) would be a success.