My grandfather and mother share the blame for guiding my older brother, Mike, and me into newspaper journalism. Each of them had a five-paper-a-day habit as we grew up in New York and knew the writers and the politics of each publication. (My mom said the Herald-Tribune had “all the best writers” and when you review the writers who worked there, you realize Mom was right.)
There was, however, a problem with all those newspapers.
In 1987, when I was the new editor at the Albuquerque Tribune during the height of the Iran-Contra hearings, my mom said to me: “Isn’t there a way to make this easier to understand? Whose side is the U.S. on? Are we pro-Sandinista or pro-Contra?” She said the Middle East was even more confusing. “What’s the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?” I used this example and penned a letter to the Associated Press, whose sublime president, Louis Boccardi, promised me they would try to do a better job of explaining the background on international stories.
“Lou,” I wrote, “you write the story assuming the reader has extensive background in international politics. To use a baseball analogy, it’s like you’re trying to score a runner from third with nobody out.”
A decade later, I was relating that story to my oldest son who was in college and he agreed with grandma. “Everyone I know in college wants to be smart. They want to understand the world. But newspapers do not make that easy.”
Mom died five years ago. My son is raising his own family. And finally, there’s a start-up company that gets it. They are making their corner of the world a lot easier to understand.
Yvonne Leow and Jimmy Chion launched ByTheBay.cool after Chion created ballot.fyi to help explain the myriad of propositions on the ballot for California voters. There might be nothing more confusing to voters than the daunting legal language of ballot measures. If you turn on the TV during election season, you are likely to see back-to-back commercials designed to simplify the issue by having a doctor explain why the proposed tax on tobacco to fund health care is unfair. The next commercial shows six ICU nurses pleading with you to vote for the measure. Who’s right?
There is no bias in By The Bay’s explanations. They are clear. “Imagine you are watching a cricket match for the first time and do not understand the rules,” said Leow. “If you’re watching the match with someone who knows the rules, knows the strategy (you will enjoy it more). We start each story with the beginner’s mindset.”
After the 2016 election, Leow and Chion turned their attention to local issues.
By The Bay has an extensively researched and graphically interesting explanation of the housing shortage in the Bay Area called “Why your rent is ridiculous.” Nothing is discussed more frequently in that community as the cost of housing and how tight the market is. By The Bay takes an approach that mixes an interesting history book with an encyclopedia and frames it in an attractive design that works well on any device. It’s cleverly written and has plenty of links for more background.
Preparing the story took weeks “and the moment it was published, it was dated,” said Leow. “People in the housing industry would say, ‘Have you seen this new study?’”
It is a challenge to stay current and relevant, but Leow and Chion are on to something.
Newspaper readers have always trusted the local paper as the source of information for the important local issues. And we have tried to enhance that reputation as the source. What if newsrooms selected five crucial local topics, used a By The Bay model, and helped write fresh content? (I have seen some news sites that merely post a lot of links to news stories on the topic. That’s good, but it could be better.) How deeply we would enhance that notion of the local news authority.
Help could be coming. Leow and Chion would like to roll the By The Bay model out to other markets, if they can figure out the profitability of scaling the model. According to Leow, it would make the most sense to work with local newspaper partners. For more information, contact Leow at email@example.com.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.