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Jan. 28, 2011, noon

MoJo’s Egypt explainer: future-of-context ideas in action

This week’s unrest in Egypt brings new relevance to an old question: How do you cover an event about which most of your readers have little or no background knowledge?

Mother Jones has found one good way to do that. Its national politics reporter, Nick Baumann, has produced a kind of on-the-fly topic page about this week’s uprising, featuring a running description of events fleshed out with background explanation, historical context, multimedia features, and analysis. The page breaks itself down into several core categories:

The Basics
What’s Happening?
Why are Egyptians unhappy?
How did this all start?
Why is this more complicated for the US than Tunisia was?
How do I follow what’s happening in real-time?
What’s the latest?

The page also contains, as of this posting, 14 updates informing readers of new developments since the page was first started (at 1 p.m. on Tuesday) and pointing them to particularly helpful and read-worthy pieces of reporting and analysis on other sites.

In all, the MoJo page pretty much takes the Demand Media approach to the production of market-driven content — right down to its content-farm-tastic title: “What’s Happening in Egypt Explained.” The crucial difference, though, is that its content is curated by an expert journalist. In that, the page has a lot in common with the kind of curation done, by Andrew Sullivan and the HuffPost’s Nico Pitney and many others, during 2009’s uprising in Iran. That coverage, though, had an improvised, organic sense to it: We’re figuring this out as we go along. It felt frenzied. The MoJo page, on the other hand, conveys the opposite sensibility: It exudes calmness and control. Okay, here’s what you need to know.

And that’s a significant distinction, because it’s one that can be attributed to something incredibly simple: the page’s layout. The basic design decision MoJo made in creating its Egypt explainer — breaking it down into categories, encyclopedia-style — imposes an order that more traditional attempts at dynamic coverage (liveblogs, Twitter lists, etc.) often lack.

At the same time, the page also extends the scope of traditional coverage. With their space constraints, traditional news narratives have generally had to find artful ways to cater, and appeal, to the widest possible swath of readers. (To wit: that nearly parenthetical explanation of a story’s context, usually tacked onto a text story’s lede or a nut graf.) The web’s limitless space, though, changes the whole narrative proposition of the explainer: The MoJo page rethinks explanation as “information” rather than “narrative.” It’s not trying to be a story so much as a summary. And what’s resulted is a fascinating fusion between a liveblog and a Wikipedia entry.

The MoJo page, of course, isn’t alone in producing creative, context-focused journalism: From topic pages to backgrounders, videos to video games, news organizations are experimenting with lots of exciting approaches to explanation. And MoJo’s certainly isn’t the only admirable explainer detailing the events in Egypt. What’s most noteworthy about MoJo’s Egypt coverage isn’t its novelty so much as its adaptability: It acknowledges, implicitly, that audience members might come into it armed with highly discrepant levels of background information. As it explains at the top of the page:

This was originally posted at 1:00 p.m. EST on Tuesday. It is being updated and is being kept near the top of the blog. Some of the information near the top of the post may be outdated, and if you’ve been following the story closely, the information at the top will definitely seem very basic. So please scroll to the bottom of the post for the latest.

In a June episode of their “Rebooting the News” podcast, Jay Rosen and Dave Winer discussed the challenge of serving users who come into a story with varying levels of contextual knowledge. One solution they tossed around: a tiered system of news narrative, with Level 1, for example, being aimed at users who come into a story with little to no background knowledge, Level 4 for experts who simply want to learn of new developments in a story.

The MoJo page is a great example of that kind of thinking put to work. The sections Baumann’s used to organize the explainer’s content allow users to have a kind of choose-your-own adventure interaction with the information offered. They convey, overall, a sense of permissiveness. Know only a little about Egyptian politics? Hey, that’s cool. Know nothing at all? That’s cool, too.

And that’s another noteworthy element of MoJo’s Egypt explainer: It’s welcoming. And it doesn’t, you know, judge.

That’s not a minor thing, for the major reason that stories, when you lack the context to understand them, can be incredibly intimidating. If you don’t know much about Egypt’s current political landscape — or, for that matter, about the world financial system or the recent history of Afghanistan or the workings of Congress — you have very little incentive to read, let alone follow, a story about it. In news, one of the biggest barriers to entry can be simple intimidation. We talk a lot about “engagement” in journalism; one of the most fundamental ways to engage an audience, though, is by doing something incredibly simple: producing work that acknowledges, and then accommodates, ignorance.

POSTED     Jan. 28, 2011, noon
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