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Online Explanatory Journalism: The Four Essentials

October 3, 2010

“Try doing a crossword puzzle wile trying to read a book. That’s what the Internet does to your brain.”

– Nicholas Carr, The Shallows.

First of all, consider this:

A 2007 study by UCLA Professor Gary Small revealed that frequent Web users have more overall brain activity than non-frequent web users. They rely on the section of the brain devoted to short-term memory and problem-solving. They are, in short, tired. If reading a book is like taking a nap, then using the Internet is like getting on a treadmill.

Honestly, I think most people can feel this without the study. That’s why people bemoan reading online, or strive to disconnect by 10 PM. And that’s why almost all of the below recommendations focus on layout and usability.

An explainer should be easy to navigate. For example, this is the New York Time’s version of an explainer for Park51, the proposed mosque to be built a few blocks from Ground Zero. It’s text heavy and expects the reader to slough through all of the pieces the Times has ever published on Park 51.It’s not memorable because it presents too much information–none of which is particularly novel or catchy–lacks emotion and narrative structure, and violates the basic tenets of web usability and design.

So, with that in mind, here are the four elements I recommend be included in each Explainer:

1. Context

As part of their “Wall Street Money Machine” investigation, ProPublica created a great cartoon to explain CDOs. But it’s hard to find. And understand. Partly because the layout of their investigation page doesn’t provide broad enough context (How does the financial system work in the first place? How can banks just create a new financial product?), and partly because the cartoon still uses jargon, without a relatable narrative or strong definitions.

To fix this, ProPublica should present their investigations in what Edward Segel and Jeffrey Heer refer to as a martini-glass format: lead users through the need-to-know information, then let them explore. It’s done well in this piece from the Washington Post on Top Secret America, and on the Council on Foreign Relations’ Crisis Guides; I like the guide to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

2. Engagement Via Metaphor and Interactivity.

People use old information to comprehend new information, so draw from pop culture, games, cliched metaphors–anything that’s familiar and makes it easy to relate. So, for example, to communicate back-story, one could create a video that plays like recaps from Glee–known to Gleeks (ahem, definitely not me) as “Glee-winds.” The combination of speed and narration makes it effective.

You can reach a similar result with motion graphics, like those created with Adobe After Effects:

Organizations more comfortable with print should examine Sparknotes.; when people explain news stories, they already use terminology associated with literature or plays. “Cast of characters,” “narrative,” “theme,” “plot.” Stories of corruption and abuse could leverage a device like Aesop’s Fables, adopting their lessons to tales of corruption and abuse.

Political stories, like healthcare, would mesh well with those Choose Your Own Adventure childrens’ books. They illustrate consequences and potential endings for a news story that isn’t finished. What if we cast the user as a senator and then presented the options up for vote”

If you decide to vote for pre-existing conditions, turn to page 4.
If you decide to vote against pre-existing conditions, turn to page 5.

Instead of pages, we’d have links. The NYTimes did something similar with “You Fix The Budget”, and it worked quite well.

3. Subscriptions and Ultimate Customization.

Matt Diaz tipped me off to a great article on Jonathan Stray’s blog called “Designing Journalism To Be Used.” He wonders, “Why can’t I tell my reader ‘No more news about Lindsey Lohan. Ever.'”

Good question. And it boils down to this: to get the user to care, to really understand, they need to GET INVOLVED. While researching this post, the most-read, most e-mailed, most-commented article on ProPublica’s site was “Homeowner Tips For Loan Modifications.” It brings the news off the page and into your life.

So: provide RSS Feeds. Provide links to offline resources, groups and causes.  Incorporate “Like” and “Dislike” buttons, similar to Pandora. Create news the user cares about.

4. Demand-Driven Explainers

You can’t create something successful without understanding demand. Everyone should at least skim The Shallows and check out blogs on neuropsychology aggregated here and here. (courtesy of @BoraZ). If you’re going to design a product for understanding, then it’s important to have a grasp on how we process information.

For collecting data, you have to mine your own social networks–Twitter, Facebook. As a role model, check out NPR’s Facebook page.

Kiss Insights offers clean, free pop-ups to gain insights from your users.

Aand VYou–a Studio20 favorite–offers a visual way to interact with your users. I like this because it adds transparency to your organization. People are always more inclined to talk to people they can see.  Plus, you know, Phil Bronstein is doing it…

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