News

How Explanatory Journalism Wants to Spell It All Out for You

Parsing the differences between Vox, FiveThirtyEight, and others.

Since the Washington Post launched Wonkblog in 2011, a rash of online imitators have sprouted up, with five data-driven news-analysis sites debuting since last fall. Though loaded with infographics, the new “explanatory journalism” is less about fancy charts than about mining the web’s wealth of statistics for stories old-school journalism overlooks.

Vox

After noisily departing the Post when the paper wouldn’t fund his digital venture, Ezra Klein bonded with Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff, whose online empire now hosts Klein’s new site.

Launch: April 2014.

Mission: “Explains everything you need to know in two minutes.”

Look and feel: Delivers its wonkery with snap, summarizing stories in “card stacks” that read like a high-school debater’s three-by-five cards.

Typical headline: “India has the world’s worst air pollution.”

Audience: Wonks looking for cocktail-party talking points.

Know More

The Post has pulled big traffic from this frothier offspring of Wonkblog (which has also been refreshed by new editor Ryan McCarthy).

Launch: October 2013.

Mission: “It’s the red pill—you take it, and we’ll show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

Look and feel: A grid of colorful visuals “curated” from the web by reporter Max Ehrenfreund, Know More has a “did you know?” quirkiness.

Typical headline: “Mars Is Much Smaller Than You Think.”

Audience: Commuters stuck on the Red Line with only their mobile.

FiveThirtyEight

After founder Nate Silver’s stat-based predictions bested pollsters in the ’08 election, the New York Times signed him for a three-year run. Last year, after clashing with Gray Lady traditionalists, he fled to ESPN.

Relaunch: March 2014.

Mission: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Look and feel: Attractively busy, with quick doses of sports and BuzzFeed-style click bait, it still thrives on bucking the political conventional wisdom.

Typical headline: “Acid Rain’s Dirty Legacy.”

Audience: News junkies for whom politics and sport are the same thing.

The Upshot

Jilted by Nate Silver, the New York Times gave veteran staffer David Leonhardt the helm of this homegrown site with a branded poll-analysis tool called Leo and guest posts from academics like presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

Launch: April 2014.

Mission: “Navigate news with the Upshot.”

Look and feel: Cool maps on politics, sports, and weather, but the Upshot tends to let the news cycle, not the data, drive its stories.

Typical headline: “The Jobs Report Isn’t as Good as It Looks.”

Audience: College kids who prefer to click on the Times, not read it.

QuickTake

Bloomberg News hired former Times culture editor Jonathan Landman to head an editing staff of three who commission pieces from staffers.

Launch: October 2013.

Mission: When asked, Landman resisted the term “explanatory journalism” in favor of “backgrounders.”

Look and feel: An uncluttered grid of photos click to bite-size essays adorned with charts and maps, though Landman says, “We don’t make a fetish out of it.”

Typical headline: “Ebola.”

Audience: Business travelers researching the next stop on their itinerary.

This article appears in the June 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

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