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April 13 2012

14:00

Top 5 Tech Ideas for Creating Better Explanatory Journalism

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How can technology help journalists make sense of complex issues and explain them to the public in a clear, understandable manner?

Last year, Jay Rosen's journalism students spent an entire semester researching and making explanations in partnership with ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom which focuses on investigative journalism. The class did amazing work to highlight notable examples and develop their own "explainers," essential background knowledge to help people follow events and trends in the news. One of my favorite examples is this project from 2011, where students redesigned the same ProPublica background article as a video, a podcast, and an FAQ.

NYU's Explainer class focused especially on two things: presentation and conversation. They talked to cognitive psychologists like George Lakoff to learn how audiences take in what we read. They highlighted numerous presentation examples -- videos, timelines, infographics, mini-sites, aggregators, podcasts, interactive guides, flowcharts, and even a picture book by Google! The class at NYU also pointed out that explaining is often a conversation. In their journalist's guide to developing FAQs, the class suggests techniques for discovering what people need to know. I loved their advice on listening to readers.

Where can we innovate?

This term, I'm taking Ethan Zuckerman's Participatory News class from the point of view of a technology designer who wants to build tools to support great journalism. As we write stories and review other people's work, we're keeping our eyes open for parts of the process which technology can improve. As a startup guy, I also keep an eye open for alternative business models. Here are my top tech recommendations for supporting better explainers:

1. Peer Production

Jay points out in his "National Explainer" essay that it's OK to start with the clueless journalist. When learning how to explain something, our initial ignorance helps us appreciate where our audiences are coming from. This approach assumes that a professional journalist is doing the work; where else might we find uninformed, capable people to develop explainers?

I think we should take inspiration from Wikipedia to develop strategies for peer production of explanatory journalism, especially for issues that journalists can't or don't cover. Online communities like Metafilter have proven their ability to cooperate on investigations on occasion. How can we extend that to explanations? We could also draw inspiration from Instructables and CommonCraft, online communities of people who share video instructions and explanations.

Building online communities is hard. Instead of developing an "explainer" community, I would build a toolkit which existing communities can use when they feel the need to investigate and explain an issue.

2. Finding Voices

Many of the explainers in Jay's class involve narrative. "The Giant Pool of Money" succeeded because This American Life found the right cast of characters to illustrate a complex issue. But finding the right people is really hard, especially if you're not a mainstream media organization. Source databases such as The Public Insight Network can help, but it's a closed system unavailable outside of newsrooms. Social media networks through groups like Global Voices get us part of the way, but only as far as the people who might know those we're looking for.

I'm not sure the crowd can help here. In many cases, the people you want to interview might not be outspoken online. Instead, I would develop tools and research practices for individuals or small teams to find representative voices. Perhaps the tool could offer encouragement and ideas for following the trail from an effect to an individual.

We could support one workflow in particular. Given a set of articles which are already about a topic, we could automatically extract the names of the organizations and individuals who are quoted and referred to, creating a quick map of the issue in the media. A canny storyteller might be able to spot gaps in the story or simply remix existing material into an explainer.

3. Organizing Research

Explainers are by definition hard to organize and research. They're the messy, complicated issues that don't appear to make much sense. Often the story arc isn't apparent until partway through the project. It can become easy to get lost in the forest of information. As the pile of research grows, it can be difficult to follow the structure of a complex system or pull together the information you need for that next interview.

The most widely used writing tools are terrible at helping people organize and understand their information. I have written elsewhere about my use of software like Eastgate's Tinderbox to organize research around a complex issue. I think we need more of that kind of software (James Fallows' article on "Mac Programs that Come with Thinking Caps On" is a great place to start).

4. Rhetorical Forms

All storytelling on computers is in its early stages; we haven't agreed on very many common literary forms. Beyond the FAQ, the Timeline, and the illustrated lecture, most explainers require a custom rhetorical form. That's bad for anyone who wants to put a deadline on a project.

That's why I love The Explainer Awards that Jay and his students held. Awards are a great way to create norms and highlight innovation -- they have been an effective model as far back as 5th century Athens. But we need to take this further. An effective awards program would bring together finalists in each category to discuss common challenges and build technologies to solve those problems.

5. Conversation

Why not re-imagine explaining as a social movement rather than content production? Some of the best explaining comes from a two-way conversation, not a piece of content. We could start a service called Meet the News, a geolocated service which invites anyone to have coffee with someone affected by a news story. Participants could pay for the coffee and might be expected to contribute back to the community with a few paragraphs about the conversation, just like couch-surfing reviews. It could be a human library for the news.

