Explainer journalism grows audience, builds trust

By Peter Bale


New Zealand and the U.K.


Welcome to the latest INMA Newsroom Initiative newsletter.

This week, we offer something of a master class on how to get a big news organisation to embrace change, especially new formats. It can be a daunting political task to win the permission and support for change — even when the idea is brilliant.

At the BBC, Ros Atkins has reinvented explanatory journalism. Yes, really. He is modest about the achievement and is at pains to credit colleagues and leaders who had faith in his ideas and critiqued them. Yet I have to say it is his political success — skillfully gaining support to try out new ways of telling the news — that for me most marks out his impact on the BBC.

Ros, recently officially titled BBC news analysis editor, has a book coming out on what he’s learned about explanatory journalism and the lessons he thinks are applicable — not just in reporting or broadcasting but in all our communications, including those tricky conversations where you manage up or want senior leaders to support your risky venture.

The Art of Explanation: How to Communicate with Clarity and Confidence, is published later in September, and Ros was kind enough to talk to me about the background to writing the book. He literally explained what his brand of explanatory journalism is all about.

Also, there have been big moves at The Independent in London, where former editor Christian Broughton moves from managing director to chief executive and the publication plans a big push in the United States.

Rethinking what it means to inform, educate, and even entertain in journalism

Explanatory journalism is, in a sense, a classic redundancy, as a grammarian might say. As a leading news executive once said to me about investigative journalism: “Surely, all journalism is investigative?” However, we all know that not all journalism is, in fact, explanatory.

Ros Atkins, the BBC news analysis editor, has redefined what explanatory journalism — I hesitate to call it storytelling, though his methods are certainly a model of how to tell factual stories — can be online and on television. Now he’s written a guide to how to explain anything.

“Explanation is an art,” he writes in the introduction to The Art of Explanation: How to Communicate with Clarity and Confidence. “My working life is spent seeing how I can take all the complexities of what’s happening in our world and give them shape, clarity, and relevance.”

I admit to long admiring the innovative short-form, self-contained video explanations Ros became known for on BBC television, BBC World Service, BBC online, and social media. They immediately struck me as small but perfectly formed and genuinely innovative journalism. They lost nothing in brevity and clarity, and they immediately struck me as a landmark new format.

Here’s such an explainer on the Ukraine war.

An explainer on the Ukraine war.
An explainer on the Ukraine war.

I strongly believe almost any journalism outfit or reporter could learn from them and apply the Ros methods to video or to writing.

To quote the old Bloomberg adage, which became the catchphrase of former Editor-in-Chief Matt Winkler, they are classic “show, don’t tell” reports. 

The elements of any good explanatory journalism from "The Art of Explanation: How to Communicate with Clarity and Confidence," by Ros Atkins.
The elements of any good explanatory journalism from "The Art of Explanation: How to Communicate with Clarity and Confidence," by Ros Atkins.

Handily, Ros has come up with a guide in which he gives tips on how to explain almost anything — whether it’s a news story or a plan you want your boss to back you on. Throughout the book Ros unfailingly credits colleagues — peers and bosses — for their contributions and support. Unlike some authors of “how to” books, Ros didn’t claim to have discovered the journalistic equivalent of penicillin. He explains the hard work, support, and trial and error that go into creating anything — especially in a big organisation.

“I suppose the thing I’m trying to get across in the book is the techniques that I use to hopefully explain the news and create journalistic content that is successful over a range of mediums are also techniques that you can apply to other aspects of being a journalist — such as how you sell ideas or how you try and shift your career or how you interact with colleagues or managers there or how you communicate on e-mail,” Ros told me. “I think journalists don’t realise that they’re sitting on a bunch of skills that they could apply outside of producing the story,” he added in a remark that almost encapsulates the aims of the INMA Newsroom Initiative.

Ros and his explanatory short videos — him addressing straight to camera but bringing in social media, news clips, graphics, and other devices — came to prominence over the past four years, initially with reports on a spate of Australian bushfires, and then during the COVID pandemic, where the mix of explanation, easily absorbed facts, and brevity found its apogee.

They were initially on niche BBC services and became viral hits on social media — evidently meeting a hunger for easily absorbed yet objective explanations — but his approach is now firmly embedded across the range of BBC news outlets, hence his new job as “analysis editor.” That, to me, is half the achievement: getting a new format adopted across a behemoth.

