A new explanatory journalism can be built on a strong foundation

I like young writers with big ideas. I met Ezra Klein last year at a public writing conference sponsored by his old newspaper, The Washington Post, and the Poynter Institute. Like his writing, Klein was sharp, smart, and quick, arguing for a new kind of approach to writing about public policy.

He said that in the digital age journalists were beginning to doubt the efficacy of what he called “the reverse pyramid,” his version of the more common “inverted pyramid.” He advocated taking more responsibility for what readers know and understand about government, policy, and all such technical issues. Sometimes this is best done in a Q&A format, or via a tidy bulleted list, forms that lead to less clutter, jargon, and bureaucratic obfuscation.

Hooray, I thought. Finally, somebody is getting it.

Last week John McDermott wrote on digiday.com an essay titled “Explaining what’s behind the sudden allure of explanatory journalism.” In a mischievous St. Patrick’s Day tweet, Nieman’s Josh Benton asked that “someone write an explainer for this explainer about explainers.” I’m happy to give it a shot, but it may require me to throw a rock or two into Josh’s hall of mirrors.

When I was still a pup – like Ezra and Josh – I used to hate it when old guys would say things like “there’s nothing new about the New Journalism.” So now I’m the old guy, and I get to say things like “there’s nothing new about explanatory journalism,” and, even better, “Ezra, it’s called the inverted pyramid, not the reverse pyramid, and some of us have been trying to knock it down for a long, long time.”

I watched with great interest in the 1980s when Gene Patterson, the editor of the St. Petersburg Times and my mentor, began preaching for the perfection of an “explanatory journalism,” a kind of enterprise reporting that helped readers make sense of a more complex, technical, and cluttered world. Patterson’s influence was such that Explanatory Journalism became a Pulitzer Prize category, even though Gene laughed hard at me when I barked at him, young pup that I was, that if explanatory journalism was so important, why couldn’t he explain it.

Because he was also my boss, he got back at me by telling me that such explanations of the craft would be my job.

I started off with a 1984 essay in the then Washington Journalism Review, a piece called “Making Hard Facts Easy Reading,” which has been re-published on the Poynter website and turned into a News University course.

To write this piece I went on a reading spree of the most comprehensible work I could find in American journalism, especially the tough stuff on topics like business, science, technology, and the American bureaucracy. Wearing a pair of X-ray glasses, I tried to see beneath the surface of these techniques and extracted the most common and most effective. They included strategies such as these:

  • Envision a general audience.
  • Tell it to “Mom.”
  • Slow down the pace of information.
  • Introduce new characters or difficult concepts one at a time.
  • Recognize the value of repetition.
  • Don’t clutter leads.
  • Use simple sentences.
  • Remember numbers can be numbing.
  • Think graphics.
  • Translate jargon.
  • Use analogies.
  • Look for the human side.
  • Develop a chronology.
  • Reward the reader.
  • Consider the impact.
  • Announce difficult concepts.
  • Cut unnecessary information.
  • Compile lists.

“When used wisely,” I wrote, “these techniques help the writer toward a cleaner and clearer style. Clarity is the explanatory journalist’s Grail. The quest to achieve it is more than an occupational disposition. It is a form of vision, a way of looking at complex events and issues that is analogous to a great mountain climber viewing a mighty cliff. When writers face and master the challenge of meeting the reader’s needs, they practice one of the truest and purest forms of journalism.”

I want to repeat for the young whipper-snappers in the room that I wrote this piece exactly 30 years ago.

I would revisit on occasion, usually in frustration that opportunities for explainers were not being acted upon. Once, though, I stumbled across a City Council story in the St. Petersburg Times that was so unconventional in its approach that it threatened to drag explanatory journalism into daily coverage. I celebrated the piece in an essay titled “The Greatest Story Never Told,” and it has been the object of curiosity and debate ever since. Perhaps it can be thought of as a forerunner to the kinds of journalism we are seeing now in the work of Ezra Klein and Nate Silver, an approach that thinks of writing style as a wide door rather than an iron gate.

