There is nothing journalists and pundits love discussing more than each other, so predictably the launch of the “Explanatory Journalism” site Vox.com has been accompanied by a vapor trail of commentary, ranging from serious analysis of its news-delivery style, to discussions of staff diversity, to snark, envy, and mockery of Matt Yglesias’ hipster suit in the launch video.
There are indeed many interesting angles here, both serious and snarky. But maybe the most interesting of all is the trend of young and young-ish liberal journalists abandoning posts at legacy mainstream media institutions to go run their own sites. That trend is the reverse of the career pattern most of these journalists began with. Many of those involved began in the blog world, before getting paid gigs with established newspapers and news organizations. But it’s more than that: it also means they are discarding the very thing that conservative bloggers and aspiring journalists have most envied, the ability of people who started at hard-core left-wing websites like Pandagon and DailyKos to get the pay, prestige, access, connections, infrastructure and most of all the veneer of non-partisan objectivity that comes with employment by the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other long-established media properties.
It’s no secret that conservatives have complained for years that the biggest source of liberal bias in the world of journalism – in straight-news reporting, in opinion journalism, and most of all in the “news analysis” and “fact-checking” nexus between the two – is the asymmetry in hiring practices, in which it is routine for liberals to graduate from left-wing blogs to liberal magazines to supposedly objective news organizations (and often from there to working for elected Democrats, and then back to “objective” news). Add to that the fact that mainstream news people who have always worked in news often turn out to be married to liberal or Democratic activists. Meanwhile, it is vastly harder for anyone who started at an openly conservative outlet to make that trek. Even if they do, conservatives in the mainstream media are much more likely to be pigeonholed as such, and new conservative hires at mainstream media outlets are much more likely to face sustained and sometimes successful campaigns by progressive activists to get them fired. The net result is that conservatives are constantly debating whether the Right needs its own media to counter liberal dominance of the newsrooms.
Implicit in that debate on the Right, and implicit in the career choices of so many on the Left, is that a perch at a mainstream outlet is a thing of great value, not only because it’s a paying job with a big audience, but because it gives particular weight to be able to say “according to The New York Times” or “The Washington Post reported that…” The accumulated credibility, reach and influence of those institutions is a force multiplier in getting stories and themes covered and believed, an advantage that few conservative journals enjoy.
Which is why it is so striking and so puzzling, at first glance, to see people who made the leap from the “outsider” status of blogs to the big league mainstream outlets suddenly deciding to go in the other direction. An early and successful example was Ben Smith leaving Politico to run BuzzFeed, but while Politico is influential, it’s not as venerable as some of the big newspapers. Then Nate Silver announced he was leaving the New York Times to start his own FiveThirtyEight.com site affiliated with ESPN, the staff of which includes MSM refugees Carl Bialik (The Wall Street Journal), Harry Enten (The Guardian), Micah Cohen (The New York Times), Kate Elazegui (Vanity Fair), and Mike Wilson (the Tampa Bay Times), as well as Business Insider’s Walt Hickey. Then there was Glenn Greenwald leaving The Guardian and joining former Nation writer Jeremy Scahill, documentarian Laura Poitras and former Gawker editor John Cook (who previously worked at the Chicago Tribune and wrote for the New York Times Magazine the Los Angeles Times) at First Look Media’s The Intercept, a site dedicated to their relentless opposition to U.S. military, intelligence and security activities. And now comes Vox, run by former Washington Post “WonkBlog” head Ezra Klein, and staffed by “many of his former Post colleagues, including multiplatform specialist Melissa Bell, reporters Brad Plumer, Sarah Kliff, Max Fisher, Dylan Matthews and Tim Lee. Also: Slate blogger Matthew Yglesias [formerly of, among other things, The Atlantic], Politico education reporter Libby Nelson, U.S. News staffer Danielle Kurtzleben and New Yorker Washington bureau staffer Andrew Prokop.”
To conservatives, it is almost inexplicable that anyone would surrender such a perch, give up the imprimatur of the Post or the Times for these startups with little in the way of brand name. Sure, you can build a successful frontman-branded business model that way – Bill Simmons, as he has before, showed the way when he moved from his local Digital City blog up to ESPN and then turned around and created his own personal ESPN affiliate site, Grantland, around the kind of sportswriting he wanted to do. (Full disclosure: I wrote for Bill’s old site in Boston and have contributed a few pieces to Grantland). But politics is different: political writers don’t just want an audience and to be interesting or provocative; they want to be influential.
