How the Explainer Changed Digital Media Forever

How the Explainer Changed Digital Media Forever

The first approach yields a timeline of newspaper articles, which you can piece together to create a full story. On the contrary, if you route to an outlet like Vox and search the term “Brexit,” you’re greeted with this: The upside of Vox’s style is that the audience is spoon-fed important information framed around questions the new stories inspire. But Vox is often credited (or blamed, depending on whom you ask) for heralding the modern explainer format. For readers? And that wasn’t my experience of digital media audiences at all.” Klein bet his audience was smarter than that because he had listened to reader feedback as a young reporter. “When I would get e-mails from readers, and when I would talk to people, their question was never, ‘What happened today in Obamacare?’ or ‘What’s going on today? “Search is a very easy thing to be inspired by,” Klein said. Are explainers the future of content marketing? After Vox set up this content model, it was easy to expand into an explainer podcast, a Netflix series, a YouTube channel, a Snapchat Discover content, and brand-sponsored projects from its content marketing wing, the Vox Explainer Studio. Just like Vox, a B2B brand that’s committed to content marketing wants to educate and entertain a captive audience by writing about the industry they occupy.

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Let’s suppose you want to learn about Brexit. You could go to a legacy news outlet like the The New York Times and search the archives. If your preferences skew a bit more modern, you could take your question to an outlet like Vox, which specializes in SEO-friendly explainers. Or you could compare both to see two places cover the same topic in very different ways.

The first approach yields a timeline of newspaper articles, which you can piece together to create a full story. The image below reveals what you get when you plug “Brexit” into the New York Times app, which is coincidentally the first thing I look at every morning. Notice the articles pop up out of chronological order. (It’s not clear what order they’re in.) You have the choice of listening to a podcast episode, reading an op-ed, checking breaking news, or digesting a collection of quotes from European citizens on the subject. In this view, you get nuanced pieces to a puzzle, but you never get the whole thing.

New York Times Brexit explainer
New York Times explainer

On the contrary, if you route to an outlet like Vox and search the term “Brexit,” you’re greeted with this:

The upside of Vox’s style is that the audience is spoon-fed important information framed around questions the new stories inspire. The downside is that Vox rarely breaks stories, so its information is mostly aggregated. Aggregation is an old practice in journalism, and digital transformation has only encouraged it. But Vox is often credited (or blamed, depending on whom you ask) for heralding the modern explainer format.

On the whole, digital media doesn’t just tell stories anymore; it answers questions and anticipates follow-up inquiries, delivering explanatory content on intricacies you might have missed. Gone is the impetus to build a narrative from disparate headlines that once fell on readers. But who molded the media landscape this way?

A quick explainer on explainers

Vox launched in 2014, around the time ESPN acquired FiveThirtyEight, the data-explainer site run by Nate Silver. That same year, The New York Times launched The Upshot, the Grey Lady’s best attempt at a Vox-y project.

When all three websites came to life, The Guardian‘s James Ball penned a nervous op-ed about it. “It’s worth thinking about what we actually want the standard fare of our data journalism—or explanatory journalism, if you prefer that more marketable description—to become,” he wrote. “And how much is too much—are we being over-served, under-served, or have we now hit the Goldilocks point?”

Ball wasn’t able to predict that Vox’s staff and readership would skew disproportionately white, straight, and cis-male, but that has become a notable snag in the Vox paradigm.

It’s not just accusations of bias. Critics say explanatory journalism can be patronizing, simplifying complex stories for readers who ingest most information on their smartphones while doing something else.

To counter, Vox founder and editor-at-large Ezra Klein believes the explainer is the only logical format for a modern media company “where everything is archivable, where it’s all linkable, where it’s embeddable, persistent, and length isn’t a problem.” He described the Vox mission to The Content Strategist and other reporters at a recent press event.

Of course, Klein couldn’t simply write explainers for his readers on request, and when he began to amass a team around him, he realized journalists weren’t always the right hire. “Obsessives first,” Klein said. “That was the thing. We hired a lot of people who were not journalists. In fact, a lot of people who are at Vox now or have come through Vox, who are the absolute best at the job, weren’t hired out of journalism.”

Vox assembled professionals at the top of their fields by asking them to explain what they did to capture a curious audience. “I can teach you to report. I can teach you to pick up a phone,” Klein said, “but what I can’t teach is that obsessive passion and interest in a…

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