The-news-site-formerly-known-as-Project X from ex-Washington Post reporter Ezra Klein has a staff, a mission statement, and now a name: Vox.com. It’s named after its parent company, Vox Media, which also owns the Verge, SB Nation, Polygon, Curbed and Eater.
While the Verge focuses on tech and SB Nation on sports, the focus of Vox.com is deceptively simple: Explainers.
What does Klein mean by explainers? NYU professor Jay Rosen (who taught a class I took on the art of explanation) has a nice metaphor for why explanatory journalism matters: “Suppose your laptop continually received updates to software that was never installed on your laptop.” That’s how most news is delivered today, focusing on the latest developments without providing the context needed to get anything worthwhile out of the “update.”
For example, a headline like “Shots fired in air during raid at Crimea naval base” means nothing to readers if they don’t understand a bit of history about Russian-Ukrainian relations or where Crimea is. Instead of scouring Wikipedia for answers, a reader may ignore the article altogether and click on a story about Miley Cyrus. That makes Vox.com’s mission a noble one. If you increase people’s understanding of important news stories, you ideally increase their demand for them.
Of course it’s not as if Vox.com is the first site to go long on “explainers.” One of the earliest digital explainer franchises belonged to Slate, though it focuses less on breaking news and more on dinner-party curiosities like “Why don’t figure skaters get dizzy?” or “How does the Make-A-Wish foundation pick which kids’ wishes to bring to life?” Other news organizations like Mother Jones and ProPublica have followed in its wake, explaining complicated news stories using text and rich media. Here at Pando we have our own explainer video series.
So how will Vox.com be any different? We don’t really know yet, but according to an introductory video pushed out today, Klein suggests the art of providing context is as much a technological problem as it is an editorial one.
“It’s not a problem we could solve in print. The nature of the medium, the nature of the space constraint was that we couldn’t put (in) all the information you needed. But we don’t have that constraint on the Web.”
Klein doesn’t elaborate much on that, but based on past comments he wants to break not only from the constraints of print, but from the constraints of existing digital platforms. He writes, “The engine of those (Vox) sites is a world-class technology platform, Chorus, that blows apart many of the old limitations. And behind Chorus is a world-class design and engineering team that is already helping us rethink the way we power newsrooms and present information.”
So how can technology enhance explanatory journalism? Again, the Vox.com team is playing this pretty close to the vest so far, but here are some ideas: How about a feature that lets readers expand and collapse pieces of additional contextual content within a story? Graduate student Blake Hunsicker built something like this at NYU. Or maybe the site could serve up different versions of an article depending on a reader’s knowledge base. If readers select “Beginner” they’ll see an article rich with additional context. If readers select “Expert,” they’ll see a more traditional version that cuts right to the chase.
Finally, because explainers are what journalists call “evergreen” content (it never gets old), Vox.com must resurface them again and again, presenting them in ways that make readers actually want to click. That could be easier said than done: With today’s consumption habits so influenced by social media, everyone wants to be the first to read something, not the last. Furthermore, maintaining these explainers to keep them up-to-date is another challenge most reporters don’t have time for, and most robots can’t be trusted with.
It’s too early to gauge how successful this experiment will be. Explanatory content can certainly be very popular: Mark Ames’ Ukraine explainer has been one of our most-read pieces of the new year. And the writing staff’s proven itself at plenty of outlets. I’m most interested in the technology angle, because that’s what Vox.com may offer that other explainer sites cannot. I’d love to see it use that vaunted platform to bring background and context to every story across the Vox Media empire (maybe that explains the seemingly redundant name, Vox.com), so that every article page is also an attractive, user-friendly opportunity for readers to learn more without going down a rabbit-hole of Wikipedia pages. And with Jim “Hit-You-In-The-Face-With-Money” Bankoff funding things, Vox.com has a better shot than most.