Maybe information and explanation ought to be reversed in our order of thought. Especially as we contemplate new news systems.
What put me in that mind is a special episode of “This American Life” called The Giant Pool of Money. It’s a one-hour explainer on the mortgage crisis, the product of an unusual collaboration between Ira Glass, the host and force behind This American Life, Alex Blumberg, who works with Glass, and NPR, which lent economics correspondent Adam Davidson. He used to work for the show he was collaborating with.
If you don’t know “The Giant Pool of Money” you should (download the podcast) because it’s probably the best work of explanatory journalism I have ever heard. I listened to it on a long car trip when everyone else was sleeping. Going in to the program, I didn’t understand the mortgage mess at all: mortgage backed securities were ruining Wall Street firms? And I care because they are old respected firms?
Coming out of the program, I understood the complete scam, why it happened, and to whom. 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 and different levels, with no heroes. And the villains were mostly abstractions!
Typical of the program’s virtues is the title. It’s called The Giant Pool of Money because that is where the producers want your understanding to start. They insist.
Lots of people have noted how effective the program was. Adam Davidson told NPR’s ombudsman, “By a very long margin, this is the most positive response I’ve ever seen to any story I’ve worked on.” I knew there would be fans of this episode listening, so I asked the people in my Twitter feed what made it different and “explainey” to them.
- Mike Plugh: Compression of time and space, like in a classic movie, “a broad network of characters into a few representative types.”
- Liza Sabater “Because when Richard finds out the bank lied about his monthly income, it sums up how the loans were just a scam.”
- Denise Covert: “Because it used small words. Because it still used big words for those of us who could grasp them.”
- Scott Karp: No demonizing. Instead, “why it seemed like a good idea at the time… What were they thinking when they were doing all this? And why did they think it would work?”
- Howard Sherman: It met the ultimate explanatory test. “I could actually explain the mortgage debacle to someone else.” He calls it viral: you can pass the explanatory gains on. “It also made me really angry. Their incredulity was contagious.”
- “You can almost lust, with the characters, after the money that the idiots have left available.” Oh, sorry… that was me, talking on Twitter.
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. Previously I had skipped over such reports because I just didn’t understand the story. Now I did. ‘Twas was a successful act of explanation that put me in the market for information. Before that moment I had ignored hundreds of news reports about Americans losing their homes, the housing market crashing, banks in trouble.
In the normal hierarchy of journalistic achievement the most “basic” acts are reporting today’s news and providing other current information, as with prices, weather reports and scores. We think of “analysis,” “interpretation,” and also “explanation” as higher order acts. They come after the news has been reported, building upon a base of factual information laid down by prior accounts.
In this model, I would receive news about something brewing in the mortgage banking arena, and note it. (““Subprime lenders in trouble. Must keep an eye on that.”) Then I would receive some more news and perhaps keep an even closer eye out. After absorbing additional reports of ongoing problems in the mortgage market (their frequency serving as a signal that something is up) I might then turn to an “analysis” piece for more on the possible consequences, or perhaps the work of an economics columnist. 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?
But there are certain very important stories—and the mortgage crisis is a good example—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 them 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.
And on top of that, if I decide to buckle down and really pay attention to “subprime loans go bad” news—including the analysis pieces and the economics columnist—I am likely to feel even more frustrated because the missing master narrative prevents these efforts from making much of a difference. The columnist who says he is going to explain it to me typically assumes too much knowledge (“mortgage-backed securities?”) or has too little space to actually do that, or is bored with the elementary task of explanation and prefers that more sophisticated interpretations of the latest developments appear under his byline. Or maybe, as with this story, the very people paid to understand the story barely know how to explain it. That’s the opening theme of this column from The New York Times economics columnist David Leonhardt, “Can’t Grasp Credit Crisis? Join the Club.”
I spent a good part of the last few days calling people on Wall Street and in the government to ask one question, “Can you try to explain this to me?” When they finished, I often had a highly sophisticated follow-up question: “Can you try again?”
And he does give it his best shot. I remember reading this column at the time and feeling grateful that someone at least tried. (He got about a third of the way there.) But Leonhardt’s column wasn’t displayed or classified in the right way. It should have been a tool in the sidebar of every news story the Times did about the mortgage mess. Instead it was added to the content flow, like this: news, news, news, news, “analysis,” news, news, news, “interpretation piece,” news, news, news, news, “Leonhardt: explain this to me,” news, news, news…
That’s messed up. That’s dysfunctional. We have to fix that.
This American Life and its brilliant host, Ira Glass, started with the same feelings I had: ill-informed, overwhelmed, and out of the loop about the “subprime” story. But then they mastered it; and it is that trajectory—from drift to mastery—that the listener takes during “The Giant Pool of Money.” In a way the star of the story is understanding itself. It struggles but emerges victorious.
What’s basic? If the providers of information aren’t providing the basic explainers that turn people into customers for that information, they don’t deserve those customers and won’t retain them. So as we think about new models for news we need to think about expanding that little what’s this? feature you sometimes see on effective web sites. That’s not about web design. That’s a whole category in journalism that I fear we do not understand at all.