How to tell if explanatory journalism is explaining anything to anyone

The new cohort of explanatory journalism sites have been up and running long enough to take a first look at if they’re meeting expectations or not. But with digital publishers of all stripes struggling to understand what success means online, the added complexity of these new models only makes evaluation more difficult. Getting clear audience insights isn’t just a “nice to have” for these new sites, they’re essential for proving their value in the media ecosphere.

Is explanatory journalism explaining anything?

These sites, awash with data and aware of how helpful it can be when used in the right context, have no doubt been coming over their analytics to get the best insights and answers. So then, what do we expect their strategies to look like?

Given that we work with hundreds of publishers and provide their teams with ways to understand their audience, we thought we’d lay out what we would do as a publisher of an explanatory journalism site. Our Product Lead, Mike Sukmanowsky, and Brand Evangelist Aina Abiodun got together to talk through goals, measurement and outcomes.

Step One: Defining Goals

Aina: These sites, like Vox, The Upshot and FiveThirtyEight are rewriting the rules of online journalism – but that doesn’t mean there are no rules at all. Websites work when they attract and sustain a base readership. Before they began, they no doubt asked “Who is my audience?” and “What is my audience interested in?” Finding out if they reached those people and answered their questions needs to be the first priority.

Mike: Explanatory journalism’s imperative is to ensure readers are informed of complex issues that don’t always fit into the twenty-four hour news cycle. As an author or publisher, my goal would be to increase my readers’ understanding of the topics I’ve been writing about.

Step Two: Deciding What Defines Success

Aina: The nature of the readers’ experience has changed from a largely linear one to an often interactive, sometimes wiki-like experience. It’s more important than ever to understand across an entire brand with multiple authors, new story types and subjects, what gets the best and most attention from readers, from post types and styles (information cards vs. interactive charts?) to topics and sections (financial topics vs. political topics?)

In addition to that, understanding what readers do next is equally important. Do readers of one topic tend to return to the site more often than others? If people see informational cards, are they more likely to read stories on that topic? We see readers coming back as an indicator that a website is successful in its goal.

Mike: I’d want to seek to measure the impact of my posts on properly informing readers of the issues at hand. Measuring the impact of journalism is a complex issue (see here and here for great discussions on the topic), so I’d recommend using proxies to gauge over impact, including:

  • Reader engagement with posts and the website
  • The number of high quality discussions in the community (Vox writes about how that’s a goal for them here.)
  • Social indicators – are readers sharing something that reflects positively on them? Upworthy (full disclosure: a client) is practically making a science out of this question.
  • Effect on external discussion. Explanatory journalism’s goal is to inform the masses, which means that readers may take what they learned and apply it on other articles, or in the “real-world” in policy discussions or business meetings.
  • Reader comprehension through customer research or surveys. These need not be multi-page, custom projects. Asking readers one to three questions relevant to the post once they’ve scrolled to the end is a great start.

 Step Three: Measure and Report the Success of those Goals

Aina: Answers to these questions come from having analytics that provide insights. Whether that’s through a platform like or an analyst that sends highlights, the key is to fold those answers into all parts of the publishing model: editorial and business side.

We built our new Audience Overview Report with this idea in mind – that publishers need to understand how their audience is growing, how loyal they are, and how engaged they are as a long-term effect of the content they’re producing.

Mike: Though some of these ideas are subjective, a practical definition of engagement can equate to time spent on individual posts and on the site overall. Especially for explanatory journalism, for the impact of these pieces to be realized readers need to spend time to comprehend the topic. That may not be the case for a publisher that publishes articles that are meant to be read quickly.

Specific to the Voxplainers (Vox’s information cards), measuring audience interest in these ancillary parts of the story provides content creators with a great opportunity to understand what parts of an issue resonate with readers or require additional context.

How would we do as a publisher of explanatory journalism? Our writing skills may not pass muster, but we think these steps would work well for these teams based on their missions: The Upshot says that: “Our biggest goal is to serve as navigators for the news,” and Vox states, “Vox is where you go to understand the news and the world around you.”

So instead of launching our own site, we’ll celebrate the rise of explanatory journalism and hope that those sites understand their own readers as well as they help us understand the news.