Studio 20 Collaborates with ProPublica to Build a Better Explainer

In its second year, Studio 20 is again embarking on a big collaboration with a major media partner. In 2009-10 it was The Local East Village with the New York Times. In 2010-11 it’s the Building a Better Explainer project with the investigative journalism non-profit, ProPublica.  The project will focus on the art of explaining the sort of sprawling complicated stories that ProPublica covers. The new site students built for the project,, launched last night. 

Studio 20 Director Jay Rosen's students, consulting closely with the editors of ProPublica, will:

    • research best practices in explanatory journalism;
    • collect relevant knowledge from other disciplines about how users absorb complex subjects;
    • pick one of ProPublica’s major investigations and produce model explainers suitable for publication at;
    • experiment with different ways of delivering critical background knowledge, using all the tools of the Web
    • investigate how to make the explainer genre more interactive with Web users;
    • share their findings with ProPublica and the wider journalism world            

Professor Rosen details the background of and plan for the project on PressThink:

We will start by researching what’s working now, and by going beyond journalism to fields that might know something journalists should know. In the spring of 2011, we’ll devote a whole graduate course (18 students, two instructors, plus consultants) to producing explainers that we hope ProPublica can publish, as well as a kind of tool kit to make the task easier. At the project site,, we’ll post highlights from our research, solicit help, and publish interviews with thinkers and do-ers who are pushing the practice forward.

Recently, Nieman Journalism Lab’s Lois Beckett visited Studio 20 to speak with students about the project. She writes:

Students will divide into three groups tasked with exploring different elements of explanation. One group is interviewing the members of ProPublica’s news team, from reporters to news app builders to the managing editor, in order to understand the organization’s workflow, what it does with the data it collects, and how its reporters explain what they’re learning to themselves as they report a story.

Another group is building’s WordPress website, which sometimes means teaching themselves and each other skills on an ad hoc basis. 

A third group  is researching the different “explainer” genres. They’re starting with examples of good and bad explanatory journalism, from maps and timelines to more specific visualizations like The National Post’s chilling illustration of how a stoning is carried out in Iran. But they’ll also be reaching far outside the media world to research techniques used in many different fields. Rosen suggested that they focus on situations where people “can’t afford to fail,” like people fixing combat aircraft, or NFL teams explaining complicated plays. The students are also looking at the “For Dummies” book franchise and the language-learning software Rosetta Stone.

Keep up with the project on Or by Twitter.