The Upshot vs. Vox vs. FiveThirtyEight: A hands-on review of explanatory journalism

At some point during the past year, the media industry seems to have gotten the message that explanatory journalism is the next big thing — how else to explain the launch of not just one but three major efforts in that area, and more to come? The New York Times has just launched The Upshot, which seems like a blend of both the data-focused journalism practiced by Nate Silver’s new site FiveThirtyEight and the explainers of Ezra Klein’s Vox. Each has its own unique flavor, but is the market for that kind of content really big enough to support them all?
In his own overview of the three sites, James Ball of The Guardian newspaper’s US unit makes a good point about the dilemma inherent in this boom market for explanatory journalism: who exactly is the target reader for long stories about the statistics behind the Senate race or the problems of the American middle class? What if the vast majority of news consumers just don’t care enough to read all of that explanation and background? Who will go there?

“All three sites risk what economists call adverse selection: let’s say you’re writing basic explainers, but the only people finding them are already pretty informed. They’ll find your content superficial, and they won’t return. If you respond by increasing the complexity of your articles, you’ll please the wonks, but alienate a little more of your audience.”

[tweet 458636162111135744 hide_thread=’true’]

The Upshot: Clean design — but a tad boring

Since it is the newest, The Upshot is getting most of the attention, so let’s start our hands-on review there. As befits something from the New York Times, it is extremely well-designed and shares the clean and easy-to-read look of the rest of the newspaper’s website. It also makes use of the NYT’s formidable design chops for the charts and graphs that make it easier to “navigate through the news,” as editor David Leonhardt puts it in his welcome message.
While not all of the visualizations render that well on a mobile device — as more than one commenter on the site has mentioned — there are some unique implementations that make them worthwhile: For example, one of the charts the site uses for a Senate story allows readers to click a button and run a Monte Carlo-style simulation of potential results. It’s not clear just how explanatory that is in terms of the overall topic of Senate races, but at least it’s fun.
Upshot screenshot
For its launch day, The Upshot’s line-up included the Senate race story, the American middle class piece, one about what investors have in common with marathon runners, a story about swing voters in mid-term elections, a survey on web censorship and a piece on the causes of Europe’s debt crisis. Almost every piece included a chart or a graph, and in some cases multiple charts and graphs, each of which was fairly clean and easy to understand.

Meet our forecasting model, LEO

The site also includes some background on its Senate forecasting model, one named after LEO, the first business computer, which was invented by an accountant for a chain of tea shops in Great Britain in 1951 (a chain founded by former Reuters financial writer Felix Salmon’s ancestors, as it turns out). The Upshot piece also notes that LEO is based on the FiveThirtyEight model — and one of the site’s graphs compares its forecasts to Silver’s and to those from several other sites.
There’s no question that the pieces on The Upshot are filled with useful background and context on issues like the European debt crisis and mid-term election variability — and the Times will no doubt find them useful to link to as backgrounders when those topics come up in more straight-forward news stories. But as my friend Om notes in his capsule review of the site, they are also somewhat boring: “Reading through it felt like homework,” Om says. Is that going to be a big enough draw to make the resources invested in the site worthwhile?
Upshot screenshot5

Vox does porn, Nate Silver does math

Vox, by contrast, has clearly decided to live up to its commitment to make news “vegetables” as exciting as possible by broadening its explanatory ambit to include topics like the porn industry and the impact of actor Gwyneth Paltrow’s “conscious uncoupling” from her spouse, singer Chris Martin. In that sense, it shares a certain irreverence with sites like BuzzFeed, and that could give it more of an audience than a dry explainer site might otherwise get.
At the same time, however, Klein’s site has also run into some criticism for the way it handles corrections and updates to its information: One post on a survey of porn-consumption habits that appeared to show Republican states engaged in more porn-related behavior turned out to be based on a flawed premise — which in turn came from a misunderstanding about how geo-coding works. An update was posted, but it rendered the story largely meaningless, and that’s not the only case.

Since its much-hyped launch, Nate Silver’s site has also come under fire for some of the ways it approaches its data journalism mandate — including some criticism that it is “Slate but with charts,” meaning it takes a contrary opinion without much actual data to support its case. Several stories have been slammed for using an approach that made them seem to be based on hard data, when in fact they were just opinion, and one on climate change was criticized widely for being just plain wrong.
Like Vox, FiveThirtyEight has also been criticized by some for broadening its reach too far into more entertainment-related topics, such as a statistical breakdown of painter Bob Ross’s oeuvre or a look at the most popular days for buying weed. And Silver got some negative response to an early post he did looking at the data behind his former NYT colleague Paul Krugman’s criticisms of Silver — although the FiveThirtyEight founder later said this was intended to be satire.

Who is going to read all of this?

From a design and usability point of view, both the Vox and FiveThirtyEight sites are much more cluttered looking than The Upshot, and not everyone is a fan of the yellow theme that Vox uses. But Vox’s information “cards” are arguably a better method of displaying quick pieces of background information than the long-form posts that both FiveThirtyEight and The Upshot seem to be focusing on (so far at least). Journalists in general still seem to be overly enamored of the “story” format.

Leaving the journalism aspects aside, what are the prospects for these different models when it comes to actually being a business, or supporting an existing one? That’s a tougher question to answer: The Upshot seems to be in the best position of all, since it is piggy-backing on the resources of the New York Times — although those resources are as strained as any newspaper. Nate Silver has the might of ESPN behind him, while Vox is trying to build something new, and although its parent company (also called Vox) is well funded it will still need to pay its way.
Which brings us to the real bottom line: how many competing explanatory or data-focused journalism sites does the market really need? Can all of these different sites — including the Washington Post‘s rebuilt Wonkblog and Bloomberg’s QuickTake — find an audience, or are they symptoms of a wonk bubble? And what happens when that bubble pops? Explanatory journalism may be the secret to success for one site, but it likely won’t be for half a dozen or more.
Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Shutterstock / Docstock Media