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Fusion’s Senior Editor Felix Salmon reveals why the explanatory journalism of the Wonk Renaissance is where we are headed.

“This is the single most beautiful place I’ve ever talked and what you should really do is pay no attention to me.” But really Felix Salmon, senior editor at Fusion, gives the audience in the Sala del Dottoro in Perugia every reason to hang on to his words – he’s talking about the future of journalism.

The topic is the Wonk Renaissance to be exact, and why this so-called “wonk bubble” is a good thing.

What is wonk journalism? Salmon says he has no idea why wonk is the term used to describe what he deems “explanatory journalism”, but it came from the distinction between politics and policy. It’s about substance.

And substance is not something you learn at school, apparently. You don’t even need to go to school to be a journalist, according to Salmon. “Journalism school is a waste of time,” he says, followed by immediate laughter and cheering from the crowd. The best school, he continues, is to actually get your own blog and do it.

This is wonk journalism – where we are headed. Salmon approves. “I’m extremely excited that bloggers think of themselves as journalists because that’s where the next journalists are going to come from.”

The blog ghetto

It began as web native content. “There was a feeling that there was something very new here and very exciting,” he says. That feeling, however, didn’t last very long.

With the birth of the Internet, big media companies moved online and broke the rules. A revolution in the means of distribution, very little changed in terms of the content. It was the “dream of the Internet”, says Salmon – one in which distribution costs were zero, and media companies were able to retain advertising revenue.

But they didn’t think about how to optimize that through the web. This was the age of legacy media dominance from 1996 to 2003.

Then came the early 2000s, the era of blogs: the creation of networks, moveable type and an explosion of micropublishers who all linked to each other. It was then that big media recognized the need for the popularity that blogs had attracted. “So people like me get hired… to just go off into the corner and link to things.” Salmon’s humor is exactly the type you’d expect to find in someone who covers pop culture and satire for a living.

What he deems the “blog ghetto” was, at this time, the only place where web native content was available.

But soon enough, the ghetto made its way into mainstream organizations. Bloggers became more powerful and started earning more. There was a certain sensibility in which the blogging conversation began filtering into the organization. “You’ve incorporated ‘bloggishness’ into your product as a whole.”

The end of the bundle

And so it began. Before the “revolution”, news was packaged as a bundle, or “all the news that’s fit to print”, as the New York Times so eloquently puts it.

There are two parts to a bundle. 1) It has to be exhausted and 2) it has a certain periodicity. “You wind up on this hamster wheel of having to produce new content just because you have space to fill,” Salmon says. “None of this makes sense in an online world.”

Where we’re going now is back to a web native online environment. We’re losing the bundle, so to speak, because along with the Internet, we’ve also lost periodicity. “If I publish something today,” Salmon says, “it stays up in perpetuity. This freaks out journalists, by the way.”

What he means is, the fact that you can update an article two days after it has been published is good for the reader – it’s keeping your information up-to-date. But “stewards of journalism schools and media ethicists worry about this,” he says. Still, you want to give your readers what’s best for them.

He uses the situation in Ukraine as an example. If Ukraine is what’s important in the world right now, those things don’t change from today to tomorrow. “What you want in a web world is stock as opposed to flow,” he explains. In other words, you want to publish the important story now, and then update it as necessary.

Online, ensuring every one of your readers understands all of your content is also not a constraint, one that print, television and radio all face. Content is created for niche audiences, where traditional news media struggle with satisfying, well, everyone. Journalists can lead with the most important news, while rejecting what is known as a “final version”. And artificial deadlines? Refine, he says, don’t rush.

“We can now explain the world in a much better way,” Salmon continues. Thus, the “wonkosphere” is emerging.

Explain that to me

“What I’m talking about here is explanatory journalism,” Salmon says, “putting the world into context.”

It’s the wonk odyssey and it’s beginning now. Publications like Wonkblog538 and The Upshot are just a few of the “wonkers” taking the news and transforming it into something that is knowledgeable without being omniscient.  They’re embracing the niche and telling stories.

“You lose constraints which were frustrating and you gain the ability to do the things which make sense,” Salmon says. One example? Everything does not have to be published in text form. Charts, images and animations, for instance, are all powerful tools that allow a journalist to express him- or herself in whichever way is most effective.

Yes, we still need traditional reporting, the kind that requires a certain general infrastructure, but, says Salmon, “we have finally managed to transcend the constraints of the news.”

And what’s more, you can do this “from the comfort of your own home in your pajamas.” That means a surprisingly low cost compared to the money spent on some of the resources that traditional journalists require, like legal teams or travel budgets.

Perhaps one of the most important things about this Wonk Renaissance is the relationship it fosters between reader and journalist. It adds voice, attitude and a personal brand, and it provides a platform for people to express themselves.

What’s more, this wonkery is immersive and shareable, bringing to the table a layer of context the world has been crying out for.

Where are we going from here?

Salmon smiles. “We’ve finally reached a point in which people are embracing the web native.”

Losing the Bundle: The Wonk Renaissance
Published for the International Journalism Festival, May 2014

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