“To the credit of the BBC, they were spotting this as well,” Ros told me about the recognition his work was catching on with audiences and generating huge social media numbers. “I sat down with the BBC and I said, ‘Look, I think we’re onto something here. I think we’ve got something that is different and that people seem to want.’ They supported me to start doing it not just on the bushfires, but on whatever subjects came up.”

In an era when objectivity in journalism has often been sacrificed to strident opinion — especially on television — Ros found a way to offer highly informative and often quite spiky bursts of information that still complied with the BBC’s commitment to impartiality and objectivity. He credits a colleague with describing the approach as “assertive impartiality.”

“I thought, well, how can I make impartiality competitive in an opinion-dominated arena? It seemed to me that I needed to change my tone and change my language to make that impartiality more potent,” Ros told me, also stressing the need to make each video a standalone example of BBC content that can be trusted on its own.

“Clearly all the work we do at BBC News is about trust. And we’re the most trusted news brand in the world according to most surveys, which is a privileged position to be in, but we don’t take it for granted,” he said. “If you’re making journalism for television or radio or your own Web site, your journalism sits within the surrounds of your brand and your other journalism. And, as such, it has a support infrastructure around it, which makes it much more likely to be trusted because people are already there. If you’re making journalism that’s designed to both be on BBC platforms but also be shared here, there, and everywhere, there's a good chance that your piece of journalism will be consumed in isolation, surrounded by a bunch of content with nothing to do with BBC News and often something nothing to do with news. As such, the piece of work needs to stand on its own two feet without any support infrastructure.”

Anyone running an Instagram account, or a Thread, or an X stream may take note.

The explainers were not the first time Ros managed to get an idea embraced that changed BBC news output for the better. Until I read the book, I hadn’t realised Ros was an instigator of the BBC’s 50:50 programme to try to have an even male/female distribution of interviewees and experts on its news shows. As a listener, I heard it happening before I realised it was a plan.

“I think the lesson I’ve learned in trying to try to make the case for our explainer videos and trying to make the case for 50:50 and other ideas, too, is to take it slowly, put in the time, and to not assume that my idea is a good one,” Ros told me.

Further reading and ideas

Independent goes big in the U.S. and lifts its former editor to CEO

London-based The Independent is a bit of an exemplar of modern media strategy: abandoning paper years earlier than its rivals and with great courage, and now making a significant push to exploit its reach in the U.S. market with a big staff commitment.

It’s also an exemplar for the INMA Newsroom Initiative in a sense with Christian Broughton, its long-time editor-in-chief — literally someone who started as a copy boy in the newsroom — rising to chief executive officer from his most recent role as managing director.

“Christian is uniquely qualified to step up as chief executive as we continue to embark on the next phase of our global growth strategy, focusing on global expansion and developing diversified revenue streams. He brings a critical combination of journalistic nous and business acumen, having led our successful transition from national newspaper to global news platform and, more recently, defining and driving forward our commercial strategy,” John Paton, chairman of Independent Digital News Media, said in a statement carried on The Independent news site.

The second part of the announcement is more strategic: The Independent is going big on expansion in the United States. Current CEO Zach Leonard, an American-born media leader, will move to the U.S. as global chief operating officer and president/North America.

Zach and Christian have carefully built a high-performance digital business with best-in-class technology, a model newsroom, and an intelligent strategy around high-quality advertising. They’ve also had the backing of patient investors led by the Lebedev father and son from Russia and more recently a media investment arm of Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. expansion included plans to build an expanded staff of 75 by the end of the year across editorial, commercial, content partnerships, marketing, and operations, the official statement said, adding the news media company achieved 24 million monthly users in the United States and Canada and was in the top 10 of digital news publishers.

“I look forward to developing The Independent brand, business, audience, and influence in North America at a time where Independent values — particularly trust and objectivity — are desperately needed,” Leonard said. “Our unique digital transformation and growth strategies are starting to take hold in the region and will flourish with more dedicated senior leadership on the ground.”

For full disclosure, I worked with Zach to found FTMarketWatch in the early 2000s, then at the FT, and later at The Times and The Sunday Times. I am also pleased to have had Christian take part in a superb Newsroom Initiative Master Class on leadership last year. It was a model of what an executive with his origins in journalism delivers with clarity and business sense. It is well worth going back and reviewing that Master Class series.

About this newsletter

Today’s newsletter is written by Peter Bale, based in New Zealand and the U.K. and lead for the INMA Newsletter Initiative. Peter will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global newsrooms.

This newsletter is a public face of the Newsroom Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Peter at peter.bale@inma.org or newsroom@inma.org with thoughts, suggestions, and questions.

About Peter Bale

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