Celebrating the official arising of a rise in explanatory journalism

I’m happy to hear there’s finally an official rise in the number of sites devoted to “explanatory journalism.” It’s official because Gigom’s Mathew Ingram said so yesterday.

Starting in 2009 when I explained how Wikipedia is a great platform for the delivery of breaking news, I’ve blogged extensively about one day in the future when publishers (of all types, new media and old, consumer and b-to-b) would realize that users of their content and media have two understandings of timeliness: (1) The timeliness that is determined by an editor pressing the publish button. (2) The timeliness that is determined by when a person needs a precise nugget of knowledge.

I’ve called these two types of content several things over the years. In March, 2010, I wrote about chronological content and research content. Other times, I’ve used the term we use at Hammock: Know Content and Flow Content. After attending a panel called The Future of Context at South by Southwest, also in March 2010, that included Jay Rosen who is mentioned in Matt’s piece, I wrote a rather long post about my strong belief on the critical lack of “explanatory” content (know content) that is needed to balance our current raging rivers of news content.

In my typical “wish hard and it will happen” prediction, I wrote in 2010:

“Content that explains things, categorizes, organizes and makes it easy to access at the precise time in which it is needed will become an integral part of what will make tomorrow’s new media, new.”

I could continue this link-back parade, but I’ll continue with the narrative.

Since 2006, I have taken a personal (and professional) journey to understand, first-hand, something critical to the success or failure of explanatory journalism: how does a publisher create and manage a taxonomy of explanatory content. As there aren’t a lot of people who sit around and think about this stuff, I’ve traveled to two Wikimanias to hang out with some people who actually do.

Finally, I decided that unless I dove into the deep end of this pool myself, I’d never quite get it. (Adding entries or editing Wikipedia is great if you want to swim in the baby pool at someone else’s home–I was looking for my own pool.) My laboratory for that journey has primarily been the development of the wiki that is part of SmallBusiness.com. It is all centered on a deep belief that breaking news is not the only, nor possibly the most important, type of content the web enables. (I say that, but I tweak daily an RSS news reader in the never-ending quest of creating the “perfect” river of news.) Despite that wiki now having 27,000 entries, it only scratches the surface of what explanatory journalism with a relevant and ever-changing taxonomy and process can be and do. Creating such a wiki will make you marvel at what Wikipedia has done. (It will also make you appreciate what having hundreds of volunteer editors can do vs. a couple of people spending a few hours each week fighting spam.)

Last November on SmallBusiness.com, we began adding “flow” content to SmallBusiness.com–and are still in an early shake-down cruise on that project, but are hundreds of posts into gaining understanding of what we believe works and doesn’t on what we call the “flow side” of the site.

At that time, I wrote on the “About Page” of SmallBusiness.com:

On SmallBusiness.com, we help users gain insight with two types of content: (1) “Content That Flows” and (2) “Content that Knows.”

Flow Content

Content that flows is the type of information that flows past us all day, every day. It’s the information that heads our way whenever an editor, broadcaster, blogger or tweeter decides it’s time to hit the publish or send button. Flow content–news posts, lists and all sorts of information we discover and share from across the web–is found on the front page of SmallBusiness.com. We also feed such content through other channels like Twitter (@SmallBusiness), (RSS and via The Best of SmallBusiness.com Weekly, our email digest that we really, really want you to sign up for.

Know Content

Know content is the type of on-demand content organized and structured to be helpful at the exact time a user needs it, not when its creator decides to release it. While we have a pretty cool search box on every page (click on the magnifying glass icon), that’s not what we mean when we say “organized.”

To us, organized means the use of categories and taxonomies that add structure to information and knowledge. It may not be perfect, but the closest thing we’ve ever seen to a website that does that on a grand scale is Wikipedia. That’s why, in 2005, we started work on the SmallBusiness.com WIKI that now includes nearly 27,000 articles, how-tos, definitions and guides related to an ever-growing array of small business-related topics. While it does not follow all of the conventions and governance principles of Wikipedia, it has been created and is hosted on the MediaWiki platform, the same open source software used to build and host Wikipedia. (Other than use of the MediaWiki software, we have no relationship with Wikipedia, except as admirers.)

I’ll admit: I am (also) committed to explanatory media for a purely professional reason: I think it’s another area where the business models of traditional media will interfere with their understanding of how to create and organize such content in a way that serves the user rather than fits into some type of role like, “generate eyeballs.” (I could name names.) While I believe explanatory journalism can be the foundation of a successful media company, the notion that it’s all about “search advertising” or “native advertising” all miss the mark. Explanatory journalism is, more than any other form of journalism or writing or entertainment, focused first and foremost on helping the reader gain insight and understanding. It’s not about “this guy says this, while another guy says that.” And explanatory journalism can still be journalism no matter what’s the source or what’s the medium or what’s the business model.

Tomorrow, I will post another thought on theme — a look at a website that I believe is a great example of how business-to-business media can blend breaking news with explanatory journalism with a result that can be successful both as media that serves its audience and as a profitable business model.