Ezra Klein's (almost) impossible but definitely praiseworthy dream

The creator of Wonk Blog believes there is an Internet business model for delivering the boring "truth"

Published January 27, 2014 5:04PM (EST)

Ezra Klein               (MSNBC)
Ezra Klein (MSNBC)

There are lots of things to like about what we know so far concerning Ezra Klein's new journalism venture, code-named "Project X." The creator of WonkBlog failed to secure  financial backing from Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post, but his new patron, Vox, has a proven record of merging state-of-the-art publishing technology with high-quality content. If "Project X" is as adept at delivering "explanatory journalism" about the issues of the day as Vox's flagship publication, The Verge, is at covering technology, then the media universe will be a better place.

Klein is also correct to point out that the Internet offers unlimited space to do things that traditional print media publications have been financially ill-equipped to accomplish; in Klein's words:  "delivering crucial context alongside new information." Newspapers, writes Klein, are more or less restricted to telling people what happened yesterday. (It's no accident, after all, that they're called "news" papers.) Klein is also stressing that Project X won't be a "super-WonkBlog," but Klein's Washington Post work undoubtedly provides the model for what is to come -- a lot more background info, historical context and geeky policy analysis.

It is reasonable to assume that as we get more comfortable and experienced with our new technology and media landscape we'll figure out better (and more profitable) ways to deliver "the news." Heaven knows the Internet needs a more intelligently curated Wikipedia -- a place to look for answers that isn't at the mercy of anonymous editors with axes to grind and an unworkable commitment, on the surface, to pure objectivity on highly contested and politicized issues.

But that's where it gets tricky. So far, Klein has presented his vision of "explanatory journalism" and "context" as if these things exist in some kind of Platonic cave where such things as the correct explanation and the true context are attainable. But history is just as contested by ideology and politics  as Capitol Hill. Ezra Klein and his co-conspirators have long operated in a specific range of the political spectrum. But one has only to look at a topic like Obamacare to see how violent the disagreement can be over the proper "context" for health-care reform. Can a journalism site scale up as necessary to deliver the traffic that will pay the bills, if it subscribes to a political point of view that vast portions of potential readership will reject as anathema?

Sure, there are online news organizations that have had broad success embracing particular strains of politics: Drudge and the Huffington Post spring to mind. But both also embrace tabloid styles and loads of clickbait headlines. Explanatory journalism is not their bailiwick -- and for good reason. In general, context doesn't drive a whole lot of pageviews. Sure, the Internet gives us all the space we need to tell long, complicated stories, but it's not so great at delivering audiences or scalable business models for financing the creation of those stories. The biggest success stories of recent years -- the Buzzfeeds and Upworthys and Business Insiders and Gawkers -- grab for audiences with shamelessly manipulative headlines and instant takes on current events because that's exactly what people click on the most.

And to be honest, there never was a great financial model for purveying explanatory journalism, even when newspapers were fat and happy and had more inches of newsprint to waste than content to plug in. The press has traditionally been subsidized by advertisers looking for readers, classified listings, and owners who, for one reason or another, saw value in telling the stories of the day in whatever style they saw fit. So when Ezra Klein says he's got the keys to a business model for a venture that will supply "crucial contextual information necessary to understand what's happened," he's making a hugely ambitious, transformative claim that flies in the face of everything we've seen happen to media over tat least the last 20 years -- and beyond!

Of course, The Verge is a rare exception to the relentless tabloidization of online media, and nobody has a better track record of popularizing explanatory journalism on the Internet than Klein. So if anyone can pull off this magic trick, it might as well be him. I'm certainly going to be rooting for him. But it ain't gonna be easy.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Explanatory Journalism Ezra Klein Journalism Online Journalism Wonkblog Project X The Verge Vox Wonk Blog