December 12, 2009
This is a mock-up for a news site that I think should exist: explainthis.org
Users go to the site and find a prompt similar to Twitter’s what’s happening? or Facebook’s what’s on your mind? But instead of updating their status they type in a question they have for a team of journalists who are… “standing by.”
What I have in mind is not search. It’s not Yahoo Answers or AskReddit, either. This is for questions that cannot be answered by a simple, or even a sophisticated search. Or by the amateur expert who’s been reading Popular Mechanics since 1964. The kind of questions explainthis.org would handle have these three features:
Lots of people have this question and they want a good answer. (Which argues for a participatory system to rate questions and vote them up or down. It also means we can ask those participants for help as the investigation gets underway)
The answer is not easily obtained through search or by “looking it up.”
It takes real journalism—investigative, explanatory, seriously enterprising pro-am journalism—to answer the question completely and well. 
I’ve been talking about this idea on Twitter recently. In reply Jim Marko sent me a sample question: why are we still subsidizing corn? That works!  A lot of people probably have this question. It cannot be easily answered with a Google search or by looking it up in the Almanac of American Politics. And to understand why we’re subsidizing corn, a good deal of investigation and explanation are required. Which is why we need journalists… “standing by.”  (Not that there aren’t good places to start; certainly, there are. And users could help find them.)
So that’s explainthis.org, which is so far just this concept sketch. The journalists who are standing by aren’t… yet. But all it takes is one news company to realize the virtues of doing their investigative and explanatory reporting this way.
Now tell me what you think of it in the comments, okay?
Notes:
Inspiration for explainthis.org came from myreporter.com (for more on that site, go here) and my ex-student Cody Brown, who did the mock up, borrowing from his own start-up, Kommons.com, which applies this idea to localities (for more, see this.)
Also relevant is Help Me Investigate, started by Paul Bradshaw in the UK, and spot.us, which was launched by David Cohn, who used to work with me on NewAssignment.Net.
Jeff Sonderman posts on: “Improving news with user-directed assignment desks,” including explainthis.org as one variation on the theme.
Many have pointed me to stackoverflow.com as an example of an effective, “what is your question” site, along with the Drupal module inspired by it. Thanks to all!
C.W. Anderson writes on Twitter: “Here’s a question I would ask explainthis.org: why does NYC MTA lurch from crisis to solvency to crisis?”  Actually, I think an MTA beat reporter could probably answer that in a minute or two.

This is a mock-up for a news site that I think should exist: explainthis.org

Users go to the site and find a prompt similar to Twitter’s what’s happening? or Facebook’s what’s on your mind? But instead of updating their status they type in a question they have for a team of journalists who are… “standing by.”

What I have in mind is not search. It’s not Yahoo Answers or AskReddit, either. This is for questions that cannot be answered by a simple, or even a sophisticated search. Or by the amateur expert who’s been reading Popular Mechanics since 1964. The kind of questions explainthis.org would handle have these three features:

  • Lots of people have this question and they want a good answer. (Which argues for a participatory system to rate questions and vote them up or down. It also means we can ask those participants for help as the investigation gets underway)
  • The answer is not easily obtained through search or by “looking it up.”
  • It takes real journalism—investigative, explanatory, seriously enterprising pro-am journalism—to answer the question completely and well.

I’ve been talking about this idea on Twitter recently. In reply Jim Marko sent me a sample question: why are we still subsidizing corn? That works!  A lot of people probably have this question. It cannot be easily answered with a Google search or by looking it up in the Almanac of American Politics. And to understand why we’re subsidizing corn, a good deal of investigation and explanation are required. Which is why we need journalists… “standing by.”  (Not that there aren’t good places to start; certainly, there are. And users could help find them.)

So that’s explainthis.org, which is so far just this concept sketch. The journalists who are standing by aren’t… yet. But all it takes is one news company to realize the virtues of doing their investigative and explanatory reporting this way.

Now tell me what you think of it in the comments, okay?

Notes:

Inspiration for explainthis.org came from myreporter.com (for more on that site, go here) and my ex-student Cody Brown, who did the mock up, borrowing from his own start-up, Kommons.com, which applies this idea to localities (for more, see this.)

Also relevant is Help Me Investigate, started by Paul Bradshaw in the UK, and spot.us, which was launched by David Cohn, who used to work with me on NewAssignment.Net.

Jeff Sonderman posts on: “Improving news with user-directed assignment desks,” including explainthis.org as one variation on the theme.

Many have pointed me to stackoverflow.com as an example of an effective, “what is your question” site, along with the Drupal module inspired by it. Thanks to all!

C.W. Anderson writes on Twitter: “Here’s a question I would ask explainthis.org: why does NYC MTA lurch from crisis to solvency to crisis?”  Actually, I think an MTA beat reporter could probably answer that in a minute or two.

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