Times Insider

New York Times guides to mystifying subjects may seem as if they come together in a matter of minutes, but they often take hours of research.

A colorful illustration of a mass of scribbles with threads coming out of it that tie into a neat bow.
Credit...Pierre Buttin

In early April, when former President Donald J. Trump was charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, The New York Times published an article with the headline “The Case Against Donald Trump: What Comes Next?”

Later that month, U.S. intelligence documents were leaked online. Questions circulated on social media about how the documents became public: Where did the materials come from? What did they say?

Then, in May, an article posed a question that, perhaps sheepishly, weighed on the minds of many Americans: So what is the debt limit, anyway?

Reporters asked these questions in articles, if only so they could immediately answer them. In recent years, The Times has used a mobile-friendly article format designed to demystify thorny topics. The articles, known as explainers, are structured as a series of questions and answers, with each response flowing logically into the next. Explainers break down tricky news topics quickly and clearly — and answer questions that readers are searching online. They can also guide readers through personal quandaries, such as how to file their taxes.

Victoria Niemeyer, the S.E.O. strategy and operations manager at The Times, said the Audience team uses tools like Google Trends and reader comments on Times articles to help inform their recommendations to desks as to what topics they should explain. Their goal, she said, is to provide guidance on “what questions readers are asking most.”

Ahead, Times Insider explains the art of the explainer.

Many explainers start when reporters themselves have questions about a topic in the news. Dani Blum, a reporter for the Well desk, writes down her questions about a topic before she begins researching for an article.

She said she often got ideas from informal conversations with her editors, Farah Miller and Kate Lowenstein. “They have a good sense of when something could use more teasing out for the average reader,” she said.

The Well desk writes a lot of explainers, she said, because people need a trusted source to turn to when a topic that involves their health enters the news cycle. When the diabetes medication Ozempic started gaining attention on social media for its use for weight loss, Ms. Blum wrote an explainer about how the drug works and its potential side effects. With all the information about the drug — some not reputable — swirling on social media, she wanted to provide an easy and accurate guide.

A good explainer question is one that people can’t answer with a quick Google search.

Madison Malone Kircher, a reporter who writes about the internet for the Styles desk, says she focuses on topics that baffle her friends and family — and that often, their confusion is evident in their text messages.

“When I reach a certain number of friends asking, ‘What is that thing?,’ that’s a sign it’s time to do an explainer,” Ms. Kircher said. She has broken down the online trends that have her group chats buzzing, such as A.I.-generated selfies.

An explainer may also explain an unfamiliar term. Last month, Charlie Savage, a national security and legal policy correspondent, wrote an explainer about the court case of Stewart Rhodes, the Oath Keepers leader who was sentenced to the longest prison term yet in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, on a charge of seditious conspiracy.

And seditious conspiracy means … what, exactly? In a traditional news article, the term might be quickly defined but not deeply explored. Mr. Savage devoted a piece to explaining sedition and how it differs from insurrection and treason.

When Ms. Blum is brainstorming questions to address in an article, she refers back to the list she created before she began her research. It reminds her, she said, of all the things she wanted to learn more about before she became knowledgeable about the topic. That way, she can focus on the questions and answers that will best serve the reader.

Though the style of an explainer is more informal than a traditional article — as Ms. Blum said, it is “ideally conversational” — the reporting is no less rigorous. To find authoritative answers, she may consult experts such as doctors, professors or researchers. All answers in an explainer article are supported by facts, just like in any other Times article.

Mr. Savage breaks the information down into sections that naturally build on one another, he said.

“I lead the reader through a basic grounding, and then two to three complicating factors, in a way that will be easy for them to get the next thing because they’ve already absorbed the previous thing,” he said.

For example, in his explainer on sedition, he first defined the term (“What is sedition?”) before addressing more complex questions (“Is sedition the same thing as insurrection?”).

Mr. Savage has learned through trial and error that “you really want the sections to be bite-size pieces.” Generally, he keeps his answers under three paragraphs, he said.

The tricky part, Ms. Blum and Ms. Kircher said, is boiling down pages of notes into an article that is both comprehensive and concise.

“Your job is to be the CliffsNotes,” Ms. Kircher said. “Even when it feels like you know enough to write a book.” Her rule of thumb is to keep the information streamlined to the need-to-know facts — an explainer should give the reader enough information “to be able to talk to someone at a cocktail party,” she said.

Ms. Kircher said explainers were often more difficult to write when she knew a topic well, because details that may seem obvious to her might not be to a reader.

“Self-editing is a skill I find more challenging when I know a lot versus when something is new to me,” she said.

The Q. and A. format is easily navigable and more digestible, especially on a phone screen, than an article with continuous paragraph formatting, Mr. Savage said.

“The point is to make information as easy for people to take in as possible,” he said.

Mr. Savage acknowledged that he was initially a reluctant convert to the format, one that appears at odds with the longstanding journalistic tradition of relaying new details about a topic in descending order of importance.

“My instincts as a reporter were, What is the value of just restating known information and not dragging any new factoids to light?” he said.

But he said he had come to see the value of guiding readers through the mountains of available information about a topic, and of pointing out connections they might otherwise miss.

And, Mr. Savage has come to realize, it’s still journalism — “just a different kind of journalism,” he said.

Sarah Bahr is a senior staff editor at The Times. She has reported on a range of topics, most often theater, film and television, while writing for the Culture, Styles and National desks. @smbahr14

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