Do you have more tech ideas for explanatory journalism? Let us know in the comments!

A version of this post first appeared on MIT Civic Media Center's blog.

March 04 2011

19:00

Mother Jones web traffic up 400+ percent, partly thanks to explainers

February was a record-breaking traffic month for Mother Jones. Three million unique users visited the site — a 420 percent increase from February 2010’s numbers. And MotherJones.com posted 6.6 million pageviews overall — a 275 percent increase.

The investigative magazine credits the traffic burst partly to a month of exceptional work in investigations, essays, and exposes, its editorial bread and butter: real-time coverage of the Wisconsin protests, a Kevin Drum essay on the consequences of wealth inequality in America, the first national media coverage of that infamous prank call to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. The also mag credits the traffic, though, to its extended presence on social media: Mother Jones’ Twitter followers increased 28 percent in February, to more than 43,000; its Facebook fan base grew 20 percent, to nearly 40,000; and its Tumblr fan base grew 200 percent, to nearly 3,000 followers.

In all, the mag estimates, a cumulative 29 percent of traffic to MotherJones.com came from social media sites.

But Mother Jones also attributes the traffic explosion to a new kind of news content: its series of explainers detailing and unpacking the complexities of the situations in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and Wisconsin. We wrote about MoJo’s Egypt explainer in January, pointing out the feature’s particular ability to accommodate disparate levels of reader background knowledge; that format, Adam Weinstein, a MoJo copy editor and blogger, told me, has become the standard one for the mag’s explainers. “It was a great resource for the reader, but it also helped us to focus our coverage,” Weinstein notes. “When something momentous happens, it can be hard for a small staff to focus their energies, I think. And this was an ideal way to do that.”

The magazine started its explainer series with a debrief on Tunisia; with the Egypt explainer, written by MoJo reporter Nick Baumann, the form became a format. The explainers were “a collaborative effort,” Weinstein says — “everybody pitched in.” And the explainer layout, with the implicit permission it gives to the reader to pick and choose among the content it contains, “just became this thing where we could stockpile the information as it was coming in, and also be responsive to be people responding via social media with questions, with interests, with inquiries that they didn’t see answers to in other media outlets.”

It was a format that proved particularly useful, Weinstein notes, during the weekend after Mubarak had resigned in Egypt and when protests gained power in Libya and, stateside, Wisconsin. “All of this was happening at the same time,” he says — “none of us were getting a lot of sleep that weekend” — and “our social media just exploded.” But because MoJo’s Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook pages became, collectively, such an important interface for conversation, “we needed a really efficient way of organizing our content,” and in one convenient place. So the explainer format became, essentially, “a great landing page.”

The success of that format could offer an insight for any outlet trying to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of content and context. Explainers represent something of a tension for news organizations; on the one hand, they can be hugely valuable, both to readers and to orgs’ ability to create community around particular topics and news events; on the other, they can be redundant and, worse, off-mission. (“We’re not Wikipedia,”  one editor puts it.)

It’s worth noting, though, that MoJo explainers aren’t, strictly, topic pages; rather, they’re topical pages. Their content isn’t reference material catered to readers’ general interests; it’s news material catered to readers’ immediate need for context and understanding when it comes to complex, and current, situations. The pages’ currency, in other words, is currency itself.

That’s likely why the explainers have been so successful for MoJo’s traffic (and, given the outlet’s employment of digital advertising, its bottom line); it’s also why, though, the format requires strategic thinking when it comes to the resources demanded by reporting and aggregation — particularly for outlets of a small staff size, like MoJo. Explainers, as valuable as they can be, aren’t always the best way for a news outlet to add value. “We still do the long-form stories,” Weinstein notes, “and this has just given us a place to have a clearinghouse for that.” For MoJo, he says, the explainer “is a way of stitching together all the work that everyone’s been doing. And we’re thrilled that readers have responded.”

February 10 2011

19:00

On an embargo-driven beat, science reporters aim to build for context

The events that science journalists publish about most frequently are themselves acts of publishing: the appearance of research papers in peer-reviewed journals. Most journals embargo papers before publication, granting reporters access to unpublished work in exchange for an agreement not to report until the embargo is lifted. Embargoes give reporters time to study new research and seek out commentary from authoritative voices; they also allow journals to exercise power over reporters and to guard their control over the flow of scientific information. Reporters who break embargoes risk losing access to information about new findings, emerging technologies, and exciting discoveries — along with the chance to process and vet those findings to determine whether excitement is warranted.

