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February 18 2011

19:30

Chattarati wants to change how we talk about schools

Last month, the state of Tennessee released its comprehensive report card on pre-K-12 education for 2010.

The news wasn’t good. In Hamilton County, the seat of Chattanooga, not only did schools as a unit not make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals; in addition, not even half of the county’s elementary school students were able to demonstrate grade-level proficiency in math and reading. Overall, the data suggested, 37 percent of Hamilton’s K-12 schools aren’t meeting the (not-terribly-ambitious) education standards set by the federal government.

That’s a problem for Tennessee’s education system. But it’s also, argues one news publisher, a problem for journalism. Chattarati, a community news site for Chattanooga, is trying to do its part to improve its community’s public education system by making the data about that system comprehensible to readers. The broad goal: to change how we talk about schools.

“We wanted to have productive conversations about how the schools and students were performing here in our local county system,” John Hawbaker, Chattarati’s editor, told me. “It’s really easy to look at [the data] and say, ‘Okay, our county system got a D overall.’ You could bemoan it for a few days, and then move on.”

“But that doesn’t help anybody solve the problem. And we all have a vested interest in how the schools perform,” he says. “So it was really important for us to take a deeper look. We wanted to change the conversation.”

To do that, Chattarati’s education editor, Aaron Collier, put together an interactive, graphic depiction of the state report card results. (Chattarati started with math scores at Hamilton Country elementary schools, but plans to break the data down further by subject: another for science, another for reading, another for social studies, and so on. The plan is to produce a new graphic, in the same style, every week.) The journalists employed a local freelance designer, DJ Trischler, to design the graphic — it was inspired, Hawbaker told me, by the clean images and bold colors of the graphics in GOOD magazine — and worked together on it over the course of a couple weeks. In their spare time.

“What we knew from the beginning,” Hawbaker says, “is that we wanted to find a visual way to represent the two different measures that schools and students are graded on”: achievement (that is, how much a student learned over a year in relation to an external, set goal) and value-added (that is, year-over-year progress). Of those two, achievement tends to get the most attention, Hawbaker notes; “but I think it paints a really interesting picture — and there’s a lot more you can learn — if you’re able to look at both of them, side by side. So we wanted to represent that visually.”

That led to a grid design that puts the low-achieving, low-value-added schools at the bottom left, and the high-achieving, high-value-added schools at the top right. So you have both overall learning and relative improvement tracked on the same chart. “There’s a lot of data there; you can’t get around it,” Hawbaker notes. “But we tried to present it in a way that was easy to understand.”

That easy-to-understand aspect is key: Often, challenges in the education system — or, for that matter, problems in any huge, complex bureaucracy — can be amplified by their intimidation factor alone: When we can’t wrap our head around the problems in the first place, how can we hope to try to solve them? Complexity fatigue can be one of the biggest, broadest impediments to finding solutions to common problems. The charts Chattarati is building, like its dataviz counterparts at The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune and elsewhere, offers a micro solution to the macro problem: They try to take the “data” out of “dataset,” making sense out of the information they contain. And making that information, overall, less cognitively intimidating.

“We’ve gotten so many private comments: emails, people talking to us,” Hawbaker says. “I had a teacher at my daughter’s school stop me and tell me how much she liked it. It’s been gratifying.”

As Hawbaker and Collier, put it in a post announcing the experiment: “The temptation, of course, is to resign ourselves to disparaging talk and absolve ourselves of the school system with the coming of hard news. But with Tennessee’s dramatic shift toward tougher curriculum standards, the success of our schools will depend on an informed, community-wide dialog on some of the challenges they face.”

The site’s experiment is a small but meaningful way to get beyond the statistics — which, they hope, will help empowerment to win out over resignation. “Every step of the way,” the journalists note, “our goal is to equip you to participate in a conversation addressing this question: How can we better serve our students?”

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?”

June 11 2010

16:38

How Josh & Chuck Made 'Stuff You Should Know' a Hit Podcast

Perhaps you were hunting around iTunes one day and came across a list of the top audio podcasts. There in the top five among the usual suspects from NPR was something called Stuff You Should Know. And once you started listening, you were hooked on the congenial chit-chat between hosts Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant, senior writers at HowStuffWorks.com (owned by Discovery Communications). And the topics, oh the topics, with one outdoing the next: How flamethrowers work, how you clean up an oil spill, and how hard is it to steal a work of art.

Stuff You Should Know About 'Stuff You Should Know'

> The podcast was first started in April 2008 with Josh Clark as host with rotating co-hosts, with Chuck Bryant joining him to form the dynamic duo in August 2008.

