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Why journalists could (and should) become professional explainers

Information is cheap. It has to be, if a fourteen year old with no security clearance can learn state secrets with a regular dial-up connection. Thanks to WikiLeaks, we all can. But as more and more information is liberated on the internet – by everyone – the piles of it we are left to sort through are overwhelming.

If it no longer falls to journalists to discover, or even publish that information, what good are they at all?

Why, to explain, of course!

Explanatory journalism may seem like a redundant concept. All journalism “explains” some or other sequence of events. But whether on Twitter or on TV, the news always leaves some of our most basic questions unanswered: What the hell is subprime mortgage lending, how does collective bargaining work, what’s actually wrong with Steve Jobs? The reality of our 24-hour news cycle is that many, if not most people come into a story long after its begun, and without the context to understand it in full.

To borrow media critic Jay Rosen’s analogy: “Suppose your laptop continually received updates to software that was never installed on your laptop?”

Stupid, right?

Explanatory journalism closes the gap, by figuring out what needs explaining in the first place, and then producing whatever media can best meet that demand. Gorgeous examples abound in text, in animation, and even in music.

My point is this: As I look at the journalism landscape of today, explanatory journalism looks less and less like a genre and more like an industry waiting to happen.

Think about it. Journalists can familiarise themselves with new subject matter in no time at all, and produce topical content to strict deadlines. Explanation matches their erratic skillset perfectly. It helps that successful explainers are pulling big traffic (and fostering discussion) already. Of course, it all might amount to just another journalistic fad, but when you’re doing something as important as providing the real “who, what, where, when, why and how” to users, you’re probably onto something good.

If, by some miracle, professional journalists retain the privilege of discovering and publishing new information before the hackers or the Tweeps do, they won’t need to reinvent themselves over the next decade. But if they do, there’s no reason why the Explainer-Journalist can’t be the rockstar reporter of the future media.

For more insights and opinion, follow Niel Bekker on Twitter.

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