All the excited buzz about Ezra Klein’s new venture at Vox Media (congratulations to both) misses the real significance, I think: that, as best as I can tell, Klein & Co. will specialize not so much in topics but in forms of journalism, tearing apart the old, omnibus article and specializing in the explainer or backgrounder as a journalistic asset.
The Washington Post’s coverage of losing Klein to a new mistress concentrates on the litany of losses big media have suffered at the hands of younger competitors: Nate Silver from the New York Times, Andrew Sullivan from the Atlantic, Kara Swisher et al from the Wall Street Journal.
In his thumbsucker on the event, David Carr decides that this is the moment when tech companies that produce journalism supersede journalism companies that do tech. I disagree as I think concentrating on technology — that is, content management systems — as the root of value is still an expression of editorial ego: it’s about how *we* do our jobs rather than how the public benefits from the services we perform.
I couldn’t much understand what Klein will be up to from his announcement in Vox’ Verge. I started to understand it here: “Our mission is to create a site that’s as good at explaining the world as it is at reporting on it.” I better understood it, thanks to a Jay Rosen tweet, from the job posting for the venture (my emphasis):
We’ll have regular coverage of everything from tax policy to True Detective, but instead of letting that reporting gather dust in an archive, we’ll use it to build and continuously update a comprehensive set of explainers of the topics we cover. We want to create the single best resources for news consumers anywhere. We’ll need writers who are obsessively knowledgeable about their subjects to do that reporting and write those explainers — as well as ambitious feature pieces. We’ll need D3 hackers and other data viz geniuses who can explain the news in ways words can’t. We’ll need video producers who can make a two-minute cartoon that summarizes the Volcker rule perfectly. We’ll need coders and designers who can build the world’s first hybrid news site/encyclopedia. And we’ll need people who want to join Vox’s great creative team because they believe in making ads so beautiful that our readers actually come back for them too.
Aha. This is a step along a path Rosen began exploring in 2008, looking at the value of the explainer. And that is a step along a path I’ve been exploring in seeing news as a set of assets with different paths through them: what’s new (perhaps from Twitter), backgrounders (from Wikipedia), explainers (from KleinCo?), timelines from somewhere else, dramatis personæ from yet somewhere else, quotes in the story (from Cir.Ca), and so on….
What Klein is apparently doing is specializing in an asset type of news: the explainer. I think there’s a lot of value in that. You can get the latest on a story in so many places now — from Twitter, on TV, from wire services, and, yes, from news organizations. In all that coverage the old background paragraph — a vestige of the limitations of print — ill-served everyone: the novice is underserved (how can you catch up on the saga of Libya in five lines?) and the expert’s time is wasted (how much effort to we expend trying to skip over the old stuff in news articles?).
I’ve also been telling TV folks lately that, freed by the net of the need to fill a clock, they can use their medium to create explainers as assets that have ongoing value.
In the end, I think — I hope — what Klein is doing is staking his ground and following a dictum I started thinking about in 2007: Do what you do best and link to the rest. What he wants to do best is explain the news and the world to the public. That’s a tall order but I like the mission. And he can leave the cute cats to someone else.