Once dubbed “the prince of DC media” by the New Republic, Ezra Klein, founder of the Washington Post’s influential Wonkblog, stunned publishing circles early last year when he bolted the Post for Jim Bankoff’s Vox Media. Known for his data-driven analysis and his access to policymakers all the way to the Oval Office, Klein had a vision for a new website and a new way of writing about Washington that would explain the issues behind the horse-race stories and filibuster fights.
Now there’s another change: This spring, Klein’s newsroom began exporting its revolution, with its signature “card stacks” spreading across the internet as embeddable backgrounders to accompany daily news stories. We talked to Klein, 31, about his obsession with explaining and about life at a web start-up.
You left the Post, a revered Washington media institution, for a firm that’s entrepreneurial and aimed at digital natives. Do you feel like a new person?
No. I do feel like a nerd within my own company. I’m always in button-down shirts while the tech guys are in shorts. But the workflow hasn’t changed that much. There was a time when there were real differences—new media was more agile, the content was lower-quality, they worked off of lower standards. That difference has almost entirely broken down.
If you look at the Upshot at the New York Times or Morning Mix at the Post, there’s a tremendous amount of digital innovation there. And there are more traditional things happening at new-media organizations. BuzzFeed’s news division has a lot of veterans of legacy organizations. It does the news in ways that are very recognizable to anyone who read the news in print ten years ago. It’s a news organization that happens to be online.
But BuzzFeed still doesn’t read or look like the Post or the Times. It feels disruptive, a bit more gonzo.
Some of it is, some of it isn’t. Their Ukraine reporting has been very strong and completely recognizable to anyone who reads foreign reporting. There can be a difference in tone, but there’s a difference in tone everywhere.
So after all the hullabaloo about how the internet is going to change the news business, are we just looking at a platform change?
It depends which part of it you’re looking at. Things have changed more than people realize. Newspapers are written very differently than 15 years ago. The standards of what you can say in a news story has changed. Similarly, while there’s nothing new about putting context in a story, now we at Vox.com can embed, in the middle of a news story on Obamacare, a 6,000-word troll through the subject. There’s nothing new about putting context in a story. But it had to be in line with the text.
Is that the full impact? Do you ever step back and ask: How is Vox really changing the business?
I think about it much more structurally. The switch from print to digital changed three things: The speed at which we could put content in front of our readers. It changed the fundamental scarcity of print—how many pages did you have? And it changed persistence. The great waste of journalism is everything we’ve reported before today. Yesterday’s newspaper is useless. A paper from a month ago is in the landfill. There’s no way to use what you’ve already done well.
As an industry, we figured out speed quickly. In fact, it might be better if we were a little bit slower. I don’t think we have figured out length. Opinion columns are still 800 words. Feature stories are still 3,000-ish. Why? ClickHole—the Onion’s site that makes fun of digital news—had a headline recently that said, the time i spent on a commercial whaling ship totally changed my perspective on the world. When you clicked on it, they had copied and pasted all of Moby-Dick. That’s a good joke, but the idea that you can print all of Moby-Dick, plus everything else you have that day, is revolutionary. We’re nowhere near making sense of what that means.
We also haven’t figured out persistence. If you go to any site’s homepage, virtually everything on it was published that day for the first time.
It had better be, though, right?
I disagree. I totally disagree.
You think people will come back to Vox if you’re not explaining that day’s story?
My point is everything we’ve printed before today is still available to us, and we haven’t done a good job yet figuring out what that means. I don’t think for a second that everything we put on the front page today at Vox was more useful to our readers than everything we’ve ever published. Some feature we wrote a year ago may be the best thing to read today.
You mentioned BuzzFeed, which has become a serious news source, as you say. But it also has kittens. What is your kittens?
Right now we’re hovering around 20 million unique visitors a month. The next step is not mindless growth. Advertisers don’t want to be next to your shame read. Not long ago, [Washington Post media blogger] Erik Wemple quoted someone at Politico saying that Politico is “post-traffic.” That got passed around and people made fun, but I thought it was smart.
Politico could increase their audience by covering a bunch of nonpolitical topics, but they have a particular audience that cares about what they do, and that’s a valuable audience. I think that’s encouraging.
When I came to the web, I thought it was all a game of traffic. I thought that our card stacks were going to be big, and they have generated a big audience. But it’s been encouraging to find out that traffic isn’t the only thing that matters.
For a while, as you were leaving the Post, you were the story.
I know, it was very frustrating.
Does Vox depend on you as a brand?
