In a political cycle that often seems as if the conversations cover the distractions, rather than the policies that will hugely affect our country, it’s clear that we’re in the midst of a major information deficit. This isn’t to place blame on the voters, the candidates, or the media. We’re in a political cycle driven by an overwhelming issue with our technological approach online and on TV: we’re inundating readers instead of informing them.
Our news is still set up to broadcast new information rather than help people. When who, what, when, where is immediately accessible at any Google search, what really matters is helping readers understand why. That’s because journalism needs to change with the medium, and we are working to build the best digital journalism company out there.
Vox has led the way in championing the need to help bring explanation to the forefront of the service we, as a news industry, must provide to readers. We do a lot of different things at Vox, but explanation — often of complicated and even controversial topics — is at the heart of our work. In that vein, here are five tenets that we follow at Vox, that help explain why we do the work we do:
1) Never underestimate the reader’s intelligence, nor overestimate her knowledge. We believe our readers are smart and, more than that, that they want to be informed. We also know they are busy, and the world is large, and the news moves fast, and there are things they don’t know. We write as if we’re talking to a brilliant, curious friend about a topic you know and she doesn’t. A reader can come to it knowing nothing, but it’s clear we respect their interest and ability to dive into the issue in detail. Our model has been replicated around the world, from the New York Times to the Hindustan Times.
2) Do the work. The most basic question we need to ask ourselves is: why should our audience trust us? The only possible answer is we’ve done the work. We’ve read the full document. We’ve talked to the key participants and experts, or we’ve at least tried. We’ve heard from all sides. We’ve gone deep. If we need to choose — and we’re outside the context of a hardcore breaking news story — we want to be best rather than be first. We make sure we’re worthy of the reader’s trust. That way, when we deliver our assessment, people listen.
3) Overdeliver. The biggest problem with online journalism right now is it disappoints. The headlines are cranked up to 11. But the content is a three. You’re told you won’t believe what happens next and then you totally do. We endeavor to overdeliver. We want people to be surprised by how much more they get than they were promised. We want people who click on our headlines feeling skeptical to leave impressed. Overdelivering can mean a few different things. Most commonly, it can mean writing an explainer that goes well beyond the typical superficial explanations, often by zooming out to explain the wider cultural/historical context, or by exploring academic literature or research on the topic, or by offering surprising and crucial insights.
4) Be sourced. If you’re not reporting, you’re doing it wrong. There is no way you are smart enough to write about all the things you’re going to need to write about without ever talking to experts and participants. But reporting isn’t just calling someone to get a couple of quotes to finish out a piece. The best reporters do most of their reporting outside the context of any individual story. They are constantly talking with key people in their beat. They are known by, and have the respect of, the key players. Being at the center of your beat’s social network will make you smarter, and it will make your life much easier: rather than having to think up all your stories and come up with all your takes, you’ll have smart, informed people suggesting great stories and giving you great analytical insights. If you can’t think of 15 people you talk to regularly about your issues, then you need to start setting up some lunches.
5) Be generous to people’s arguments and motives, even – especially – when you disagree with them. Remember that they may be right and you may be wrong. Remember that readers deserves to know the best arguments on the other side. Remember that you achieve nothing and inform no one by highlighting the weakest arguments you can find rather than the strongest. Remember that we’re trying to inform our audience, not win a scored debate. It’s okay to take a side after doing the work, but make sure you’re doing so in an open, honest, responsible way.