John Rennie, the former editor-in-chief of Scientific American, is hardly alone in his frustration with the fickle and ever-shifting embargo practices of scientific journals. In a January 26 column in the Guardian, Rennie argues that embargoes encourage superficial and premature reporting on new science. “Out of fear of being scooped,” he writes, news outlets rush their coverage, “publish[ing] stories on the same research papers at the moment the embargo ends. In that stampede of coverage, opportunities for distinctive reporting are few.” As a kind of thought experiment, Rennie suggests that science journalism could answer with self-imposed embargoes, in which news outlets would agree not to report on new journal papers until six months after publication.

As Rennie admits, that isn’t going to happen. Instead, he encourages journalists to experiment with new ways of enriching reporting between embargoes, shooting the gaps with coverage that offers nuance and a broadened perspective from which to judge the significance of new findings.

Consciously looking for context

Having seen John Rennie speak about the problems of embargo-driven journalism at the ScienceOnline 2011 conference last month, British science writer Ed Yong cast about for a way to add context to his coverage of stem cell research, a beat he covers frequently for Wired, Discover, and New Scientist, among other venues. As Paul Raeburn reports at MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Tracker, Yong crafted a timeline to document the field’s major stories from the last few years. Using a free web-based timeline creator he found at Dipity.com, Yong assembled articles from major journals and coverage from science news outlets into an annotated history of the discoveries that have shaped the field. Yong calls his timeline a tool for “looking at the stories that lead up to new discoveries, rather than focusing on every new paper in isolation.” Posted at Yong’s Discover-hosted blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, the timeline is a rich and engaging piece of analysis. It also serves Yong as a resource for further reporting, giving him a baseline from which to judge the significance of emerging science before it comes out from behind its embargoes.

Yong’s tool offers another example of the future-of-context ideas we write about often here at the Lab — like explainer pages and building background into stories, issues that apply across all beats and topics. Similarly, Yong turns a tried and true model of information visualization — the timeline — into a tool for putting any given story in stem cell research into its proper light. And rather neatly, he does it with time as the axis — for time, after all, is precisely what embargoes are all about. It’s just one example, but it’s a conscious attempt to break out of the imposed news cycle of embargo-driven reporting.

The Ingelfinger Rule

In fact, science journalists are squeezed at both ends of the journals’ publishing cycles. In addition to levying embargoes, many journals also observe the so-called Ingelfinger Rule, refusing to publish research that has been reported or commented on elsewhere. Named for former New England Journal of Medicine editor Franz Ingelfinger, the rule was formulated to keep untested health-science findings from making their way into public sphere before being submitted to the peer-review process — what some call “science by press conference.” But the rule more obviously helps journals protect their revenue sources — and it is for this reason that it has been widely adopted by most science publishers, even those who operate in fields with no public-health ramifications. (The cost of those journals — $27,465 for a year’s subscription to The Journal of Comparative Neurology! — has even the most resource-rich libraries up in arms.)

Ivan Oransky agrees that Yong’s tool is a simple and effective answer to the challenge presented by the journals’ squeeze tactics, calling it “terrific” and “scalable.” Oransky, who is executive editor of Reuters Health and an MD on the faculty at the NYU School of Medicine, runs the blog Embargo Watch, where he covers the uses and misuses of embargo practices in careful detail (and which John Rennie praised in his remarks at the ScienceOnline meeting). And he echoes Rennie’s call for finding ways to do science reporting outside the restrictions imposed by journals. “Journals serve a purpose,” Oransky told me in an email, “by applying the imperfect but valuable filter of peer review. We’d all like to get away from such heavy reliance on them.” With embargoes and the Ingelfinger Rule, he argues, journals exercise a “chilling effect on communication between scientists — many publicly funded — and journalists,” frustrating reporters who try “to move science reporting upstream to cover science before it’s in one of the journals.”

In science journalism’s crowded ecosystem, the double-barreled threat of embargo and the Ingelfinger Rule can have a deranging effect, pressuring serious news outlets to compete for scoops with online aggregators and casual bloggers. And as scientists themselves join the fray in blogs or through the social media, the veneer of decorum and collegiality imposed by embargoes is becoming increasingly illusory. On its own, an analytic tool like Ed Yong’s won’t break the deranging control that journals exercise over science coverage. But in striving to report on the practice of science as well as published results, Yong’s combination of web-based publishing tools and knowledgable reporting makes for a node on a promising timeline.

