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Jul 28 / King Kaufman

“Explanatory journalism”: Are you part of the media’s hottest trend?

Ken Doctor, who writes about the journalism business, or, as he calls it, “Newsonomics,” for Nieman Lab and others, looked into the hot “movement” in journalism in a post headlined “The newsonomics of how and why.” By how and why, Doctor means explanatory journalism.

That’s the buzzword, or buzz phrase, I guess, of the moment in the biz. FiveThirtyEight, Vox, The Upshot, Q.E.D. and, the news hook here, the Washington Post’s new Storyline are all part of an explosion of “explainer” sites that have launched amid much fanfare in the last year.

This isn’t unusual in high-level analysis of trends in journalism: Doctor doesn’t mention sports media. Also not unusual: He could have.

Try this: Make a list with two simple columns. On the left, write Who, What, When, and Where. On the right column, write How and Why. Then, go to any news site — local, national, or global — or even to a print newspaper and see which questions the stories you see answer.

At most news sites, the hashmarks will fill up quickly in the left column — slowly, if at all, in the right one. That’s the column for explanatory journalism — the new craze of the past year, but built on ideas as old as good journalism itself.

What’s up with this craze? Doctor asks David Leonhardt, the Pulitzer-winning founder of The Upshot, at the New York Times.

One big reason, he said, is the explosion of easily available data. Another: the more conversational tone of the Internet.

Does it sound like they could be talking about Bleacher Report, or any of the other sports sites that rely less on those first four W’s that drove old-school sports reporting—centering on gamers—and more on analysis and opinion and that fifth W, why? Sports is pretty big on data—wins, losses, individual and team stats, salaries. And a more conversational tone than can be found in traditional news stories has been common in sportswriting for decades.

Leonhardt points out that explaining, trying to fill in the how and why, is hardly new, and offers the names of some writers who have been doing that sort of thing for a long time without anybody calling it explanatory journalism. Doctor lists them:

The New Yorker’s Jim Surowiecki, The Wall Street Journal’s David Wessel, The Washington Post’s Steve Pearlstein, and Felix Salmon, formerly of Reuters and now at Fusion. It’s no accident those are mainly business writers; that’s Leonhardt’s own background. The complexity of business and economics demands better connecting of the dots. But so does so much of the rest of the news. (The Upshot, for instance, has already excelled at covering health care—and the World Cup.)

A lot of sportswriting is business writing. Think of free agency, trade deadlines, salary caps, transfer windows, stadium debates, franchises moving or threatening to do so. And a lot of the best sports analysis does what Doctor writes the best explanatory journalism does:

When most readers say they expect journalists to tell them what’s happening — whether that’s the latest outrages reported out of Kharkiv or city council in Kalamazoo — they mean connect the dots. No, they don’t want opinion — they want to know how the facts fit together to make an understandable whole.

Not just opinions, but connecting the dots. How and why. Two simple questions that today’s media world is revolving around.