I hope not. I probably come with ups and downs. Anyway, I don’t write as much as I used to. Vox wouldn’t be growing if the audience was coming here for me.
But don’t you think it contributed to Vox’s fast start?
Oh, definitely. It helped Jim Bankoff want to take a meeting with me. People were willing to make a bet on us. But that bet ended the day Vox started publishing. Then it became a bet on our writers and editors and designers and the engineers.
From the outside, it often looks like running an internet company means playing a lot of foosball. But the reality can be grim. Are you having fun?
I am. But by the way, no one ever uses our foosball table. My understanding is that you can’t have venture capital unless you have a foosball table. It’s in the contract. I don’t think anyone really plays it. Foosball is a terrible game.
Do you ever see your wife?
I do. I see her every day almost.
Do you ever see the President?
The President? Much more rarely than my wife.
What amazes me is how much the talk about new media is about the medium itself. Journalists don’t talk anymore about what we publish—we talk about how we publish it.
I’m not abstractly interested in the technology. I find conversations about the future of journalism tiresome. They are just a terrible side effect of my job. I get a lot of e-mails from high-school students who say, “I had to write an essay on Michael Brown and Ferguson, and your card stack was super-helpful.” I talk a lot at colleges because I think that audience is a really important audience for us. If we’re failing them, we’ll fail across a wide range of audiences.
I think back to myself as a college student, about how much I wanted to know and how little I actually knew. When I started reading the news—after 9/11 is when I began to pay attention—for a long time I only understood 45 percent of every article. There was so much encoded around what it meant to say “Senate minority leader Tom Daschle.” I just didn’t have associations with that. After a couple of months, I got up to 55 percent, and after a year 65 percent.
It’s very frustrating to feel that dumb. So that’s a real sweet spot for us. Now we have this thing I can put inside every story that tells them everything they want to know.
With your card stacks.
Yes, and now we can embed them on other sites. We have a deal with McClatchy [newspapers]. They are using them in some of their local papers. High schools use them, college courses use them.
That’s what floats your boat.
This is the kind of thing that frustrated me as a writer. I would write stories about these complicated health-care topics that just assumed the reader knew everything about the single-payer option. It’s a pretty small group of people who have taken time to learn about single-payer health care. You have to be kind of a weirdo.
Recently I did this interview with [Weekly Standard cofounder] Bill Kristol about health-care reform. Right here [in the card stack], I can give people a really good explanation of the single-payer option. That’s something we couldn’t do before. Now we can, and so we should.
Not to be petty, but what’s the overlap between those interested in Bill Kristol and those who don’t know what single payer is?
Well, I don’t think they care about Bill Kristol.
But aren’t you saying that by putting this single-payer explanation on a Bill Kristol article, they do?
Well, our stories go into very unusual parts of the internet all the time. I see them ricocheting around Facebook. I’ve written pieces about price differentials in MRIs that got 750,000 readers. Not all those readers know about single payer.
The people who come to Vox every day may not be in need of a card stack on this or that issue. But because they’re optimized for search, they go far beyond the people who would read an article about Bill Kristol. One of our most popular cards stacks is one about ISIS that’s been viewed tens of millions of times. That’s all from search.
As a journalist, don’t you hanker for a bigger impact than explaining?
I think that impact is bigger than you do. I want people to think of Vox as the place they go when they need to understand the news—where, if you read us on this story, it will become clearer. I believe that’s very empowering.
But do you ever see yourself making the kinds of decisions Ben Bradlee had to make?
You mean do we publish something or not?
Exactly. What does that look like on Vox?
I don’t want you to publish me saying that we’ve broken Watergate, but we have stories where we have a document and we have to decide: Do we put it up in total or in part? We have to decide whether to put up a video of a guy getting shot by the police. Is it too graphic?
So as a journalist, are you going to look back on your career and say, “I really solved that explainer thing”?
Yes. That’s what I want. That’s what I’ve tried to make my job, going back to before Wonkblog. I’ve always tried to make policy comprehensible.
The worst thing we do as journalists, and one of the worst things Washington does in particular, is make people feel the news is too complicated for them—that the issues of importance are beyond their capacity to understand. We do it almost as a gag. We’ll talk about how incredibly dull it is to talk about Obamacare. But it’s literally a life-and-death issue for people.
That’s an incredibly devastating thing to do to a democracy, to persuade people that they won’t be able to keep up. So if we can give people a place they can catch up, that’s a huge win. And the more often we do that for you, the more often you’re going to come back.
Senior editor Paul O’Donnell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appears in our August 2015 issue.