January 28 2011

17:00

MoJo’s Egypt explainer: future-of-context ideas in action

This week’s unrest in Egypt brings new relevance to an old question: How do you cover an event about which most of your readers have little or no background knowledge?

Mother Jones has found one good way to do that. Its national reporter, Nick Baumann, has produced a kind of on-the-fly topic page about this week’s uprising, featuring a running description of events fleshed out with background explanation, historical context, multimedia features, and analysis. The page breaks itself down into several core categories:

The Basics
What’s Happening?
Why are Egyptians unhappy?
How did this all start?
Why is this more complicated for the US than Tunisia was?
How do I follow what’s happening in real-time?
What’s the latest?

The page also contains, as of this posting, 14 updates informing readers of new developments since the page was first started (at 1 p.m. on Tuesday) and pointing them to particularly helpful and read-worthy pieces of reporting and analysis on other sites.

In all, the MoJo page pretty much takes the Demand Media approach to the production of market-driven content — right down to its content-farm-tastic title: “What’s Happening in Egypt Explained.” The crucial difference, though, is that its content is curated by an expert journalist. In that, the page has a lot in common with the kind of curation done, by Andrew Sullivan and the HuffPost’s Nico Pitney and many others, during 2009’s uprising in Iran. That coverage, though, had an improvised, organic sense to it: We’re figuring this out as we go along. It felt frenzied. The MoJo page, on the other hand, conveys the opposite sensibility: It exudes calmness and control. Here’s what you need to know.

And that’s a significant distinction, because it’s one that can be attributed to something incredibly simple: the page’s layout. The basic design decision MoJo made in creating its Egypt explainer — breaking it down into categories, encyclopedia-style — imposes an order that more traditional attempts at dynamic coverage (liveblogs, Twitter lists, etc.) often lack.

At the same time, the page also extends the scope of traditional coverage. With their space constraints, traditional news narratives have generally had to find artful ways to cater, and appeal, to the widest possible swath of readers. (To wit: that nearly parenthetical explanation of a story’s context, usually tacked onto a text story’s lede or a nut graf.) The web’s limitless space, though, changes the whole narrative proposition of the explainer: The MoJo page rethinks explanation as “information” rather than “narrative.” It’s not trying to be a story so much as a summary. And what’s resulted is a fascinating fusion between a liveblog and a Wikipedia entry.

The MoJo page, of course, isn’t alone in producing creative, context-focused journalism: From topic pages to backgrounders, videos to video games, news organizations are experimenting with lost of exciting approaches to explanation. And it’s certainly not the only admirable explainer detailing the events in Egypt. What’s most noteworthy about MoJo’s Egypt coverage isn’t its novelty so much as its adaptability: It acknowledges, implicitly, that audience members might come into it armed with highly discrepant levels of background information. It’s casually broken down the explainer’s content according to tiers of expertise, as it explains at the top of the page:

This was originally posted at 1:00 p.m. EST on Tuesday. It is being updated and is being kept near the top of the blog. Some of the information near the top of the post may be outdated, and if you’ve been following the story closely, the information at the top will definitely seem very basic. So please scroll to the bottom of the post for the latest.

In a June episode of their “Rebooting the News” podcast, Jay Rosen and Dave Winer discussed the challenge of serving users who come into a story with varying levels of contextual knowledge. One solution they tossed around: a tiered system of news narrative, with Level 1, for example, being aimed at users who come into a story with little to no background knowledge, Level 4 for experts who simply want to learn of new developments in a story.

The MoJo page is a great example of that kind of thinking put to work. The sections Baumann’s used to organize the explainer’s content allow users to have a kind of choose-your-own adventure interaction with the information offered. They convey, overall, a sense of permissiveness. Know only a little about Egyptian politics? Hey, that’s cool. Know nothing at all? That’s cool, too.

And that’s another noteworthy element of MoJo’s Egypt explainer: It’s welcoming. And it doesn’t, you know, judge.

