Featured above: Image of Sasha Frere-Jones by Piera Gelardi (CC BY 3.0)
Sasha Frere-Jones, former pop music critic for The New Yorker, just added a new layer of context to his career as a cultural tastemaker.
In January 2015, Frere-Jones announced he was leaving the New Yorker to join Genius. The site, formerly known as Rap Genius, got its start annotating rap lyrics, and recently announced an ambitious plan to annotate everything from news to novels to film scripts — to “annotate the world,” as they put it.
On its face, the move may seem like a curious one – why would Frere-Jones leave the New Yorker after 11 years for a nascent startup known for its founders’ frat boy-ish behavior and annotations of Kanye West and Taylor Swift songs?
One possible answer lies in the idea that people no longer simply want to read song lyrics; they want to know what the lyrics mean, along with any historical context, background information and insights into highly nuanced phrasing and cultural slang. With Genius’ expansion, this idea now extends to news articles, historical texts, laws and a whole host of other subjects.
Frere-Jones’ move — and to a larger extent Genius’ grandiose plans to annotate every written word — signals an important shift in the media landscape. It’s now no longer enough to just have the content; you have to have the context too.
The Quest for Context
“A website is not just a website anymore,” says Andrea Zeller, a professor who teaches content strategy in the UW Communication Leadership program. “People are now looking at information about subjects on their devices, looking at multiple sources and developing context.”
Genius is in good company. Some news outlets, such as Vox, have a stated goal to “explain the news.” They turn complex news and current events into bite-sized morsels of information, complete with the essential who, what, why and how. Most importantly though, they round out their offerings by adding a “what else?” With articles like “38 maps that explain the global economy” to “10 questions you might have about the sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby,” Vox annotates the news the way Genius annotates lyrics.
Their news model is not without problems, of course, and lately the outlet has gotten down right (and irritatingly) meta by annotating itself. Despite the hang ups though, Vox has Ezra Klein at its helm, nearly a quarter of a million likes on Facebook, and just interviewed President Obama. All this for a startup media outlet that is less than a year old. Despite the haters, they’re clearly following a model that works.
The idea behind contextual storytelling and reporting is by no means new. Mother Jones has been publishing their “Explainer” articles since 2010, and Slate has their own Explainer series, too. Even Facebook has jumped on the bandwagon by displaying a “related articles” box when a user clicks a news story on their feed. In all of these instances, users are provided with a more complete view of a subject in terms that have been curated by editors and algorithms, without having to click around to half a dozen different news sites.
Leveraging Stories About Stories
Journalists, content strategists, marketers and storytellers should take note — the more information you can provide about a story, the better. With so many news outlets, social media platforms and differences of opinion, there is immense value in creating a complete package of material about a subject that can serve as a one-stop shop and information resource.
Consider experimenting with the “explainer” platform about a particular topic, or try incorporating multimedia elements such as maps and diagrams that can flesh out detail in a story. Even tying in social media elements, such as tweets, Instagram photos and Facebook statuses can add both context and a first-person human element to stories.
Only time will tell how much the contextual storytelling model influences the media landscape, but outlets like Genius have already seen promising results. The newest high-powered author to join their ranks is Michael Chabon, a Pulitzer prize winning novelist. His first annotation for the site? Rapper Kendrick Lamar’s newest track, The Blacker the Berry.