Renewal, Explainer Sites, and Civic Discourse



May 2, 2014

It’s May. A time for renewal in nature. A great time for renewal in journalism.

The New York Times did its part last week. It launched its latest digital innovation, “The Upshot.” The new site sets out to explain the news by offering data based reviews of news. It joins other “explainer sites,” such as Vox and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.

I think it’s a great addition to digital journalism, although its niche is a bit hazy. As digital guru Jay Rosen said, journalism gets better when more people do it (

The move to explain news on the Internet certainly is not new. Depth and investigative sites such as the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Public Integrity, ProPublica, Truthout, and also set out to probe beyond the headlines.

Partnerships like California Watch, Oklahoma Watch, the Rocky Mountain PBS I-News Network, and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism also dig deeper at more local levels.

Many online columnists, editors and bloggers say they are doing something similar. In fact, Jim Romenesko ( linked to a Twitter thread by Heidi N. Moore of The Guardian that made just that point.

<blockquote data-conversation=”none” data-cards=”hidden” lang=”en”><p><a href=””>@helpareporter</a> Open Forum Judge Moskowitz &amp; Maine&#39;s Corrupt Courts. <a href=””></a>  Pls RT. Thxs!</p>&mdash; Lori Handrahan (@LoriHandrahan2) <a href=”″>April 29, 2014</a></blockquote>
<script async src=”//” charset=”utf-8″></script>

Of course, lots of us say we want context and depth and investigation.  We don’t like to think we are manipulated by news sources and paid information advocates. We want honest, impartial facts. We want to think news isn’t being manipulated by money and influence.

Still, I think the jury is out on the new explainer sites. Will they succumb to cheap data provided by advocates? Real discourse is hard to produce. It is not yet clear that the stories on these sites have created the kind of grass root conversations that yield change.

So far, the sites have explored mostly stories vaulted to the top of the news agenda by advocates and government action. Few stories have emerged on these sites that focus on previously unheralded problems faced by ordinary readers and emerging off the news grid.

Today’s media ecology offers lots of information, if you have the time fortitude to dig for it. For the last 70 years, journalism has been more about information than about civic discourse. So far, the “explainer” sites fit right in by offering a top-quality menu of information.

What’s harder for journalism today is to create honest, informed discourse not cultivated by well paid strategic planners.

The new explainer sites are well worth watching.