MEDIA JANUARY 21, 2014
The news that Ezra Klein was taking key members of his Wonkblog team and marching them out of the Washington Post’s soon-to-be-vacated headquarters on 15th Street was not quite unexpected. Word that Klein was eyeing an exit, and talking to venture capitalists about it, had popped up in the New York Times early this month—word was that possible funders were talking about a number in the eight figures, enough to fund a site considerably more robust than Wonkblog. People in the building say higher-ups had been interviewing potential Klein replacements and flattering potential defectors.
All the same, the move represents one of those journalism moments that will be heralded as a sign of some big shift in the struggling business’ ecology. But just what does the shift represent?
Have We Seen This Movie Before?
In the decline narrative of the Graham-era Post, few stories loom larger than the tale of Politico’s creation. In short: In-house stars bring management a business plan for something new and webby—but also different from the general-interest newspaper model. Management says no. So they go off and do it themselves, and eat the Post’s lunch while they do. Does the sequence of events the preceded Klein’s departure mean the paper’s leadership has learned nothing?
Well, maybe not: Where Politico is built around obsessive, inside-baseball political reporting—i.e., something that represents a higher-octane version of a longtime Post franchise—Wonkblog was always been a bit of an outlier, albeit one that draws great traffic. If Klein’s venture proves as successful as Politico, it’s still not likely to do as much disrupting of the reporting that remains the paper’s mission. The bigger danger may be to the paper’s ailing interpretive sections like Op-ed and Outlook. Even Style could find some of its best stuff with a new competitor, especially true if Klein’s startup adds a culture vertical.
Old Post Pushed Out New Post
For all we know, Klein’s business plan may have been pricy and flawed and rejected for good reason. But the emotional impetus behind his trying to sequester his team from the rest of the paper is more telling: The Wonkbloggers were driven to distraction by key aspects of Post culture, and of traditional newspaper culture more broadly: The hand-wringing about opinion, the byzantine turf battles, the status differential between print and web, and the endless, unbearably stupid debates about just what is and isn’t journalism.
There’s a sad poetry to this: Just when a tech tycoon is injecting new life into the shrinking business, its most hidebound elements frustrate its newest ones. All the same, the things that grated on Klein’s team—the multiple rounds of print editing, the sometimes prissy policing against bias—are part of the value proposition a newspaper makes to its readers, one that should not be dispensed with lightly. The bottom line is that, even when leaders agree that 12-inch dailies and savvy policy explications are both valuable, few institutions can easily navigate this sort of culture clash.
They’re Betting on General Interest
One common trait of a lot of the successful sites run by newspaper refugees is deep-dive coverage of some single subject: politics, tech, sports. Buzz about the new Klein venture, though, suggests that he’ll cover a broader waterfront than Wonkblog, with its roots in policy writing. The encyclopedic, explanatory model may be a comparatively unique form, but the subject area may not be.
General interest isn’t totally unique online: Buzzfeed doesn’t have one single subject; Atlantic Media’s Quartz, while officially about business, has a wide range of obsessions. All the same, it will be interesting to see whether Klein 2.0 opens with a broad range of topics instead of building to them.
They’re Not Putting Much Stock in Legacy Validation
How much of Wonkblog’s success was a result of association with the Post? Some of it is simple, balance-sheet stuff: Being part of a bigger entity means you don’t have to pay rent and can share everything from lawyers to publicists to HR people to whoever deals with workplace vending-machine concession companies. But there are other, less tangible things: How much value is there in sharing a workplace with several hundred fellow journalists who, whatever you think of their newspaper-style product, know a lot about certain things?
More importantly, there’s the matter of traffic and infrastructure. Being freed from the Post’s CMS will likely be a good thing. But what about being cut off from its links? Some of this is knowable: You can tell whether traffic to a particular item comes directly or via an internal link. Less certain, though, is how much the validation that comes with being part of the Washington Post helps any particular Wonkblog item find an audience.
The folks Klein is counting on to fund a new venture apparently think the answer is, or could eventually be: not enough.