That’s not a minor thing, for the major reason that stories, when you lack the context to understand them, can be incredibly intimidating. If you don’t know much about Egypt’s current political landscape — or, for that matter, about the world financial system or the recent history of Afghanistan or the workings of Congress — you have very little incentive to read, let alone follow, a story about it. In news, one of the biggest barriers to entry can be simple intimidation. We talk a lot about “engagement” in journalism; one of the most fundamental ways to engage an audience, though, is by doing something incredibly simple: producing work that accommodates ignorance.

December 01 2010

12:30

ProPublica and Jay Rosen’s Studio 20 class at NYU team up to build — and share — “a better explainer”

NYU media guru Jay Rosen is announcing a new partnership between his Studio 20 graduate students and ProPublica. Their goal is to research the most effective ways to unravel complex problems for an online audience, and then build new kinds of explainers to illuminate ProPublica’s research into issues like the foreclosure crisis, finance, healthcare, and the BP oil spill.

It’s an ambitious project, and one that fits Rosen’s goal of transforming journalism schools into the R&D labs of the media industry. As part of the project, the students have launched a website, Explainer.net, that will grow into a database of the best and worst “explainer” techniques from within the news business and beyond. (One of their research projects, for example, was to analyze which media outlets explained the WikiLeaks cable story in the most helpful and compelling ways.)

I sat in on a Studio 20 class on Monday and talked with several of the 16 first-semester graduate students involved in the project. The metaphor they all used, drawn from Rosen’s SXSW panel speech on “the future of context,” was that reading daily news articles can often feel like receiving updates to software that you haven’t actually downloaded to your computer. Without some basic understanding of the larger, ongoing story, the “news” doesn’t actually make much sense. As NYU and ProPublica put it in today’s press release:

Bringing clarity to complex systems so that non-specialists can understand them is the “art” of the explainer. For instance, an explainer for the Irish debt crisis would make clear why a weakness in one country’s banks could threaten the European financial system and possibly the global recovery. A different kind of explainer might show how Medicare billing is designed to work and where the opportunities for fraud lie.

Rosen has been calling for a rigorous rethinking of how media outlets provide context since 2008, and, as Megan has noted previously here at the Lab, ProPublica has put itself at the forefront of explanatory, public-interest reporting. This summer, they redesigned their website with the goal of making it easier for users with different amounts of knowledge about a subject area to teach themselves more about a topic. (They’ve also created a broadway song about complex financial instruments.) Rosen, who brought several students to pitch the project to ProPublica in late September, said the investigative outfit was immediately enthusiastic about the partnership, which will run through the rest of this academic year.

The Explainer project will approach the problem of understanding complex systems both from the perspective of users trying to gain context on an issue, and that of journalists who need new mediums for telling background stories and sharing data that might not fit into an article format.

For that, the students will divide into three groups tasked with exploring different elements of explanation. One group is interviewing the members of ProPublica’s news team, from reporters to news app builders to the managing editor, in order to understand the organization’s workflow, what it does with the data it collects, and how its reporters explain what they’re learning to themselves as they report a story.

Journalists “love starting from zero and gaining mastery,” Rosen said. “What they disgorge by way of story is quite inadequate to what they learned. Creating containers, formats, genres, tricks, tools to make that knowledge available is part of the project.”

Another group is building Explainer.net’s WordPress website, which sometimes means teaching themselves and each other skills on an ad hoc basis. (Studio 20 is designed to be a learn-as-you-go program, in which a group of students with different specialties share their skills and pick up new ones.)

A third group  is researching the different “explainer” genres. They’re starting with examples of good and bad explanatory journalism, from maps and timelines to more specific visualizations like The National Post’s chilling illustration of how a stoning is carried out in Iran. But they’ll also be reaching far outside the media world to research techniques used in many different fields. Rosen suggested that they focus on situations where people “can’t afford to fail,” like people fixing combat aircraft, or NFL teams explaining complicated plays. The students are also looking at the “For Dummies” book franchise and the language-learning software Rosetta Stone.

When I spoke with Rachel Slaff, who’s leading the research group, she said they have found many more examples of failed explainers than background reporting that’s actually working well. It’s not just that some videos are boring, or that a timeline is clunky or a graphic too text-heavy. “The overwhelming theme is: This isn’t actually explaining anything to me. I watched this video or I looked at this chart and I left more confused than I came in,” she said. The major exception has been the BBC, which she said produces consistently effective explainers. The other group favorite has been the RSA Animate video series, in which a hand cheekily illustrates a topic as it’s being explained.

