Vox and Ezra Klein: testing the limits of the digital-news expansion

Will what works for tech and fashion work for policy?

When Ezra Klein was told to fish-or-cut bait at The Washington Post last week, it was already in the air that the Wonkblog founder was looking to take his plans for an expanded policy blogging operation to Vox Media, the growing digital media company already gathering huge traffic with tech, sports, gaming, and recently, real estate verticals.

Well, as they say on Wall Street: buy on the rumor, sell on the news. Klein is indeed headed for Vox, and there are a couple of reasons this move is worth the attention it is getting.

And perhaps even a word of caution may be in order.

It is not, as many would have it, a sign of clay-footedness or lack of imagination on the part of his former employer, which no doubt would have loved to have kept their wildly popular policy ace—but just not at the eight-figure price keeping him would have entailed. This is like St. Louis letting Albert Pujols go, a business decision (not to say Ezra will have as bad a year as Pujols did). There certainly aren’t many Ezras around, but the Post has plenty of work to do elsewhere to do to shore up its news-gathering operation, get its subscription system right, and so on.

It is, though, about the rise of a new generation of media companies that are free from the industrial-era legacies—culture, costs, brands—that are as much burden as advantage and that are able to project a technologist’s understanding of what content works in the new environment and what technology supports the content. Indeed, the distinction between content and its technological underpinnings is shrinking by the minute.

Vox, based in Washington and New York, has its roots in a collection of sports blogs that is now its SB Nation vertical. It’s backed by venture capital funding and has steadily expanded under its chairman and CEO Jim Bankoff, a former top executive at AOL. Last November, Vox turned heads when it bought Curbed Network, a trio of cheeky real estate, food, and style sites, for a mix of cash and stock valued at $20-$30 million. It’s notable that Curbed’s traffic was not massive as these things go—five million monthly unique visitors (not that I’m sneezing at it)—compared to Vox’s combined traffic of nearly 57 million monthly visitors, as Fortune reported then. And yet Vox paid serious money for the operation anyway.

At the time, Felix Salmon saw a new era of consolidation taking hold among a new cadre of digital powers, Vox being foremost among them. He quoted Henry Blodget saying: “Somebody’s going to build the Time Inc of digital media.” The idea being that costs for back-office, technology, sales and other functions can be shared among a growing number of titles.

Well, it certainly worked for Time.

The Vox acquisition of Klein and his team, which includes Melissa Bell and Dylan Matthews, as well as Matthew Yglesias of Slate, does nothing to throw cold water on that theory.

I wrote last week about the conga line of Web stars at major media organizations—
Nate Silver. David Pogue, the former AllThingsD crew, Glenn Greenwald, and last year Andrew Sullivan, and others, moving to new ventures or off on their own. Not long before, Vox bought Curbed, Politico moved to expand its digitally focused breaking-news operation to New York by buying Capital New York for an undisclosed, reportedly small sum. I’ll argue in another post that the New York experiment is probably going to work.

All of this movement and reordering speaks to the rise of a new generation publishers and perhaps future media giants.

But it’s worth looking at the big picture a minute.

The story on journalism’s print side is one of retrenchment or, at best, holding on for dear life. The one bold experiment in print expansion has already hit a wall. Print is still basically a disaster area.

Meanwhile, a few digital publishers are succeeding, or least expanding. Even if the number of winners is small, their success stands in sharp contrast to a difficult landscape for the news generally.

And here’s where things get interesting.

For one thing, as others have pointed out, these sites are massively popular but, as a rule, their profitability is either marginal or, because they are owned by closely held companies, opaque.

Klein, in his announcement on Vox’s The Verge, discusses his vision of contextualizing the news. But he doesn’t mention business models.

He also expresses what strikes me as a rather optimistic view of Web production imperatives. He says that while newspapers were tethered to the daily new cycle—“The constraint of newness was crucial”—the Web…

has no such limits. There’s space to tell people both what happened today and what happened that led to today. But the software newsrooms have adopted in the digital age has too often reinforced a workflow built around the old medium. We’ve made the news faster, more beautiful, and more accessible. But in doing we’ve carried the constraints of an old technology over to a new one.

But, the Web has brought revolutionary changes to journalism (and many things) that have smashed old constraints in many ways, but as I’ve written, it has not necessarily bought journalists any more of their most precious resource: time.

Also, it’s worth remembering that while Vox is a departure for Klein, Klein & Co. are also a departure for Vox. Until now, Vox has carefully chosen its areas of strength, and so far those have tended to be specialized areas of consumer interest: tech, sports, games, fashion, real estate, and food. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But one the great conundrums of the era of digital disruption has been how to make the news itself pay. Politico believes it has found the answer to the problem of delivering public-interest news in the digital age, and yet many readers do not find it a particularly satisfying answer. Talking Points Memo has made spectacular go of it. Buzzfeed and Business Insider are generating enormous traffic numbers. But none of those are what Wonkblog was about or what Klein is describing. This will be new.

Ezra Klein told David Carr that the goal of the site is to go beyond politics and policy and serve as a prism on the rest of the news. That sounds valuable. The question is whether it can also be profitable.

It is beyond question that a new generation of digital journalism has arrived. The growth of Vox, for instance, feels measured, deliberate, and organic. Now it is about to learn whether its model and popularity can be translated to policy analysis and some as-yet-to-be-determined take on public-interest news.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman. Tags: ,