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Eric Umansky and NYU’s Jay Rosen Discuss Explanatory Journalism Project

Last week, ProPublica announced a partnership with NYU's Carter Journalism Institute to explore how we can use the Web to do better explanatory journalism.

We sat down with the drivers of the partnership–professor Jay Rosen and senior editor Eric Umansky – to discuss the project, which is being led by NYU. Jay and Eric discuss the motivation behind the effort, why it fits ProPublica’s mission, and the circuitous nature of the journalism world.

“The world is a complex place with a lot of stories to follow and a lot of tangents,” Eric Umansky says. “Orienting people and contextualizing things is a fundamental part” of good journalism.

To listen to the podcast, scroll to the bottom of this post. 

Articles discussed in this podcast:

NYU and ProPublica Team Up to Experiment With Explanatory Journalism

Video explainer on CDOs



Studio 20 Collaboration

Hi. I'm Mike Webb, and welcome to the ProPublica podcast. Last week, ProPublica announced a new partnership with New York University's Studio 20 Program at the Carter Journalism Institute to explore how we can use the Web to do better explanatory journalism. Senior editor Eric Umansky will be in charge of the project for ProPublica and professor Jay Rosen will head things up for NYU. And they're both here to talk about what it is and how it will work.

Mr. Umansky was a former columnist for Slate and he's written for several news organizations, including the New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, The New Republic and he is the former editor of

Rosen has been a member of NYU's faculty since 1986, and he is a press critic and reviewer whose work has been published in The Nation, Columbia Journalism Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and various other major newspapers and Websites. Welcome to the program, guys.

Mike: Jay, I'm going to start with you. Can you explain what you mean by explanatory journalism and the ways you think that we can improve it?

Jay: Sure. The way the news system was built, before the Web, people often started to receive news items and updates about stories that they didn't necessarily have the background for. And people often are coming in the middle of the movie. And journalists do their best to try and catch up those users to what had gone on. But it wasn't an important part of the news system because there wasn't space and there wasn't time. So, explanatory journalism is providing the necessary background knowledge to understand and follow the news. And this is where our project is aimed.

Mike: OK. Well, Eric, why is that important to ProPublica? How does that fit in with what we do?

Eric Umansky: Sure. Well, it fits in a number of ways. I mean, at ProPublica, we deal with, obviously, accountability stories, and they also often happen to be enormously complex stories. To give you an example, we follow the foreclosure and mortgage crisis very closely. We write about it a number of times a week. And I don't know about other folks, but it makes my mind hurt to try to follow it. And so, one of the things that we've done is we've done facts and primers, and all sorts of stuff to help people understand what's going on.

It's very difficult to do good journalism. It's very difficult to understand, to really have stuff resonate without understanding the basic parameters of the story.

Mike: Right. OK. Well, Jay, what was your basic motivation for this?

Jay: It started two years ago when I listened to The Giant Pool of Money, This American Life's one hour documentary about the mortgage crisis, done in partnership with NPR. And I listened to it twice because it was so good at doing what Eric just explained. And I realized afterwards that I started to follow the news about the subprime mortgage mess because I now had the necessary knowledge for doing that. And this interested me as a student of the future of news. And I wrote about it in a post called National Explainer then, tried to make the point that we often think of explanation as coming late in the process. After news, after analysis, after editorializing, somebody might do a big explanation. But I think it's really the opposite. Until we have this basic background knowledge or context, we actually aren't customers for the news.

I then put together with my colleague, Matt Thompson of NPR, a panel. It's South by Southwest, which is a big news media conference in Austin where we grappled with this problem, which we called the Future of Context. And the room was sold out and there were many aftershocks after that event. And it was clear to me that lots of people were on to this problem, and it wasn't just something that interested me. It was clearly a kind of hole in the news system as it stands.

And I had this graduate program, Studio 20, where we try to teach the journalists of the future by plunging them into interesting, new, innovative projects with media partners. And it seemed like working on this problem with ProPublica would be a perfect project for that graduate program. So, that's how it all came together.

Eric: Yeah, and I would say, just to reiterate what Jay said, that Giant Pool of Money which was done by the group that's now Planet Money, who we love and we've worked with a number of times and we're continuing to work with. I remember a line from that show, and I think it was Ira Glass who was describing the process of what Jay is saying about feeling on the outside with stories and with news events, and not really understanding them, and watching them go by. I believe his line was, "I sat out the Bosnian War." It was just too complicated to understand. And each day, there would be these dispatches from this place or that place. But you couldn't really get oriented very easily. The world is a complex place, and there are a lot of stories to follow and a lot of tangents. And orienting people and contextualizing things is, I think, a fundamental part.