Written in 2002 by Bryan Gilmer and edited by Howard Troxler, the government columnist subbing as city editor, the piece began like this:

ST. PETERSBURG – Do you live in St. Petersburg? Want to help spend $548-million?

It’s money you paid in taxes and fees to the government. You elected the City Council to office, and as your representatives, they’re ready to listen to your ideas on how to spend it.

Mayor Rick Baker and his staff have figured out how they’d like to spend the money. At 7 p.m. Thursday, Baker will ask the City Council to agree with him. And council members will talk about their ideas.

You have the right to speak at the meeting, too. Each resident gets three minutes to tell the mayor and council members what he or she thinks.

But why would you stand up?

Because how the city spends its money affects lots of things you care about.

It’s the difference between whether the Walter Fuller Pool is open and heated in the winter or not. It determines whether there will be a new basketball court in North Shore Park. It determines whether the beloved volunteer coordinator at the Office on Aging for senior citizens gets laid off.

The piece proceeded on these strategic approaches to explanation and civic clarity:

1. Writing with a sense of the audience as citizens who, armed with information, can take action.

2. Writing in a conversational voice, including the occasional use of the second person.

3. Writing at a slow enough pace to promote comprehensibility and learning.

4. Use of simple, but effective, informational graphics.

My interest in explanatory journalism was probably born as early as the late 1970s when a frustrated reader handed me a copy of an editorial titled “Curb State Mandates.” It contained this daunting sentence:

To avert the all too common enactment of requirements without regard for their local cost and tax impact, however, the commission recommends that statewide interest should be clearly identified on any proposed mandates, and that the state should partially reimburse local government for some state imposed mandates and fully for those involving employee compensations, working conditions and pensions.

That sentence sat in a file for more than 25 years, immune to revision.  I had no idea what to do with it. Then one day I did, and it became a case study for chapter 11 of my book “Writing Tools.” I wrote:

The density of this passage has two possible explanations: The writer is writing, not for a general audience, but for a specialized one, legal experts already familiar with the issues. Or, the writer thinks that form should follow function, that complicated ideas should be communicated in complicated prose.

He needs the advice of writing coach Donald Murray, who argues that the reader benefits from shorter words and phrases, and simple sentences, at the points of greatest complexity.

What follows is my attempt at a translation of the awful sentence from its original dense-pack style into something I would describe as explanatory journalism:

The state of New York often passes laws telling local government what to do. These laws have a name. They are called “state mandates.” On many occasions, these laws improve life for everyone in the state. But they come with a cost. Too often, the state doesn’t consider the cost to local government, or how much money taxpayers will have to shell out. So we have an idea. The state should pay back local government for some of these so-called mandates.

I would never claim this is the best version of this passage, only that it is superior to the original, and that the differences between the passages are worth measuring:

The first one takes six and a half lines of text. The revision requires an additional half line. But consider this: The original writer has room for fifty-eight words in six and a half lines, while I get eighty-one words in seven lines, including fifty-nine one-syllable words. His six and a half lines give him room for only one sentence. I fit eight sentences into seven lines. My words and sentences are shorter. The passage is clearer. I use this strategy to fulfill a mission: to make the strange workings of government transparent to the average citizen, to make the strange familiar.

I have never once met a reader who preferred the original version to my revision. But I have faced some concerned journalists who thought this approach signified a “dumbing down” of the news. Another critique is that civic clarity, as expressed in the City Council story, is a form of advocacy, a path toward participatory citizenship, a violation of the canons of objectivity and disinterest. To which I say, “Bah, humbug, go ahead and keep writing yourself into extinction.”

So I welcome the kind of reforms that may have sparked a new interest in explanatory forms. I just want to remind the newcomers that you don’t have to start from scratch. There is a foundation already laid upon which you can build. Now raise the roof.

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  • rabramson

    Agree that explanatory journalism is not new, but the accessible videos that Vox is creating have the right tone and make the difference. Newseek, or the new Newsweek, as it is, can can continue to write analysis, which includes great explanations, but that delivery format doesn’t connect or have the same impact as Vox’s snappy videos that new audiences can consume on the subway on their way to work.

