Vox.com, the much-discussed new project from Ezra Klein, Melissa Bell, and Matt Yglesias, launched late Sunday night. With the obvious disclaimer—cautioned by the Vox crew—that it’s way too early to draw any real conclusions, I agree with what seems to be the prevailing view online: It’s off to a pretty good start.
The Vox founders had a chance to observe the sharp critical response to the similarly hyped relaunch of FiveThirtyEight, and the top editors go out of their way to downplay expectations in an introductory post, defining the site as a “work in progress”—the swagger is notably dialed back from that video a month ago. But there’s a mix of interesting stuff right from the start, from Klein’s long essay on how motivated reasons mess up our politics, to Sarah Kliff’s profile of the Michigan man who’s tracking Obamacare enrollment like nobody else, to Dara Lind’s report on excessive use of force by Border Patrol agents. And unless you have a strong intolerance for list-based journalism or reprises of posts that have already appeared elsewhere, there aren’t many obvious duds. Plus, the site looks good. If you’re a fan of Yglesias- and Klein-style explanatory journalism (I am), you should like what you see and want to come back for more. (For a few more critical takes, see here, here, here, and most of Chuck Lane’s Twitter feed since Sunday night.)
But if it’s still early to draw conclusions about the execution, one thing about Vox seems already clear: It’s going to be, basically, what you’d expect if you’ve been following Klein’s critique of the industry—which is that journalism turns off news consumers by focusing too much on what’s new, and so makes it hard to understand why it matters, or what the big picture is. As Politico’s Dylan Byers noted on Twitter: “The Feb. theory on Vox as a new, smarter version of Wikipedia seems to have panned out.” And that means it’ll be fascinating to watch even if you’re not a fan of Klein and Yglesias, because Klein’s critique will be put to the test.
The argument is one Klein has been making for years. From a post back in June 2010, when he was a solo blogger at The Washington Post, before Wonkblog had grown into a mini-newsroom of its own:
It’s trite to say it, but the news business is biased toward, well, news. There are plenty of outlets that tell you what happened yesterday, but virtually no organizations that simply tell you what’s going on. Keeping up on the news is easy, but getting a handle on an ongoing situation that you’ve not really been following is hard. In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of outlets like FactCheck.org, which try and police lies that are relevant to the debate. But there’s really no one out there who is trying to give you the background to everything going in the debate. News organizations will write occasional pieces trying to sum up the legislation, but if you miss them, it’s hard to find them again, and they’re not comprehensive anyway. The fact that I still can’t direct people to one really good, really clear, really comprehensive online summary of the [healthcare] bill is an enduring frustration for me, and a real problem given the importance of the legislation and the number of questions there are about it.
It looks like a core editorial mission of Vox.com is going to be delivering those “really good, really clear, really comprehensive online summaries” of issues in the news. And its core innovation, at least for now, is “card stacks”—essentially, standing explainers that break a topic down question by question, chunk by chunk. In an oddly analog analogy, they’re modeled after the index cards you might have used to organize your school notes—click on a yellow-shaded phrase in a card, or in a main story, and it’ll take you right to the corresponding card. The card stacks are given prominent space on the homepage; three of them are featured along with the site’s motto, “Understand the News,” directly beneath the main feature story. (There’s already an interesting discussion about how to handle changes to these standing news explainers.)
The problem the card stacks are supposed to solve is a real problem, and Vox isn’t the only place trying to address it. My wife, a news civilian, complains about the experience of not having an entry point to a running news story pretty frequently. I’d love a Vox card stack on, say, the anti-democracy movement in Thailand—I found that I would keep starting New York Times articles about it, but would never finish them, because I could never get a real handle on why the protests were happening.
But can solving that problem be the foundation of a site with a midsized newsroom and ambitions for a mass audience? How large is the vacuum created by the “bias toward news” that’s waiting to be filled?
I honestly have no idea. And no doubt, we should take the “work in progress” point seriously, and card stacks won’t be the end of innovation at Vox. For now, though, I suspect that the potential readership for a 26-card explainer on Obamacare is mostly people who are already invested, and who make an effort to consume the “vegetables” of news. If what Vox ultimately does is serve those people better, does that count as a success?
In a speculative post at The Daily Dot, E.A. Weiss sees potential for something bigger. “If Vox is successful,” Weiss writes, “it’ll be able to do what Wikipedia does”—that is, own the first result of Google searches—“but with the big news story of the day. And that could be huge.” (Klein, over email, indicated social sharing will be a more important part of Vox’s traffic strategy than Weiss’s post suggests.) Meanwhile, Pando’s Nathaniel Mott offers the pessimistic view: “If the best in explanatory journalism looks like BuzzFeed written by a college professor, perhaps the category won’t be as huge as Bell, Klein, Yglesias, and [Vox Media CEO Jim] Bankoff think.”)
Personally, for now, I’m just glad to have a chance to see how Klein’s theory fares in the real world—and waiting to see if the Vox crew can come up with techniques and formats that are adopted across the industry. Whether or not you’re a fan, it’s an experiment that’s worth watching.Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx. Tags: explanatory journalism, Vox Media