COMMENTS: Explaining Explainers

The key question concerning the survival of the network news divisions and their nightly newscasts revolves around how they manage the transition from a broadcast platform to a multimedia world. In a multimedia world, video news is still to be seen as part of a newscast on television at a fixed timeslot--but it is also seen on computers, on cellphones, on portable tablet screens and so on. Similarly, in a multimedia world, the 24-hour news cycle collapses.

The half-hour nightly newscast was developed for that 24-hour cycle in mimicry of the rhythms of a newspaper printing press. It is easy to understand that the collapse of that cycle makes much of the content of the traditional newscast redundant because it is too slow. It is harder to intuit that it also makes that traditional content too fast.

For long-running stories, newscasts have always focused on the incremental developments occurring during the last 24-hour cycle, recapping the status quo, and adding whatever happens to be fresh. In a multimedia world where coverage is available anytime, such nuances are trivial and uninformative. The 24-hour cycle is too quick for the big picture.

Faced with a legacy formula for making video news that is both too slow and too quick, the nightly newscasts will have to experiment with new formats and journalistic styles if they are to produce packages that will thrive in a multimedia environment.

Starting with the start of the new decade, CBS announced just such an endeavor. In contrast to the standard fare, a two-minute hard news package on the developments of the past 24 hours. CBS Reports unveiled a series of six-minute feature packages in cooperation with USA Today entitled Where America Stands.

So far the series has produced twelve features, the latest being Celia Hatton's from Beijing on the future of carbon-free power-generating technology. Befitting the start of a new decade, the series sets out to identify long-term secular problems facing the United States and the world; to warn of crisis if the problem is not addressed; and to identify the political, institutional and technological obstacles to finding a solution.

Hatton's examination of the future of wind turbines, solar panels and low-energy lighting touched on the environmental future as had Mark Strassmann on the depletion of the supply of potable water.

Health beats covered so far have been America's obese future with Seth Doane, its demented future with in-house physician Jon LaPook on Alzheimer's Disease, and the War on Cancer with anchor Katie Couric.

Economic crises facing this country include the decline of the manufacturing sector with John Blackstone, the prolonged slump in the residential real estate market with Ben Tracy and a pair of reports by Anthony Mason--on the threat of permanent largescale unemployment and of insurmountable consumer indebtedness through credit card borrowing.

In addition, Lara Logan has covered the War on Terrorism; Pentagon correspondent David Martin has featured the hi-tech future of warfare; and Peter Greenberg looked at the airline industry, both its financial health and its safety record.

Almost all of these topics are part of the regular agenda of the nightly newscasts as well, so these features do not replace quotidian reporting. They do sit outside the 24-hour news cycle, designed to be more detailed than daily updates and also more timely over the longterm--precisely by being more timeless, less likely to go stale.

These reports offer background and context to the daily news. Jay Rosen at PressThink calls them explainers and he speculates why they are not as common as they should be in journalism generally speaking. Rosen tends to concentrate on newspapers rather than television but most of his ideas apply to both.

1.All the day-to-day rewards go to breaking news. Productivity is measured that way.
2.Reporters on beats don't compete to explain things more clearly to more people, even though this would create future customers for their updates. They compete to break stories and grab buzz.
3.It feels like a come down from the "rush" of newswork to go back and explain how the international banking system works; it's much more fun to report that Iceland may soon be booted from it.
4.A reporter and editor may receive data on how many users clicked on the report they just posted about Iceland's banking troubles. They do not receive feedback on how many understood that report, started following the story, and became customers for the future updates.
5.Like other experts, reporters become immersed in their beats and lose track of what it was like for a newcomer to the subject. They begin to identify with the most sophisticated users of their work, which is a tiny portion of the actual market.
6.When the platform was static print, or a broadcast news program, it was expensive, inconvenient and disruptive to devote space and time to a background narrative when there's news to report and stories to tell. On the web it is much more doable to serve the narrative and the news at the same time, but this may not be apparent to people raised on the prior platform.
7.Even if a first-class backgrounder got produced, newspapers that are still print-centric often lack the manpower or knowledge to make it sticky and keep it in front of users; instead it just disappears with the flow.

Rosen's favorite example of the explainer genre is in an audio format, The Giant Pool of Money from This American Life. That is an hour long, much more detailed than CBS' Where America Stands. In fact it is the same length as a traditional CBS Reports documentary.

Duration, however, need not be the test of the success of an explainer. I propose three. The first, I have already mentioned, is timeliness. Does it maintain its freshness and relevance over time as it stands outside the news cycle? Can it provide background explanation for whatever twists and turns there may be to the events of a given day?

The second is priority. Has CBS isolated problems that are indeed serious and longlasting, not faddish? Out of the dozen issues selected so far, I am not sure that we need to know Where America Stands on hi-tech military gadgets or the viability of the airline industry, for example. How fat we are getting and how quickly we are running out of water seem to be excellent selections as permanent worries.

The third is detail. How does it handle the various levels of knowledge of its audience? How to bring the novice up to speed without talking down to the expert? Finessing this problem is a skill that video journalism can be particularly adept at, being uniquely equipped to dramatize the quintessence of an issue with a vivid human anecdote.

For certain, one criterion for success does not apply: whether this series of explainer features happens to boost the broadcast audience of CBS Evening News. If these features are to attract an audience, their ideal venue is online over the long term not a single shot at a one-time viewer. The mark of their success will be whether they are embedded as explainer videos serving as sidebars to news stories on the topics they cover, either at or anywhere else on the World Wide Web for that matter. As Professor Rosen recommends, CBS News should be making every effort to make Where America Stands "sticky and keep it in front of users."


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