Essential elements of the branded explainer

3 Oct

I wrote my first research paper in sixth grade. My English class spent an entire marking period learning how to do research, taking field trips to the library and carefully writing down bibliographical details on index cards. I vividly remember sitting in class as our teacher demonstrated how to make an outline: I can still see Mrs. Salbo printing bright letters on a transparency sheet, revealing the magic of organization to my classmates and me as her color-coded example beamed over our heads onto the blackboard via an overhead projector.

I’ve outlined every paper that I’ve written since, from seventh grade to graduate school.

Defining what we’re going to take responsibility for as we create the branded explainer is hugely important. Of course, we need to set clear parameters for our project… but, on a personal level, I need my outline to really grasp what we’re planning to accomplish. What’s below may not be a complete outline, and it certainly doesn’t pretend to encompass every element necessary for making this a success, but it’s a start. (Take note: I’ve italicized and colored the specific elements that I think we should take responsibility for developing.)

I. Establishing what an explainer is

A. In contrast to the typical journalistic production of news, in which articles/videos/interactives are continually created based on breaking news, our aim is to produce journalism that allows users to understand a subject fully. Instead of creating tiny updates without context, our goal is to provide in-depth explanatory reporting. In essence, this project allows for a re-examination of “who, what, when, where, why and how,” both by enabling journalists to ensure that they are actually informing the public, and by empowering users to connect with and grasp the news available to them.

1. We need a tool for determining demand for explainers.

a. Editorial judgment is currently a big part of the process of determining what is produced by journalistic entities. I can think of no reason why it shouldn’t continue to be part of that process. Journalists don’t live in a vacuum; we are aware of what’s happening around us, of what’s confusing us or our friends and family, et cetera. Our insight is valid, valuable and, sometimes, respected.

b. Search data is also key here. It would be foolish of us to not use technology to our advantage. Understanding the statistics of what’s being looked for online has to be a big part of how the topic for an explainer is decided upon: If our goal is to explain things, then we need to know what people want explained. The branded explainer concept defies the traditional work-flow in newsrooms, after all. If we’re not going to continue to publish update after update out of context, then we also shouldn’t continue to create work based on what sells. Journalists are supposed to assist in the creation of an “informed and engaged public,” as Jay says. Let’s give that a try.

i. ProPublica admitted that this is an area that they struggle with. Their keywords aren’t being utilized, and it’s unclear what’s flying under the radar as a result. It’s our responsibility, as partners in this project, to help them address this area of weakness.

ii. As innovators, we ought to strive to develop this aspect of finding and delivering stories to users. What do people want and need to know? Finding new and useful ways to determine this is important. Sure, bloggers and bigger publications alike use tools like Google Analytics, and, of course, new media journalists are focused on unique site visits and page-views. But I think — though I’ll admit that my skill level as a tech geek is low — that we can do more.

2. We need a system of organization.

a. ProPublica explained that our explainers should be portable, and it’s almost a given that we’re creating a packaged project as a final result. How are we going to do this, practically speaking? What is this package going to be? Haphazardly compiling tools as we see fit for each explainer won’t make packaging and distributing our final products easy. Not having some kind of game plan also won’t make creating these explainers very straightforward, and it won’t make understanding them as a user simple, either.

i. I find ProPublica’s site to be somewhat disorganized. In fact, they  struggled to find the projects that they wanted to reference when we met because navigating their site is not an easy feat. I know, they explained that research says readers don’t care about differentiating between types of stories — and I respect such research, I do — but we can’t expect people to find our explainers very palatable if it’s unclear how to navigate through them or, even worse, how to find them at all. The point of this is to help users become less confused, right?

ii. Fleshing out the concept of packaging content and making it portable for outside use, we need to have clearly defined terms of what each explainer contains. This will vary from explainer to explainer, based on the multimedia components that are deemed best for each subject. Still, a basic organization is really necessary. Perhaps we’ll want to choose one of the story templates that ProPublica uses in their CMS and stick with its basic layout and style?

II. The execution of the explainer

A. Having established the basic parameters of what we’re making — we want to explain _____, based on demand and editorial judgment, and we’re going to create it within the confines of our established organizational rules and style — we need to actually go about the creation of the explainer.

1. This requires extensive research. As an explanatory journalistic enterprise, research is obviously one of the cornerstones of our project.

a. This might ultimately involve several “tools.” We may decide that a researcher’s recipe is a logical continuation of ProPublica’s reporting recipe. We may want to link ongoing research with interactive elements, whether that means improving on the concept of a constantly updated widget, or allowing for researchers and reporters’ notes to become more or less open to the public.

b. This requires more discussion, not only because it so vast, but also because it is essentially the backbone of this project. An element of our project has to describe, clearly, how we plan to execute the research behind our new-found interpretation of explanatory journalism.

2. We need a tool for gathering, organizing, assisting, and/or learning from users.

a. From a journalistic standpoint, this is essential in terms of gathering more sources (or, from ProPublica’s stance, victims) in order to fully address the breadth  of the subject being explained. Knowing the full extent of who has been involved in, say, the Gulf oil spill is vital, both in terms of explaining the situation to outsiders, and in terms of serving those who need attention and aid on the inside. This is our job as journalists and it is a big part of ProPublica’s mission.

b. Secondly, gathering information on who has been involved in a giant news topic can lead to further coverage. This is part of the essence of our project: once people have a subject explained to them, they can be more engaged with it. Plus, ProPublica already has a laudable history of doing this, with projects like its Reporting Matchmaker. We ought to continue this approach and develop it, in order to serve ProPublica best.

c. The web allows for user interaction, engagement and involvement in the production of news in entirely new ways. Why shouldn’t we crowd-source data? Why shouldn’t we collect Flickr photos, live tweets, home video footage, and/or personal stories? Think how much more powerful and in-depth the understanding of Hurricane Katrina would be if we not only reached out to people affected by the storm (see above), but also curated their information…This needs further development and innovation; this aspect of utilizing social media will vary based on the subject of each explainer. But it’s important.

3. We need the tools to create the various multimedia aspects of an explainer.

a. Everyone learns a little differently. Each subject is best explained in slightly different ways. We’ll need different tools to deploy for these explainers, based on what is needed (whether an interactive timeline seems to be in demand based on search results, or we simply judge that using a timeline would be the best way to tell the story at hand). I think it might serve our users and partners best if we have a toolbox, so to speak. There ought to be a clearly defined arsenal of what we’re capable of, whether that includes video, audio, photo, text, interactives… We need to know what we’re agreeing to as possibilities, and ProPublica needs to know what they may be hosting on their site. We need to define the multimedia aspect of this project, beyond simply saying that we’ll explain each subject in a multimedia way.

b. Of course, developing new possibilities and being flexible is key; we should be able to add something else to this toolbox as we like.

III. Afterward…

I’m actually not sure that this aspect of the project is clear enough in my mind for me to outline it yet. Once we’ve created an explainer, we’ll need to see if it was successful, theoretically. How will we use that information to amend future explainers? ProPublica put a big emphasis on making these explainers portable – do we need to create a game plan in the event that an explainer gets picked up by a media entity with a different style or approach? How would this aspect factor into our project? And what happens further down the line? We’ve defined this project as continuing through to May, or the end of our Studio 2 course, but The LEV is being maintained and continued long after the spring of 2010. Is ProPublica going to continue to use what we learn and to create explainers? Will Studio 20 continue to do the research and work behind the creation of new explainers?… In essence, what is the long-term impact of our branded explainer project supposed to be?

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