Rivers and Rocks: Why Do We Treat Explainers So Badly?

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Here at Newsbound, I spend 90 percent of my days wrestling with the question of how to use visual explanation as a point-of-entry into thorny, consequential topics. It’s an all-hands-on-deck challenge, so I’m thrilled when I see publishers innovating in this space.

Lately there’s a lot to be excited about:¬†

  • The Atlantic and the BBC are investing in the production of animated video explainers.
  • The New York Times is exploring living infographics that grow alongside a developing story.
  • Conversational, Q-and-A explainers seem to be popping up everywhere — some even going viral when their topic leads the news cycle.
  • Circa is tackling the challenge of how to bring mobile users up-to-speed on breaking stories and keep them engaged after the initial noise quiets down.
  • And a growing number of publishers and organizations are experimenting with the highly visual, go-at-your-own-pace explainer format¬†developed by Newsbound over the past year.

But looking across the explanatory landscape, there’s a glaring problem. While the news industry is investing in topic-based explainers, it’s failing to get the return it deserves. This isn’t due to lack of demand. News consumers are as hungry as ever for context and backstory. The problem is in the presentation.

Too often we treat explainers like just another drop in the river of news. They should be the rocks that the river runs past.

To get at the root of this problem, let’s take a quick look at why explanatory content is so necessary.

Why are we creating this stuff in the first place?

Doing user research at Newsbound, I’ve interviewed countless casual news consumers about their habits. What I’ve learned is that there are generally two types of experiences that will trigger a “grazer” of news to seek more context.

The first scenario is the “confusing conversation.” This is where you find yourself out of your depth when talking with a friend about the Syrian conflict or the debt ceiling or the Trayvon Martin case (to give a few recent examples). You nod your head and soldier through, but you know you don’t have the background knowledge to really participate. It’s a horrible feeling, so you go home and fire up Google, motivated to learn.

News outlets are doing a pretty good job of satisfying the user in this case. For instance, if I google “Syrian conflict” right now, the first page of results includes backgrounders from the New York Times, ABC News, PBS, and the BBC. Many of them are neglected or way too dense, but hey, the system seems to be working here!

Then there’s the second scenario: what I call the “fourth-graf flop.” This is where you find yourself intrigued by a headline and you click through to read the article. By the third or fourth paragraph, however, you realize that the author assumes more background knowledge than you have. Still, you’re motivated to learn, so you look around the page for a lifeboat — a resource to help you quickly get up to speed on the topic.

In today’s news environment it’s unlikely you’ll get rescued. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a link to a topic page, but chances are it will only intimidate you further. What was supposed to have been an informative experience has now turned into an alienating one. You jump ship.

Remember these voices

Don’t believe that this mix of motivation and frustration exists out there? Take a listen to this brief montage of clips from my user interviews over the years:

When we, as creators, decide to craft an explainer, we do it from a position of empathy. We do it to extend a hand to the readers interviewed in the clip above — folks who aren’t necessarily news junkies, but still have a motivation to participate and gain some fluency.

Of course, building a great explainer — particularly a visual one — requires a lot of work. This work can pay off over time if the end-product is ultimately spread across your ongoing coverage or commentary of the topic. It can even have a multiplying effect, generating more demand for your coverage of day-to-day developments (as Jay Rosen has written about extensively).

But all that work will be squandered if you don’t treat evergreen content differently and recognize that its shelf life extends long beyond that of the average article.

A few recent case studies

Just last week, I stumbled across a new batch of video explainers from The Atlantic. There’s a series on climate and energy¬†narrated by Alexis Madrigal and a series on economics narrated by Derek Thompson. You can find them in the site’s video section, in their own feature sections, and on The Atlantic’s YouTube page. But if you’re readying this Clive Crook post on monetary policy, you won’t get any notice of Thompson’s engaging explainer on the topic. Same goes for this piece on fracking. It’s a dense article and surely many readers, right around that fourth paragraph mark, would be motivated to check out Madrigal’s quick breakdown of the natural gas boom. But alas, it’s nowhere to be found.

This isn’t all about the user experience — it also relates to the bottom line. Joining these two types of content would not only serve the confused reader, it would also help The Atlantic extract more value from the videos over time (i.e., drive more pre-roll ad impressions).

To give another example, here’s a beautiful video explainer on the Mars rover mission commissioned by the BBC. But you’d never know it existed if you looked at the outlet’s recent articles on the rover.

These examples are particularly frustrating because video is so compact and embeddable. As a result, video-based explainers can (and should!) comfortably live alongside every article on their subject.

Or take the Washington Post’s viral hit “9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask.” This piece of evergreen content garnered over 3 million views when Syria was leading the news cycle in early September. In a CNN interview, author Max Fisher said that he wrote it for his friends who are intelligent and curious, but just haven’t been keeping up with the basics of the story. Yet despite the evergreen nature of the piece, it’s been buried. If you happen to click through to at any recent WaPo articles on Syria, you’ll find no indication that it exists on the site.

To truly serve their purpose, explainers must be in the right place at the right time. They either need to be published at the exact moment when interest in the topic is peaking (a very difficult feat to pull off). Or they need to be positioned across all your coverage and commentary as a guard against the dreaded “fourth-graf flop.” (This is true whether you’re a news site, a think tank, or an advocacy group.)

When it comes to the river of news, there is ample opportunity to outsource the redundant work of traditional background paragraphs to embeddable evergreen explainers.

When it comes to how we design those explanations, there is lots more experimentation and imagination needed in the coming years.

But it will all be for nothing if we let the final product float downstream.

- Josh K.

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