What is good journalism? Or perhaps the question belongs to the realm of proper nouns; Good Journalism, a brand in and of Itself, always ready for consumption by the ravenous masses.
History seems to tell us that It moves in waves, slowly rising from the ashes of John Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Empire, eventually finding Its true form in the storied pages of the New York Times and between the bylines of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, steadily chiseling away at Dick Nixon’s suit of armor. It’s one of those things where we know It when we see It; like a particularly cheesy remake of Field of Dreams, God reaches out, grabs us by our collective collars and calmly tells us “this, this right here. This is It.”
Good Journalism is eminently readable but devastatingly effective, right? It’s an important question to ask, especially as the entire news media industry seems to be teetering on the edge, like an old bus hanging over a cliff, one quick push away from careening down into the valley of the unknown and the unexplored. To the other side lies the well-known path, the comfortable roots of our journalistic souls. It provided a comfortable home for Good Journalism not too long ago, and with its respectable seriousness, abiding concern for the rules of journalism, and journalistic integrity. It’s by all means a more moral place. In fact, it’s probably objectively better journalism. But it’s also dying, and fast.
The old stalwarts of the comfortable path, the names that worked their way into every household and tore down the careers of many a powerful man and woman, are pushing the bus over the edge as we know it – progress, meet the pay wall. Those aching for the old experience of a newspaper in hand, ink dyeing their fingers as they sip on a black coffee and smoke three cigarettes—people still living in 1960 and hipsters—may try to deny the loss of the old guard, but it’s a tough sell. For now, they can turn to Al Jazeera America and pretend everything feels just as stuffy as it was before.
But for the rest of us, Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post, the Grey Lady started hemorrhaging print subscribers, put in a pay wall, and the land of digital media became the name of the game. To finish off the metaphor, the bus may be past the point of no return. It’s unclear anyone knows where it’s headed.
Ezra Klein seemed pretty sure he knew. At least, one could hardly fault him for thinking that he could stare into the void and that the void would peer back, graciously imparting the wisdom required to lead the charge and revolutionize media as we know it. This was, after all, a man who Washington DC—the same town notorious for throwing Copernicus to the breeze and insisting that the sun revolves around its tiny, little rock full of tiny, yet very brave, gladiators sent to change the world—insisted on calling a wunderkind. As early as 2007 Paul Krugman blogged his affection for Klein, which doesn’t seem like so long ago until you realize that Klein was 23 when Krugman introduced his network to the intrepid young blogger.
It’s mostly a story of upward mobility on steroids from there, as Klein’s Washington Post-hosted “Wonkblog” gained a niche following, and then a significant DC powerbroker readership, and then became the fodder of politically inclined debaters everywhere, all the while marching towards its final tally of four million page views a month. Though in college he made his name as an online firebrand, the kind that usually either becomes a Reddit commenter or Andrew Breitbart, Klein showed a very different side of himself with Wonkblog, where he broke down complicated policy debates into easily digestible pieces. His casual style and sophisticated analysis gave The Washington Post—which had looked more like a cut of fly-covered, rapidly-decaying, USDA prime steak than a modern news outlet before he arrived—the breath of fresh air that it needed. Not to overdramatize the significance, but it should be recognized: the whole thing almost felt like Good Journalism. Maybe he was the future.
A year later, the jury’s still out. Or, sort of, depending on who you ask. But once Klein started to really taste the success that his brand brought along, once he peeked into the yard of Nate Silver and saw the making of a national-geek celebrity, one who could rival and complement his ascendancy to journalistic greatness, Klein decided to plunge headfirst into the void and make the move his career seemed to be calling for. With an expiring contract at the Post, Klein sent an unrealistically large promotion request to Jeff Bezos and began packing his things. It was decided: he would move on, taking advantage of his four million page views and the accompanying celebrity he’d accumulated over the years. He started his own outlet.
Welcome to the story, Vox. Klein’s brainchild started with unique enough goals: like he’d done at Wonkblog, Klein wanted to explain the news, to break it into even more digestible pieces than he’d done before with even snazzier graphics and prettier colors than he’d used before. He’d also have a staff of 30.
Vox came to life in the spring of 2014 and, side by side with Nate Silver’s newly launched, newly independent FiveThirtyEight platform, it seemed like the newest incarnation of Good Journalism was here. It sort of felt like watching the future arrive. Washington’s wunderkind couldn’t not save the day, right?
It’s hard to overwhelmingly condemn the whole experiment just a year later, but it seems clear that something got lost in translation for Klein. To his credit, he doesn’t seem to have lost much in his own writing, recently breaking down the idea of “block grants” and their application to huge Republican spending cuts in Vox’s trademark shiny yellow color scheme and engaging language. The real tragedy came on Vox’s homepage though, where an inquisitive reader could find Klein’s article neatly nestled into a set of exposés covering everything from “2 dinosaurs explain why driving a car is absolutely terrifying” to “5 utterly insane things that happen in the terrible new Adam Sandler movie The Cobbler.” As if to underline the point, Klein’s title rests atop a picture of Mitch McConnell either trying to make a speech or imitate the cute online videos of turtles trying to eat strawberries. Even for a dedicated news junkie, it lacks some of the pop that, say, two dinosaurs staring at a car might.
If you hear something, it might be the sound of Ida Tarbell’s soul quietly weeping.
It’s hard to believe that Good Journalism might ever die, but the parable of Vox, which consistently publishes a bizarre mix of intelligent analysis and Buzzfeed-esque clickbait, shows the danger of pinning all of one’s hopes on a still only 30 year-old man. And to a certain extent, it makes sense why Vox looks the way it does; critiquing the appetites of news consumers is as pointless as writing an article for the print edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer these days.
But what Vox and Ezra Klein fail to realize is that new age media hardly rests in presenting one monolithic product: block grants don’t belong in the same category as two dinosaurs trying to drive a car, so why put them there? Today’s news media seems to stare longingly at the world of newspapers circa 1975 and the front to back quality that made them great, but their hopes can only fall flat. People don’t seem to want cover-to-cover quality, and dinosaurs can be pretty funny. But Vox seems to insist that Good Journalism needs to hide beneath the shadows of brighter, more colorful photos dealing with less interesting, more mindless topics. If not a crime, it’s at least sad.
To his credit, Klein’s experiment is far from over. But in the search for quality amidst the new digital media landscape, Klein’s story points to a more startling truth: widely read, consistently great outlets may be dead, but Good Journalism lives on. Only once media outlets learn to separate the great from the mindless, to uproot It from the drivel and let it flourish unencumbered by the overpowering allure of pretty pictures will it all start to improve. Ezra Klein may still have time, but it’s winding down. For now, the bus looks to be falling. Let’s hope he learns how to drive.