Mike: I've always found it a little confusing, or confounding may be a better word, because sometimes you're reading a story and you know enough that you don't need the background information that they're inserting in it. But you don't have the full orientation as you guys said.

Eric: I think that's where the Web can be enormously helpful in re-envisioning what these things can be, because you can be stuck in the old format. You had a paragraph or two to provide background, and that's it. And as Jay was saying earlier, you get hemmed in by that. And you have this boilerplate language that makes sense to some people, and is old hat to other people.

With the Web you can have a kind of strategic depth. If you want more, you can get more. If you want to understand more, you can get it. But you don't have to.

Jay: What we're trying to do is take the added flexibility of the Web that Eric just described and the wider range of tools that journalists have available to them; not just text, but graphics and photo and video and audio and data, and get a dividend for users and understanding out of these advances. And that's one of the things that the project is going to experiment with.

Mike: And Eric, ProPublica has done some of these in the past, right?

Eric: Yeah. We've had the kind of...

Mike: Something like it, at least.

Eric: Yeah. Well, we've had the kind of explainers that I was mentioning earlier, the kind of backgrounder pieces. So, a fact about the Gulf Oil Spill. What's known? What's not? Facts about wrongful foreclosures or the foreclosure process. One of the things is we've also done it in different ways with our own stories, tried to do it in creative ways. So we had this very complex story that I actually was the editor on from a few months ago and that we did with the Planet Money folks and with This American Life about banks doing shady things, basically, in the run up to the crisis. And these were enormously difficult things to understand. And one of the ways we approached it, we ended up doing a comic, and in another story we did a Broadway song. Our feeling is, whatever it takes to help people understand the story and to really try to have an open mind about that.

Mike: Right. Well now, how closely do you guys envision students working with our staff, with ProPublica staff?

Jay: It's already been pretty close. We've had students come down to four planning meetings, at ProPublica. We are sending graduate students to the newsroom to conduct interviews with key editors and reporters at ProPublica so that we can really understand how they work. And we're going to get editorial priorities from ProPublica before we start to make anything for them.

We also anticipate Eric and his colleagues coming to class semi-regularly throughout the spring term of 2011. The idea is to make stuff that ProPublica can use. So there's no way to do that without engaging with ProPublica staff, and that's the real value of the project for the students.

Eric: Yeah, and we have, I believe one of our reporters, Charlie Ornstein, just met with a student today. I'm chatting with a student later today. I mean, these aren't easy things to solve, and we're eager to get the ball rolling.

Jay: One of the things we already found, Mike, is that just by announcing this project this week, which we didn't mention; we have found other people who are very interested in this, who want to contribute to it. Because as I said earlier, this is a problem in the news system as a whole that many people recognize.

There's a fellow at the Knight Fellows Program at Stanford University who is devoting his entire fellowship year to this problem, who emerged when we announced it. Another thing that the students are doing is they're extending the search across a very broad cultural space for people who can contribute to this project.

And for this kind of effort, I think ProPublica, being a non‑profit and having such a strong interest in not just producing journalism, but educating journalism to be better, is the perfect partner.

Eric: And by the way, just to interject for a second. The guy you just mentioned, at Stanford, who is doing the Knight Fellowship, his name is Paddy Hirsch.

Just to take it all to a careful circle, Paddy Hirsch is one of the producer's at Marketplace Radio.

Mike: Perfect.

Eric: Marketplace Radio, which not only does great work generally, but did the single best explainer that I have seen ever...

Mike: Most definitely.

Eric:...explaining collateralized debt obligations.

Mike: We're going to have to send that to you, Jay.

Eric: Yeah, Paddy Hirsch did the [best] video. He did it as writing on a whiteboard. And he actually turned it into a series, I think. A semi-regular series where he called it "The Whiteboard" or something, and each week he would have a new, just a two or three minute video explaining some other complex part of Wall Street and economics. In fact, it was such a great video that we have linked to it in just about every story that we've done on CDOs.

Jay: Yeah, that's another way of explaining this project is, that's a very good example. The more forbidding the subject is, and the more important it is to public accountability, the more we need the art of the explainer.

Mike: Well, guys, as an avid news consumer, I'm really excited about this and I'm glad that we're working together to make this happen.

Mike: Thanks a lot for joining us, Jay, Eric. You can see samples of explainers at

Jay: And don't forget

Mike: All right, take care.

Now for our Officials Say Tumblr quote of the week. "If Amazon is so uncomfortable with the first amendment, they should get out of the business of selling books." That's from WikiLeaks. You can check it out at

That's our podcast for the week. We've got some exciting investigations coming, so be sure to check out often. Thanks for listening. This podcast was produced by Quadia Muhammad. For ProPublica, I'm Mike Webb. We'll see you next week.

Transcription by CastingWords

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