If you listen to Rebooting the News, a podcast done by Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, and Dave Winer, often described as the father of blogging and RSS, you've heard their ongoing discussion about the importance of context and explanation in a new system for news.

Building on those ideas and several existing projects, Rosen has developed an idea that could make journalism better by allowing more people to participate in the process: ExplainThis.

ExplainThis has two parts. One is an open system through which anyone can ask and answer questions and vote on them. The second part involves "journalists standing by." Journalists would monitor questions, looking for ones that meet three conditions:

  • Many people are asking the same thing.
  • The question can't be answered well via search.
  • Answering the question would require the work of journalism: investigation and explanation.

Via instant message, Rosen described ExplainThis to me as a user-centric approach to the news. The key idea is that if you help people understand, they will become bigger consumers of news.

For example, my dad is a pretty typical news consumer. He reads both print and online, from several sources. When he has questions about a topic, he does some Google searches. And when he can't find an answer, he calls me: "How do we get from the price of a barrel of oil to the price of a gallon of gas?"

That's the kind of question journalists would answer on ExplainThis. More examples:

  • Why is it that eight-plus years after 9/11, there is no memorial at ground zero?
  • Why is corn still subsidized?
  • How is autism defined as distinct from other mental disabilities?
  • What is the impact of organic agriculture on the environment?

Rosen's work on ExplainThis is taking two directions. One, to develop the "architecture of soliciting, sorting and refining questions from users for journalists to answer" as an open-source project that anyone can adapt. And second, to establish a partnership with a news organization to provide the journalists who will stand by.

Rosen wrote about ExplainThis on his Tumbler blog almost a month ago and has since received offers from developers to build out the Web site. He is also discussing with a national media company the development of a feature based on ExplainThis, though nothing's definite.

Students taking Rosen's Studio 20 course may get involved as well. Studio 20 is a new graduate course at NYU developed by Rosen that focuses on project-based learning and partners with media organizations.

Rosen has been interested in looking at journalism from the perspective of "the people on whom the product lands" (aka "The People Formerly Known as the Audience"), going back as far as his dissertation in 1986. (In the 1990s, he expressed this in terms of civic journalism.)

"The one idea that you can pull like a thread through almost all my work is that journalism can be improved if more people participate in it," he told me. "People participate in the news system when they are not only consumers but in some way producers."

ExplainThis is "an extremely derivative idea," he said. His sources of inspiration include Slate's Explainer column, MyReporter.com (for more on this site, read "Reporting Relies on Questions: Now They Come From Readers"), Cody Brown (a former student with his own start-up, Kommons), Help Me Investigate, the Planet Money team at NPR and Spot.Us.

Perhaps a catalyst for ExplainThis was a noteworthy episode of "This American Life" called The Giant Pool of Money, an hourlong explanation of the mortgage crisis that Rosen blogged about. "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," he wrote.

The question and answer system Rosen envisions is reminiscent of stackoverflow, a question and answer Web site for programmers where more experienced users help new users with technical questions. Users can also vote on good questions and helpful answers.

Rosen also points to Matt Thompson's work at newsless.org and during his fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, where he studied ways to add context to news reports. (Thompson is a member of Poynter's National Advisory Board.)

"And also the amazing ... well, the amazing fact of Wikipedia and how 'behind' journalism is compared to that community," Rosen said. Many people go to Wikipedia for news, even breaking news. "It has something to do with the relationship between deep background knowledge and updated foreground knowledge," he said.

One of the most frequently asked questions about ExplainThis has been, "Where's the business model?" Rosen is reluctant to tackle this question. He did say that ExplainThis is most likely not a business in itself, but an addition to an existing news organization.

"I have not found 'Where's the business model?' such a great question to pose at the beginning of a project like this," he said. "Not to say that doesn't matter, it does, but it's more important to create something valuable first."