Silver’s move makes the most sense – ESPN may not have the Times’ gravitas in politics, but it’s a major, entrenched mainstream outlet with an arguably bigger brand, it fits the former Baseball Prospectus analyst’s expressed desire to do less politics and more sports, it’s proven its willingness to back ancillary properties with Grantland, and ultimately, Silver’s credibility arises not from his employer but from his reputation for accurate predictions – and that reputation will rise or fall on the question (objectively falsifiable by events) of whether he can continue to make accurate predictions.
Greenwald’s project as well has a certain logic – his oeuvre depends on convincing the reader that the rest of the media is in cahoots with the government to conceal the truth, and the believability of that message doesn’t really depend on whether it comes from a legacy newspaper or a mimeographed newsletter handed out on a streetcorner.
For Ezra Klein, though, the calculus is quite different. Klein has no special expertise to offer – he has no professional training or experience, having worked almost exclusively as a blogger. He has no academic background worth speaking of, just an undergraduate degree, and not even a terribly impressive one. He got his start at the far-left blog Pandagon. Many of his new confederates at Vox have similar resumes, resumes seemingly designed to get them in the door at a newspaper, magazine or TV network, rather than to demonstrate freestanding subject-matter expertise.
Klein has his virtues (he’s particularly good at conducting interviews of public officials, getting them into the weeds of policy), but ultimately his stock in trade is not falsifiable facts but “Washington facts”: CBO scores, fact checks, and other tools of the trade of determining what facts are considered admissible under Capitol Hill’s unique and parochial rules of evidence. These are not really facts at all, since they are subject to continual revision with little reference to the real world, but they are vastly influential in how government policy is set – a classic exercise in speaking power to truth, power that conservative writers rarely get to exercise.
In debating such facts, the value of the Washington Post name is incalculable. In Congressional debates and televised attack ads, it is a great asset to be able to cite The Washington Post; it is far less valuable to tell the voters in a district in Iowa or Colorado what Ezra Klein of Vox dot com thinks. And make no mistake: liberal though it is, the Post is a venerable Washington institution with deep ties to both sides of the aisle, and the institutional gravitas that comes of being a city’s leading daily newspaper for decades.
Vox has none of that – it’s a startup run and owned by Vox Media, a company started by hard-Left Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas and his business partner Jerome Armstrong, a/k/a astrologer Vis Numar. Whatever its tone, it is unquestionably a liberal Democratic venture, hiring Klein’s ideological compatriots. Nobody who knows anything of its personnel or origins will mistake it for an objective source, and nobody who knows nothing of either will treat it as a major media outlet.
For years, friends and I referred to Klein, only half-jokingly, as the future editor of the Washington Post; he has tossed that away in exchange for increased autonomy and perhaps an increased ability to turn a profit, but what he has lost will be very hard to replace.
[Y]ou underestimate at your peril a site that’s marketing itself as willing to hand-hold readers who came to a story late or in bits and pieces and hope to learn quickly why everyone else seems to be talking about it. Someone who enjoys a BuzzFeed post with 37 GIFs in it might not sit still for a long Nate Silver data-crunch but they might be willing to devote three minutes to Ezra patiently leading them through an easily digestible Q&A annotated with simple graphs. If you want to bring people around to your side politically, you should aim for the low-information readers; they’re the natural target for “explanatory journalism.”
There is doubtless something to that: Vox may be trading off the reader who reads the Washington Post to find out what official Washington is talking about this week in exchange for the kind of reader who goes to Upworthy and the Daily Show to see and hear things that confirm his or her pre-existing biases – trading the readership of the powerful and influential for the chance to influence the next generation of voters. But even if that serves a useful purpose for the movement in general, it is a leap in the dark, out of the world in which liberals have camoflauged themselves in the garb and authoritative voice of venerated institutional newspapermen, and into the red-in-tooth-and-claw world of open ideological combat that conservatives have lived in for decades. The difference is that Klein and his co-workers have surrendered this patrimony for this pottage, not by necessity, but by choice. Time will tell if that choice was a wise one.