How Will Ezra Klein's 'Project X' Add Context to News?

The potential and pitfalls of an ambitious play for the future of digital journalism
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Charles Dharapak/Associated Press

Ezra Klein's new journalistic venture, Project X, starts with the proposition that news organizations focus too much on what's new and not enough on what's important. Or so I gather from a nicely done New York profile by Benjamin Wallace:

During his eight years working in Washington, [Klein] had become convinced of a structural flaw in the way journalism is practiced—and he believed he might know how to do it better and very profitably. “We think there are a lot of ways in which the technology underlying journalism is reinforcing habits developed, and workflows developed, back when we were tied to killing trees and printing them out and having children deliver them to people,” he said. He then set forth a more general analysis of journalism. The column inches devoted to the new are column inches not given to the important, and this stress on novelty is a holdover from when the cost of making and moving paper limited what you could print. “The web explodes that constraint,” Klein said. "[Yet] we haven’t created a resource that people can really use. We’ve just created a resource where it’s really easy to come and find out what happened today.”

What will his alternative look like? A "21st Century encyclopedia" as much as a news site. "We want to think really hard about how to connect not just new information, but to bring it together with important contextual information to create a more thorough source and place to understand the world," Klein said. Project X isn't ready to reveal how it intends to better integrate context into the subjects that it intends to cover. But the team it has assembled and the buy-in from Vox Media suggests it has ideas. That excites me: I've been thinking about some of the problems that Klein identifies for a long time, and I don't quite know what to expect besides solutions I've never thought of before, which are the most fun to anticipate.  

Here's what I'll be wondering as Project X launches:

What role, if any, will narrative storytelling play? 

Klein's success is owed largely to his ability to explain complicated subjects to a large audience of readers who come away feeling informed, not confused. He focuses on policy, and doesn't typically do it through narrative storytelling, though he's a versatile writer. You're more likely to find a chart on Wonkblog than a character. What role, if any, will narrative storytelling play in his news organization?

I wonder because character-driven narratives are a powerful tool for explaining complicated subjects in a way that starts at the beginning and provides massive context. Good stories are also something to offer when you're not competing on new.

The best piece of explanatory journalism ever produced, in the estimation of press critic Jay Rosen, is the This American Life episode, "The Giant Pool of Money." It was, basically, an hour-long explainer of the subprime-mortgage crisis. "Going in to the program, I didn’t understand the mortgage mess one bit: subprime loans were ruining Wall Street firms? And I care because they are old, respected firms? That’s what I knew," Rosen wrote. "Coming out of the program, I understood the complete scam: what happened, why it happened, and why I should care. I had a good sense of the motivations and situations of players all down the line. Civic mastery was mine over a complex story, dense with technical terms, unfolding on many fronts..." 

He wasn't alone. It was the most successful hour in the history of a wildly successful show. NPR launched a new show, Planet Money, in response to its success. Of course, the This American Life approach is extremely resource intensive and difficult to execute. It requires weeks of reporting, willing sources, and a talent for narrative storytelling–and on a given subject, you're competing with everyone to produce the go-to piece. Sometimes, Michael Lewis is just going to write the best explanatory story about a particular financial event, and then what?

But consistent storytelling success quickly engenders unparalleled loyalty in your audience, which trusts you to make complicated subjects comprehensible in the most enjoyable way. Since this is a very old way to explain complicated subjects with context, not a new way, I presume it isn't the main approach Project X will use. But whatever else they do, when and how will narrative storytelling be deployed?

In what order should news be consumed?

Here's Jay Rosen once more (my emphasis):

I noticed something in the weeks after I first listened to “The Giant Pool of Money.” I became a customer for ongoing news about the mortgage mess and the credit crisis that developed from it... ‘Twas a successful act of explanation that put me in the market for information. Before that moment I had ignored hundreds of news reports...

In the normal hierarchy of journalistic achievement the most “basic” acts are reporting today’s news and providing current information, as with prices, weather reports and ball scores. We think of “analysis,” “interpretation,” and also “explanation” as higher order acts. They come after the news has been reported...

In this model, I would receive news about something brewing in the mortgage banking arena and note it. (“”Subprime lenders in trouble: check.”) Then I would receive some more news and perhaps keep an even closer eye on the story. After absorbing additional reports of ongoing problems in the mortgage market I might then turn to an “analysis” piece for more on the possible consequences... I thus graduate from the simpler to the more sophisticated forms of news as I learn more about a potentially far-reaching development. That’s the way it works… right?

Wrong!

There are some stories where until I grasp the whole I am unable to make sense of any part. Not only am I not a customer for news reports prior to that moment, but the very frequency of the updates alienates me from the providers of those updates because the news stream is adding daily to my feeling of being ill-informed, overwhelmed, out of the loop. I respond with indifference, even though I’ve picked up a blinking red light from the news system’s repeated placement of “subprime” items in front of me.

I suspect a lot of Americans are feeling this way about the NSA surveillance story right now: overwhelmed, out of the loop, under-informed, not quite sure how to catch up, and disinclined to follow the daily stream of newspaper reporting as a result. Would Project X aim to start with a full explainer? Or explain each news cycle's stories in context as they trickle out? Will it vary depending on the story? If so, will Project X be better at one mode or the other? What will it train its readers to expect?

Rosen went on to run an experiment at NYU where he and his students tried to build a better explainer, in partnership with ProPublica. One effort touched another complicated story, fracking. Here's a short, catchy video they produced on the subject:

Now, note how one of Rosen's students characterizes this video–his notion of how it fits in the journalistic landscape (my emphasis):

The best explainers are direct, concise and easy to understand. But investigative journalism is rarely any of those things, instead reflecting the messiness of real life.

