Ask anyone in the media about the advantages of web publishing and you’ll hear about how space constraints are no longer a consideration.

But, what’s the point of having all this extra space if all you’re going to do is fill it with celeb pictures, gossip and rumours?

Here’s one way to put all the extra space to some real use, something that actually makes news easier to read, more informative, even educational: The Explainer.

An explainer is exactly as its name suggests, an article providing context for the news of the day. It’s not straight news and it’s also not a feature but helps makes sense for readers of the issues at hand.

The explainer can include recent coverage of an issue, statistics, historical details. It’s a primer, a reference card and a timeline.

How often have you been reading a “big” news story when you suddenly realise that you don’t really understand the issues? You may have come late to the story, or missed a few days of the developing story. Either way you’re lost and the temptation is to find something else to read.

As journalists we are trained to lead in with the big news of the day and work our way through the to background. The result is a series of incremental updates, each further and more detached from the origin of the story. Readers coming late to the story might well glaze over and move onto something else.

The explainer could simply be a background piece explaining nuclear power and what happened at the Fukushima plant (a mostly static example) or it could be an evolving timeline of events and background, one of the best examples of which is MotherJones‘ excellent backgrounder on the social unrest in Egypt.

Benefits of using an explainer

  • The obvious benefit of using an explainer is that it makes it easier for readers to jump into the news at any point. Most readers don’t follow the news as closely as journalists do, they don’t spend their day on the wires or glued to the television. Coming to a complex news story for the first time and not understanding the pre-story can make it difficult to understand, no matter how good the writer. An explainer makes it easy for the reader to catch up. Once they have caught up today’s news is likely to make a lot more sense and be more enjoyable to read.
  • An explainer also provides a consistent way of linking and referencing internally. Each article on a story produced by your publication can link to the explainer to expand on complex issues, removing the need to use up valuable space and time doing this in the actual news story.
  • The explainer also makes it easier to provide links to coverage as it evolves. The MotherJones explainer does this rather well by providing a timeline of events and linking from those to relevant coverage.
  • For publishers the obvious benefit of using the explainer is that it keeps readers engaged and (hopefully) coming back for more). The benefit of that is obvious.

Clearly not all stories lend themselves to an explainer. But long-running stories that involve government policy, political shifts or a cast of characters too complex to memorise, cry out for in-depth backgrounders that help readers understand the issues.

Finally, one of the advocates of the explainer, New York University’s Jay Rosen, explains the rationale behind the project, an independent body working on techniques for producing better explainer journalism.