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  • King-Stanley-Krauter

    There have been many news reports on the federal tax code since the 1986 reforms and everyone knows that the tax code has been repeatedly corrupted. But the voters have never done anything to stop Congress from enacting at least one new tax deduction for every lobbyist with a campaign contribution or a free meal. So all of the hard work by the many reporters was a complete waste of time. The only positive accomplishment was the money the reporters earned for entertaining the voters and politicians with gotchas. Now, this problem could be overcome if reporters would just start communicating like teachers instead of entertainers. Reporters can only use repetition until their customers get bored. Or until a more exciting story happens. Or until the reporters get bored. Whereas teachers can use repetition until their students learn or flunk. But reporters will never change their professional standards because they think their time is too valuable to wasted on educating stupid voters. (Surveys by the news media, and interviews by comedians with people standing in line to vote, have shown repeatedly that most voters are too ignorant to have an intelligent discussion with a reporter.) This article about “explanatory journalism” is just another example of the narcissism or journalists and their sycophants. You people are so used to thinking of yourselves as the people in the white hats that you have forgotten that white is also the color or toilet paper.

  • Roy Peter Clark

    Christina, we are happy to oblige. If you ever have trouble finding such examples, feel free to give me or my Poynter colleagues a holler. I will help you look.

  • Jay Rosen

    Yep. That is one place the interpretation I gave comes from: Ettema and Glasser’s arguments. The distinctions help the leaders manage chaotic conditions. They help whether or not they are clear, valid, well-founded, easy to explain.

  • Sean Phillips

    “A path toward participatory citizenship” is, as far as I recall, one of
    the most important purposes of journalism and the First Amendment in the first place. That any journalist would consider that a criticism is an indication, to me anyway, of how far US journalism has fallen.

  • Ezra Klein

    One quick point here: I don’t think anyone, least of all me, believes explanatory journalism (or data journalism or listicles or quizzes) is some new invention of the last five years. If you picked up an issue of The Economist and an issue of Cosmopolitan in 1995 you would’ve gotten all the explanation, listicles and quizzes you could ask for. There’s a reason we keep saying Vox.com is “a newsmagazine for the 21st century”: We don’t think there’s anything new about explanatory journalism either.

    But the last five years have given us technologies that will let us do a much better job explaining the news to people. And the last five years have given us a lot of evidence that people want the news explained to them, and will read and share those pieces. And those trends together have made it possible to fund and build a digital news organization that is really, singlemindedly devoted to explanation.

    Soon we’ll see what that’s worth.

  • Jay Rosen

    Really good piece, Roy. I think I can explain why Gene couldn’t explain what “explanatory” journalism was, except for vague we-already-knew-that descriptors like “makes sense of complex issues,” or “not just the news but what it means.”

    The essence of it is: practical revisions in rules that were never fully articulated in the first place will result in a new format that cannot be explained. The rule that was never fully articulated went like this: “You cannot say a single thing on your own authority that you did not see with your own eyes or hear with your own ears… except when you can.” Categories like “explanatory” journalism or an even fuzzier one, the “analysis” piece, are relaxations in a newswriting discipline that was designed to minimize the risk of being wrong without employing expensive and time-consuming fact checkers, the way the New Yorker (famously) did.

    The minimizing was accomplished by restricting the freedom to say in a so-called straight news story: “in effect, this means…” or “the upshot is…” or “beneath the fancy terms, what it comes down to…” The editors needed or wanted tighter control over the writer than use of those gestures would imply. (It was always about control, but often explained in other terms like “objectivity,” “credibility” and “just the facts.”) Then the newsroom decided that it didn’t like the results: lots of news, but not what it means. So it changed the rules. But it didn’t want to say, “you are now free to make statements on your own authority” because that sounds like the wild west. So instead it said, “this is an analysis piece,” this is “explanatory journalism” and everyone liked that better, even though no one could say exactly what such a piece was.

    Did you notice the name the New York Times gave to its entrant in the explanation derby? The Upshot, it will be called.