That’s why explanation is just the beginning, a gateway into the kind of deep-dives for which ProPublica is known and respected“My Water’s On Fire Tonight (The Fracking Song)” is not meant to take the place of the rich, detailed investigation done by Abrahm Lustgarten and the rest of ProPublica’s frack squad. It’s impossible to sum up a massive, immersive experience like “Buried Secrets” in a two-and-a-half minute song. Instead, the intent is to bring people in, to create an easily digestible package that compels news consumers to dig into the real meat of the story. An explainer is not “everything you need to know about X.” It’s not a shortcut to becoming an armchair expert. But it is the starting point, the big picture, the tiny bundle of information that gives users the context to appreciate and understand the most challenging and rewarding works of journalism.

Will Project X try to provide the starting point, the "big picture," and the most challenging and rewarding works of journalism? Or will it specialize in a particular stage of news consumption? If some of its readers are coming to fracking as newbies, and others as University of Nebraska geologists, how will it satisfy both kinds of customers, if not by emphasizing "newness" or character-driven narrative storytelling? It sounds like Project X will try to structure the site in a way that allows people to begin accessing its coverage at several different levels of complexity.

How?

Will Project X ever sell proprietary software?

It wouldn't be the first journalistic startup to try. Pierre Omidyar's new venture is reportedly going to include a non-profit arm that produces journalism while being subsidized by a proprietary software arm. The Atavist, which sells narrative nonfiction as e-book singles, licenses software that helps others to create "long form" templates.

If Project X develops software that helps news organizations retain important context while reporting what's new, the biggest beneficiaries may turn out to be purveyors and consumers of local journalism. That's where rounds of layoffs, low pay, and low prestige have caused the most dramatic staff turnover and loss of institutional knowledge. Twenty-four-year-old reporters are assigned to municipal beats about which they know nothing, and there's no longer an old hand at the city desk to interject when an article would benefit from facts already in the record. Assuming retention rates don't increase dramatically in community journalism, a software platform that resembles building out a wiki as much as publishing a WordPress entry might improve the product over time by helping to rebuild institutional knowledge. 

Of course, there are plenty of youngsters writing about national politics too, but historical information is more readily available, and youngsters coexist with older, more experienced hands, who helpfully inject context into the national conversation (e.g., in 2016, a new president will give a victory speech. And you'll be able to read the analysis of former White House speechwriters James Fallows, David Frum, Hendrik Hertzberg, Peter Robinson, Peggy Noonan, Troy Senik and others besides). 

Is there ever a downside to context?

I can think of one.

In The Press EffectKathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman argue that reporting on presidential campaigns is distorted by reporters' tendency to see all new events through the lens of established narratives. During Election 200o, Al Gore was tagged as a liar and George W. Bush as an idiot. Any grain of truth in those stereotypes was exaggerated due to confirmation bias. I raise this example because the problem wasn't journalism that focused on the present at the expense of the important. Rather, the attempt to filter the present through what was perceived to be important went astray, because journalists had simplistic, wrongheaded notions of what was important. The reporting was undermined by flawed context.

An institutional commitment (perhaps even built into a site's infrastructure?) to cover what's new in the context of what's important forces a news organization to make judgment calls about what's important. That's often good and necessary, but it can go wrong, especially when the news organization is unsure about how to contextualize a story. A small bomb blows up in Times Square. Police arrest a suspect who was born in Pakistan. What's the context? But wait a minute. It subsequently turns out that he was born there to white, American parents who moved him at age 3 to Long Beach, California, where he later joined a gang with white supremacist leanings. Now what's the context? If your template locks you into always having to situate a story in its proper context right away you can see how that would be problematic. And a "breaking news, terrorist attack" example is hardly the only time when this would matter. Think about the way the press covered the Iraq War. A lot of people changed their mind about what the "right" context was, and had the press stayed agnostic all along news coverage might've been better. At the very least, the "right" context is often a highly contestable matter.

Will Project X attempt the View from Nowhere?

There are several identity questions Project X must grapple with:

  • How important is ideological diversity to management?
  • Will employees be creating journalism as individuals with particular viewpoints, in the fashion that Matt Yglesias, to name one of them, has always done? Will Project X attempt an organizational voice with a viewpoint, like The Economist? Will it attempt a metro-newspaper-style "View from Nowhere"?
  • How ideologically diverse is the readership that Project X hopes to attract? Is Klein's existing audience "the base"? Insofar as a bigger audience is hoped for will it come from expanding ideologically, or to folks interested in subjects besides policy, or to a less elite audience?
  • What will be the mix among analysis, commentary, and original reporting? And how about the mix among writing, graphics, video, and audio?
  • How important is gender and racial diversity to management? 
  • As much as any blogger, Klein has experienced writing about politics as an outsider and an insider. Where is Project X going to position itself on that spectrum?
  • Does it matter to Project X whether a Republican or Democrat wins in 2016, from an editorial or business perspective?

As you can see, there's a lot about Project X we don't know—so much, in fact, that I've probably raised some questions that the startup's team doesn't even need to answer, because I've assumed something about their concept that just isn't going to be so. That's okay, because the rest of journalism should also be thinking harder about how best to harness the web and better contextualize the subjects that we all cover. I'm rooting for Team Klein to implement something novel, useful, and lasting. 

And whatever happens, I'm curious to see it.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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