As it turns out, explanatory journalism may have a promising future in the market for news. On May 9, in partnership with NPR News, This American Life dedicated its hour-long program to explaining the housing crisis. “The Giant Pool of Money” quickly became the most popular episode in the show’s thirteen-year history. CJR praised the piece (in “Boiler Room,” the essay by Dean Starkman in our September/October issue) as “the most comprehensive and insightful look at the system that produced the credit crisis.” And on his blog, PressThink, Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, wrote that the program was “probably the best work of explanatory journalism I have ever heard.” Rosen went on to note that by helping people understand an issue, explanatory journalism actually creates a market for news. It gives people a reason to tune in. “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 writes. “Not only am I not a customer for news reports prior to that moment, but the very frequency of the updates alienates me from the providers of those updates because the news stream is adding daily to my feeling of being ill-informed, overwhelmed, out of the loop.”
Rather than simply contributing to the noise of the unending torrent of headlines, sound bites, and snippets, NPR and This American Life took the time to step back, report the issue in depth, and then explain it in a way that illuminated one of the biggest and most complicated stories of the year. As a result of the program’s success, NPR News formed a multimedia team in late August to explain the global economy through a blog and podcast, both of which are called “Planet Money.” And on October 3, This American Life and NPR aired a valuable follow-up episode, “Another Frightening Show About the Economy,” which examined the deepening credit crisis, including how it might have been prevented and Washington’s attempts at a bailout.
Along with supplying depth and context, another function of the modern news organization is to act as an information filter. No news outlet better embodies this aim than The Week, a magazine dedicated to determining the top news stories of the week and then synthesizing them. As the traditional newsweeklies are struggling to remain relevant and financially viable, The Week has experienced steady circulation growth over the past several years. “The purpose of The Week is not to tell people the news but to make sense of the news for people,” explains editor William Falk. “Ironically, in this intensive information age, it’s in some ways harder than ever to know what’s important and what’s not. And so I often say to people, ‘With The Week, you’re hiring this group of really smart, well-versed people that read for you fifty hours a week and then sit down and basically give you a report on what they learned that week.’ ”
Rather than merely excerpting and reprinting content, this slim magazine takes facts, text, and opinions from a variety of sources—approximately a hundred per issue—to create its own articles, columns, reviews, and obituaries. As Falk explains, there’s a certain “alchemy” that occurs when you synthesize multiple accounts of a news story. And The Week’s success suggests that consumers are willing to pay for this. “We’re a service magazine as much as we are a journalism magazine,” says Falk. “People work ten, eleven hours a day. They’re very busy. There are tremendous demands on their time. There are other things competing for your leisure time—you can go online, you can watch television or a dvd. So what we do is deliver to you, in a one-hour package or less, is a smart distillation of what happened last week that you need to pay attention to.”