> They are not experts. Really, they're not.

> There's a TV show coming to Discovery Channel based on HowStuffWorks.com, but Josh & Chuck aren't involved with it. They would like to do something like that one day.

> They have made more than 250 podcast episodes, and it has peaked at #1 on iTunes among all podcasts.

> The shows take as long as they take. A show on cliff diving clocked in at 27:19 while a show on serial killers took 44:41.

> In April 2010, the podcast had more than 3.5 million downloads. How do I know? Josh & Chuck's PR person told me that.

> Josh & Chuck still write for HowStuffWorks.com, and have become senior writers. They don't have the time to start another podcast, but do have a blog and would love to take a live show around the country based on an upcoming audiobook.

I had the pleasure of talking with Josh & Chuck recently in a wide-ranging phone chat, and the following is an edited version of that conversation.

Q&A

How did you get started with the podcast?

Chuck Bryant: Josh and I were both initially hired as writers, which is what we continue to do, for HowStuffWorks.com. We did that for a solid year before the podcast started. Josh was approached by our editor in chief to start the podcast. Josh even thought of the name, "Stuff You Should Know."

Josh Clark: Yup, I did ... HowStuffWorks is perfect for this kind of media and they wanted to expand the brand a bit [with a podcast]. I had no idea how to do it, and Chuck you didn't know how to do it?

Chuck: No.

Josh: And, frankly, to be honest I had never listened to an actual podcast before we started making one. Luckily we had a great producer and we were put together [as a team] and it worked out. We were surprised as anyone, probably moreso, that it's worked as well as it has.

stuffyoushouldknow logo.jpg

Chuck: The great thing about it was that there was no pressure at all at the beginning. We were writers for the website and that wasn't going anywhere, so if the podcast failed miserably they would have shut it down and we would have gone back to writing. We have a great company and a parent company Discovery Communications [that allowed us] to let it grow organically, by word of mouth, and it's been a big success.

Josh: We found the only real pressure is when we are above Ira Glass in the iTunes ranking. Otherwise, we're fine and feel like we can do whatever we want.

Chuck explains why he think podcasting has staying power even with the rise of video:

sxykpodcast.mp3

Were you the first podcast produced for HowStuffWorks?

Josh: We were the first one and it was a shot in the dark. It started to take off like a rocket. So they said, "Let's get everyone on the content side doing podcasts." We had our history podcast that started out as "Fact or Fiction" and I played the gullible rube who would say, "I heard this about this historical event. Is that true?" My co-host would say whether it's fact or fiction, or would say -- and this would rile people up -- "that's faction!" That went the way of the dinosaur pretty quickly and was replaced by "Stuff You Missed in History Class," which evolved out of that and has been very successful.

We have TechStuff, which is a great tech podcast. It has a great following, and the guys, Chris and Jonathan, are perfect foils for one another. They're very subdued and rambunctious, respectively. We now have 10 total podcasts with a video podcast.

Why do you think it became so popular?

Chuck: The comment we get most from our fans on email or our Facebook fan page is: "It feels like I'm listening to a couple of my old friends from when I was in college, sitting around in a bar, having a drink." The everyman quality that we both bring to the show really hits home. We're not experts, we don't profess to be experts. We mess things up every now and then, and people call us out and we read the correction on the air, and people get a kick out of that. It's just a very down-to-earth smart discussion, usually pretty funny, and people get to learn something and have fun at the same time.

Josh: The conversational tone that we manage to strike in every podcast is another compliment we get. "It's easy to listen to" is something we hear a lot. The reason for that is we don't practice together or rehearse. We both read the same article from HowStuffWorks.com, and we read it independently, do our own side research, ask our own questions and go over the topic and tear it apart and explain it bit by bit, including stuff we found in the article and elsewhere. We go off on tangents. We have a way of dating things by if it was before or after the first "Ghostbusters" movie came out.

Every bit of this podcast has come about organically, was given room to grow on its own. That accounts for its success as well.

Chuck explains how they never script anything in advance and try to spring little factoids on each other:

syskfactoids.mp3

So you base your subjects on a story that's been written for the website, right?

Josh: That's right. That's what gives it the structure. We both know the meat information that we both read over and over again to absorb it. That provides the loose structure, but within a topic ... one of my favorite topics of all time is How Zombies Work. That was cut into two parts. One was movie zombies and surviving a zombie apocalypse. That was semi-fictitious. Then there was the true part about Haitian zombies and how they're created. Knowing that's how the article went, we knew when it was time to switch gears when we'd used up our external research.

