ProPublica Teams Up With NYU Carter Journalism Institute For ‘The Explainer’

NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and ProPublica to enhance a form of journalism they’re dubbing “The Explainer,” which seeks to provide “essential background knowledge to follow events and trends in the news.” The project is specifically built on a collaboration between ProPublica and the school’s Studio 20 concentration for graduate students, which focuses on initiatives for the web. Studio 20 students will be charged with editing the project’s online home, Explainer.Net, while will track the project’s ongoing progress throughout the academic year.

NYU professor and media expert Jay Rosen explain the aims of this project as well as what, exactly, an “explainer” might be:

An explainer is a work of journalism, but it doesn’t provide the latest news or update you on a story. It addresses a gap in your understanding: the lack of essential background knowledge. We wanted to work with the journalists at ProPublica on this problem because they investigate complicated stories and share what they’ve learned with other journalists. It seemed like a perfect match.

In case it’s still not quite clear, here’s an example: “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.”

So it’s something like taking a news item beyond a headline to show cause, consequences and interconnected issues. The “Building a Better Explainer” project will run through the remainder of this 2010-11 academic year.

Goals for the project are as follows:

* research best practices in explanatory journalism;

* collect relevant knowledge from other disciplines about how users absorb complex subjects;

* pick one of ProPublica’s major investigations and produce model explainers suitable for publication at;

* experiment with different ways of delivering critical background knowledge, using all the tools of the Web

* investigate how to make the explainer genre more interactive with web users;

* share their findings with ProPublica and the wider journalism world

With many debating whether a degree in journalism is even necessary for those who wish to become freelance bloggers journalists (and not, instead, journalism professors or critics),we’re interesting in seeing how the project turns out and whether Studio 20 students will eventually be able to “explain” their way through any future media jobs. With the iPad changing the way many consume news, an in-depth, narrative, explanatory means of presenting information might just be the type of reporting style suited to this changing media landscape. And, if not, there are always slideshows.