Dark Secret of Blogging #6: Explain, explain, explain

Aug 24, 2012

Classic news folks have this habit of being flabbergasted when they discover their audience members don’t understand a topic they’ve been covering. “But we did a big explainer on this two weeks ago!” they say. After the health care reform battle finally reached its climax – the signing of the bill – reporters said they were astonished by their audiences’ hunger for explanation of what had just passed into law.

They shouldn’t have been surprised. Having watched how content gets picked up, I’m convinced that the hunger for explanation is inexhaustible.

It makes logical sense. As headlines whiz past you, bringing news of more developments than you could ever keep track of, you start to sort of fake it. You pretend you’re following news on the health care debate, when really you’re just snatching random stories out of the ether, hoping for a snippet of comprehension that’ll get you by in conversation. We behave this way on issue after issue. When pressed, how many of us – even devoted news consumers – could tell you what was actually in that Arizona immigration law that got all the coverage?

The best bloggers picked up on this early. I’ll refer you once again to Nick Denton’s memo, where he says, “When remotely possible, turn news into explanation.” This is sound, sound advice. Even if you’re reporting a news development – an important bill passes another procedural hurdle – framing it as explanation (“What today’s vote means for the immigration law”) is an effective tactic for pulling in an audience that would ordinarily pass it by. There’s no shame in repeating yourself, which is why I say the word thrice: Explain, explain, and then explain again.

By this point, you knew an Ezra Klein shoutout was coming. Just savor for a moment this set of post titles: (1) “What is an excise tax, and can it save health reform?”; (2) “Explaining the excise tax”; (3) “Explaining the excise tax, part 2″; (4) “The five most promising cost controls in the health care bills”; (5) “The Baucus Bill: taxing insurers”; (6) “The excise tax and its critics” … I could have selected more, but I think the point is made. Klein created opportunities to explain this critical part of the health reform legislation, and he linked to those explanations incessantly. You couldn’t be even a casual consumer of his blog and not understand what the excise tax does.

A discipline of constant, redundant explanation helps our bloggers too. The more we explain concepts, the better we get at explaining them. Every time Klein explained the excise tax, his description got a little snappier – more nuanced yet more understandable – and he probably understood the concept a little better. And I suspect the redundancy didn’t hurt him with his devoted readers; every time he explained the concept, I understood it a little better as well.