And some people have started questioning the need for it. James Ball, The Guardian’s US special projects editor, had this to say:
“[…] all three sites risk what economists call adverse selection: let’s say you’re writing basic explainers, but the only people finding them are already pretty informed. They’ll find your content superficial, and they won’t return. If you respond by increasing the complexity of your articles, you’ll please the wonks, but alienate a little more of your audience.”
GigaOm media commentator Matthew Ingram took up the point:
“Which brings us to the real bottom line: how many competing explanatory or data-focused journalism sites does the market really need? Can all of these different sites — including the Washington Post‘s rebuilt Wonkblog and Bloomberg’s QuickTake — find an audience, or are they symptoms of a wonk bubble? ”
I would suggest that their worries are, broadly speaking, misplaced because the web is a very different medium from print, and those characteristics that define it mean that we’re producing way too much “news” and far too little explainer-type material.
The news/print love affair
The journalism business seems to go through periods of obsession. It wants single solutions to the problems it faces in the digital era - a single type of business model, a single type of journalism - that will save us all and return us to some form of business as usual. The discussion about explainers, mashed up with the enthusiasm for data journalism is actually obscuring a much deeper change occurring that’s more significant.
The digital publishing world is in the process of deeply unpicking our journalism, in an attempt to understand what are characteristics of journalism and what are characteristics of print. The print process is so deeply embedded in our mindsets and working methods that we’re not yet taking full advantage of the web and the opportunities it presents.The digital publishing world is in the process of deeply unpicking our journalism, in an attempt to understand what are characteristics of journalism and what are characteristics of printAdam Tinworth
The most fundamental characteristic of print that isn’t shared by the web is the final deadline: the physical moment where the ink hits the rollers and the issue is complete. This is the defining moment of a print product, our conception of journalism is largely built around this moment. It creates a product that is both fixed - unchangeable once created - and transitory - thrown away after a period of time.
The web, on the other hand, is neither fixed nor transitory. Stories can be change online at any point, and have a potentially infinite life. This is a far more significant distinction than it might appear. We still write stories for the web as if they were fixed and transitory, but they’re not. A quick glance at the traffic across your site will probably show you that. In most businesses I’ve worked with, people have expected that something like 70 per cent of traffic would be to “new” content, and the rest to the “archive”. The reality usually proves to be exactly the other way around.
This is a very different reality of publishing. It suggests that we’re over-weight in publishing what you could call “news” and significantly under-weight in publishing other types of content that have longer-term value. That’s what this “explainer journalism” trend really represents. It’s the tip of an iceberg of web-format content that thrives in the digital environment.
A new vocabulary of journalism
But what to call it?
We have a vocabulary to describe print journalism - leaders, stories, features et al - but we lack the same sort of vocabulary for online journalism. And to start building those words, we can actually borrow from an adjacent discipline of content strategy.
The leading thinkers in this space have been batting around the idea of “stock and flow” content. I was first exposed to this idea through collaborating with Neil Perkin on some work for the Financial Times through Econsultancy last summer, but it’s become a deeply embedded part of my thinking and teaching since then.
One of my students on the Interactive Journalism MA at City University did a useful post pulling together the history of the term. In short, it originated in economics, and migrated from there into content strategy and now journalism.
Flow content is the classical news model. It’s content designed to be read and relevant in the moment. It’s not expected to have a long life beyond the period where it matters most.
Beyond news, much content built specifically for social media is also content in the flow, that loses relevance as time goes on. The vast majority of journalism is written with flow in mind.
Even when we write potentially log-lasting features, we seek a topical hook that makes them relevant to that “issue”. We seek to justify the “nowness” of the story, rather than just its inherent value.
Stock content is journalism that will continue to have a long and useful life after the immediate time of its publication. It can be updated over time to keep it relevant and correct, and it can be a sustainable part of your site when readers are looking for answers or explanation – to understand, in fact – rather than just hearing "what’s new". To take a consumer-based example, why write a new guide to telephoto lenses each year, as the magazines do? Why not put the time and effort into improving last year’s effort to keep it fresh and relevant?
To give you a specific example: this very piece you’re reading is potentially good stock content. It’s an explainer on the idea of stock and flow as applied to journalism.
It will (hopefully) be useful reference for some years to come. And yet, I’ve constructed it in a format appropriate to the Flow medium, by seeking a topical hook - the launch of multiple explainer sites - to make it more "journalistic".
At the moment, we’re still stuck at the stage TV was in the early 60s - its shows were often staged like theatrical productions that were being filmed, rather than truly talking their own language. That new vocabulary of TV drama would grow over the next few decades.
Our journalism is still the digital equivalent of pointing TV cameras at a stage. We need to rethink our content models to make our journalism relevant for a digital age.
And that’s why the questioning around the need for more explainer journalism is misplaced. I find myself agreeing with Hillary Clinton: we don’t just need more explainer journalism, we need more of all types of stock content.
Correction: This article was updated to correct James Ball's job title.
Adam Tinworth is a digital publishing consultant and trainer with over a decade’s experience of advising and managing digital transformation projects. He’s leading a content strategy for journalists course run by Journalism.co.uk on Wednesday 18 June. Adam blogs at onemanandhisblog.com