It's very easy to tell, after doing this so many times, when we're done. But at the same time, we've never been very pretentious about this. So we'll say, "Do you have anything else?" And that stays in, it doesn't get edited out. We're not bashful about letting people see through the veneer of what we're doing at any point. Though we do edit out any egregious mistakes -- most of the time.

stuff episodes.jpg

You cover some pretty serious subjects but you have a light tone. Does that become difficult for you or upset the audience?

Josh: Yes, every once in a while we get listener mail and are taken to task and scolded. It's very rare. In almost every case, the person says '"I am not going to unsubscribe but I wanted you to know you ruffled my feathers." When it comes to a heavy topic like "How Comas Work," we treated it slightly more heavily than we did "How Twinkies Work" but it still has the Josh & Chuck tone. After it was released, we knew we hadn't said anything offensive there but we wanted to make sure we hadn't inadvertently offended anyone who had a family member in a vegetative state. And we got listener mail from people who do have relatives in comas, and they thanked us and said, "You guys did this very well, it was factual and respectful and you didn't sensationalize it."

Since that point in time, we've become a lot more confident that our approach could be applied to anything. So we've done "How Tourette's Works" and we got compliments from people who have kids with Tourette's. I think people identify with us on a personal level and they're willing to forgive us.

Chuck: We now cover ourselves a little upfront with a disclaimer of sorts. We did a show on serial killers and it turns out we're not the only ones endlessly fascinated with serial killers. And we knew we would be joking around on the show, because that's what we do, so we said, "We just want people to know that while we are fascinated with this and into this, we do know there are real victims and we don't want to make light of that, so let's get on with the show." Every once in a while a little disclaimer goes a long way.

Josh: Physics doesn't really work in Chuck's or my brain, it doesn't fit that well. So we'll research our little hearts out and try. We did a recent podcast on the Hadron Collider, but we did a disclaimer at the beginning of that one too, not that we would offend anyone, but that we would surely get several things wrong on this. And if you can correct us, please do. And we got corrections from astrophysicists. As recently as last Monday an astrophysicist came up to me and said, "You guys really screwed up the Large Hadron Collider." But in a successive podcast, we read all the corrections on air, so the bad information we give out is corrected by someone who really knows what they're talking about.

How do you get your audience involved? They suggest topics and correct you, but is there any other way you interact with them?

Chuck: I can't say enough about our fan base. We've been lucky enough to meet some of them here on our trip to New York. We had a little get-together last night and are having another one tonight. They're the kindest, smartest, most interesting, curious, inquisitive people we've ever met. Josh always says that they're the largest collection of friends who have never met before. We get 350 fan mails a week, and our Facebook page has more than 10,000 fans after being up two months. We go onto Facebook a lot and we're really active there, it doesn't just sit there, and they appreciate that. It's a big happy family.

Josh: Plus, our Kiva team is another way people have got involved in a really tangible way. We did a podcast on how microfinance works, and how you can give loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries. We partnered with Kiva.org and set up a Stuff You Should Know team, and got to $100,000 donated within a couple months. [The total is now beyond $150,000.] There's a subsection of fans that has taken over our team and are leading the charge to raise a quarter-million dollars to loan to entrepreneurs in developing countries by the end of August.

Do you have plans to expand into other formats or do other projects?

Chuck: We've done a few live speaking gigs and spoke at an education conference and that's opened up a whole world to us, speaking in front of live humans, instead of just the two of us sitting in a room.

Josh: If you want to be baptized by fire do your first speaking gig in front of a group of teachers and principals -- especially if you were a smart aleck in school. They can tell 20 years on that you were somebody who would have given them trouble at their school.

Do you think the reason you're so popular is that typical journalism is not doing a good enough explaining the basics?

Chuck: There's some validity to that. Journalism and television media these days is pretty rapid-fire. You don't get a lot of in-depth discussions on things. That's why I love TV shows like "Charlie Rose" where you can get to the meat of the matter. We're both big NPR fans; they do a good job of that. We've been able to expand the show, and when you have 45 minutes to discuss a topic, you can break it down, and it's just a gold mine for guys like us. It used to be five minutes long and it became really hard to work in those constraints and so they just got longer and longer.

Josh explains how the subjects for the podcasts "comes from our brains":

syskbrains.mp3

*****

What do you think about Stuff You Should Know? Why do you think it's successful, and if you're a fan, explain why in the comments.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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