Part of the reason the project is going public so early is to connect with journalists interested in explainer or “future of context” issues. The Studio 20 group will be producing a periodic newsletter with updates on their progress, as well as building a Twitter feed — all ways to broaden the reach of the project, as well as give the graduate students practice in using social media tools.

The “build a better explainer” project is just a first step in figuring out how context-focused reporting will evolve online, Rosen said.  Google’s Living Stories and newspaper topic pages are all aimed at a larger, more complicated problem: “Where does the news accumulate as understanding?”

You can think about the accumulation of understanding in terms of a body of text, a URL where different stories are gathered together, or the way that knowledge builds in a single user, Rosen told me. Whatever the potential model, the next question is, “how do we join to the stream-of-updates part of the news system, a second part of the news system, which gives people a sense of mastery over a big story?”

In other words: Once you’ve built a better explainer, the next challenge is building it a place to live.

August 12 2010

21:27

Marketplace brings a Twittery approach to the explainer

When you listen to Marketplace, American Public Media’s finance-focused show, you generally expect to hear expert, and even entertaining, takes on the day’s economic news. On Wednesday’s show, though, the typical quick-and-dirty met…quick-and-funny. Marketplace offered a segment pretty much summarizing the world financial situation…in pretty much three sentences. Listen to the whole thing — all two minutes of it — here; but the gist of it, per the transcript, is this:

Paddy Hirsch: People are worried about the local economy. They think gold is the safest investment, so that’s where they put their money.

I’m Paddy Hirsch for Marketplace.

Liza Tucker: Demand is way down for oil. That’s because some economies are shaky and countries aren’t using as much.

I’m Liza Tucker for Marketplace.

Ethan Lindsey: People are still scared about the economy. So no one wants to blow their savings on a house.

I’m Ethan Lindsey for Marketplace.

And the kicker, from host Kai Rysdall: “Y’know, it’s funny, our news spots are usually a whole lot longer than that. I’m not really sure what happened on those.”

Seriously, if you haven’t already, it’s worth a listen. It’s funny. Also, short. From the future-of-news approach, though: It was also a pithy (“pithy,” in fact, might be too expansive a term for it) explanation of the financial doldrums the nation — and the world — are currently experiencing. Sure, the topics covered are the stuff of dissertations/post-graduate programs/think-tank white papers; but they’re also, more to the point, the stuff of everyday life. People need to understand it. As Celeste Wesson, Marketplace’s senior producer, told me: “We are always trying, as a show, to think of more interesting ways to tell business stories. That comes with the territory of covering business, economics, money, etc.: we want to look at how it affects people’s lives, but we also want to make sure that we’re really clear — and really entertaining.”

A Twitterfied take on the ongoing financial crisis: Clear? Check. Entertaining? Check.

The idea came in Wednesday morning’s editorial meeting, Wesson told me. Marketplace staffers were talking about one of the big financial stories of the day — oil prices — and how best to explain it to listeners, when Liza Tucker, the show’s senior Washington editor and resident sustainability expert, finally said: “It’s easy. Demand is down, and that’s because economies are in trouble, and countries aren’t using as much oil.” And “she said it in the meeting,” Wesson says, “as if to say, ‘This is not a complicated story here.’” But “she did it like this perfect little tiny news spot.”

Everyone laughed — but there was something to the joke, Wesson realized. “There’s something we can play with there”: clarity by way of brevity.

“And then someone said, ‘Yeah, but we can’t do just one. So maybe we can do a mini news report with a number of them.’”

“Yeah — we probably need at least three.”

“Maybe we could do gold.”

“Oh, yeah, that would be good.”

Et cetera. “So we had this little, inchoate idea floating around the morning meeting,” Wesson says — which crystallized throughout the day, as producers refined it, into a segment. They tapped Tucker, who’d come up with the initial, off-the-cuff gem, to participate in the final product; then Paddy Hirsch, an expert in gold markets; then Ethan Lindsey, who came up with that “perfectly deadpan way” of talking about home sales.

“Really, it’s a group process,” Wesson notes. “All of us know that one of the things we need to do is make sure that we’re taking complicated things and making them clear” — and to explode the formula that’s all too familiar among lay consumers of financial journalism: incomprehension leading to boredom (laced, often, with frustration).

One way to do that: go simple. Really simple. In this case, “It just struck us as funny that sometimes these things are simpler than we think they are,” Wesson says. “And wouldn’t it be fun, in the middle of August, to break this up with something that’s fun to listen to, and catches listeners by surprise?”

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