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Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias to Launch New Venture Doing News That Isn’t New

newsman

Ezra Klein has put out a teaser of the project that he left WaPo to pursue.

Early last year, Melissa Bell, Matt Yglesias and I began wrestling with a question that had bugged all of us for a long time: why hadn’t the Internet made the news better at delivering crucial context alongside new information?

This year, we’re founding a new publication at Vox Media in order to do something about it.

New information is not always — and perhaps not even usually — the most important information for understanding a topic. The overriding focus on the new made sense when the dominant technology was newsprint: limited space forces hard choices. You can’t print a newspaper telling readers everything they need to know about the world, day after day. But you can print a newspaper telling them what they need to know about what happened on Monday. 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.

Today, we are better than ever at telling people what’s happening, but not nearly good enough at giving them the crucial contextual information necessary to understand what’s happened. We treat the emphasis on the newness of information as an important virtue rather than a painful compromise.

The news business, however, is just a subset of the informing-our-audience business  —  and that’s the business we aim to be in. Our mission is to create a site that’s as good at explaining the world as it is at reporting on it.

The comments on the announcement are mostly stupid but, the consensus is that they’re not impressed. Aside from the fact that it’s Klein and Yglesias, I’d be inclined to agree. What the new site will do, exactly, isn’t clear. But it is, after all, a teaser. Presumably, we’ll get more details as they get closer to launch.

Offhand, the notion that the Internet makes it possible to give readers context and analysis rather than Just The Facts Ma’am reporting of what happened yesterday is not exactly novel. Indeed, most good news and commentary outlets have been trying to do just that for over a decade now. The best blogs do that, too. Indeed, doing that is what made Klein, in particular, such a rising star. It’s what WonkBlog was, for that matter.

Regardless, they’re hiring:

We’ll be joined by some familiar faces in this venture, including the great Dylan Matthews — and more who’ll be announced in the coming weeks and months. But we’re also hiring. If you share our passion for fixing the news, you should send us your resume here, and tell us how you want to help us do a better job informing our readers.

It’ll be interesting. And I wish them well. But revolutionizing the public policy news and analysis space is a tall order, indeed.

UPDATE: Mark Potts has done some digging and provides some interesting context:

It appears that the big project that led Wonkblog proprietor Ezra Klein to bolt The Washington Post for VoxMedia is to “build the world’s first hybrid news site/encyclopedia,” according to a job posting on VoxMedia’s ProjectX site. The posting says Klein wants 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.”

Interesting idea. But it won’t be the first swing at such a concept. In fact, none other than The Washington Post Co. chased a similar idea…15 years ago.

It was called Context4, and the reason you’ve never heard of it is because it never made it past early planning and prototyping stages, for various reasons. But a group of us, working for the Post, pursued the idea for several months in 1998 in a partnership with Encyclopedia Britannica, search engine Infoseek and a couple of other partners.

Much more on that project at the link. But, I must say, the combo of news and a “comprehensive set of explainers” sounds awfully humdrum. Klein has proven to be a savvy entrepreneur, excelling at figuring out what his audience wants, so I’m prepared to be proven wrong. But this sounds like a more personality-driven version of About.com or Mahalo. The latter was the brainchild of Jason Calcanis, not exactly a slouch as a web entrepreneur, and never really took off.

UPDATE 2: Klein is rolling out the rollout very smartly, with dribs and drabs everywhere, spreading the buzz nicely. He’re what he says in an interview at Buzzfeed:

This idea of the news site is deeper and has more dimensions than Wonkblog, and it will touch on more parts of our approach to news. It’s not just explainers, and though we have an idea, it will take time to fully unveil itself.

[...]

We’re not trying to build a “super Wonkblog.” If we were doing that we wouldn’t go through all this trouble. We intend to be incredibly good at policy and politics but also sports and science. We are trying to build a full news site and in a better and more useful way for our readers. We will be in as many issue areas as our revenue model will openly support. This is not just Wonkblog or policy news. This is a much broader product. It’s a completely different product.

[...]

I think it is an insanely exciting time to be in media. We are really at the beginning of figuring out how to change how we present news and how to make it better for our audiences. This is a broad point that I think speaks to Vox, Buzzfeed, Vice and all the others, and sometimes I think if you’re on the cutting edge you don’t see this so clearly, but the technology we use shapes our culture and how it develops. One of the things I think is interesting about all this is that we’re really trying to build a new culture atop these new technologies. And I think we can do that in this field by asking ourselves ‘who would we want to be if we came into this whole news and internet climate completely fresh?’ It’s about how we define and think and continue to think about journalism and how we can better serve our readers. And I think the technologies we’re on now can and will give rise to new cultures and make a real change.

It’s exciting because it’s a time when we might have this totally wrong and we could totally flame out, but it’s also a time where you can try some very big things. If you got into this to learn about the world and inform big audiences like I did, then that’s an amazing and appealing prospect. And really, if you’re in this game and you’re not excited about that, then I don’t know what you’re here for.

Again, this is both quite intriguing and a bit of a head scratcher. Klein and Yglesias are policy nerds with some niche interests outside of the politics-policy realm. Yglesias is an NBA junkie, for example.But it’s odd to think of them running a news operation that’s about, well, everything.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. C. Clavin says:

    I’m far more interested in this venture now that Yglesias is involved.
    But experience tells me that whenever anyone claims to be doing something refreshingly new…it’s most likely not.
    Time will tell.
    Best of luck to them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  2. Moosebreath says:

    It sounds like they are aiming to provide more context and analysis than the media typically does, something like what Klein did at Wonkbook, but over a larger range of issues.

    Not anything terribly new, but certainly something the current media is very bad at.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  3. Really depends on how it’s presented. If they follow the existing ad-rich newspaper-on-a-screen model, I smell failure, or at the very best, meh. If they want it to reflect the times, it needs to be much more an app and much less a web site. This will be crucial in doling out the explanations and still keep the audience reading.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  4. mattbernius says:

    But, I must say, the combo of news and a “comprehensive set of explainers” sounds awfully humdrum. Klein has proven to be a savvy entrepreneur, excelling at figuring out what his audience wants, so I’m prepared to be proven wrong. But this sounds like a more personality-driven version of About.com or Mahalo.

    The issue with About and Mahalo was neither brand was particularly known for quality explaining. In fact, any authority About has was/is provided by it’s “experts.”

    Further both sites were focused on a wide-wide range of topics.

    The two founders of this venture, have made their names in ‘splainin’ newsie/policy things. So the site is built on their reputation and the expectation that their writers and editors will be living up to their standards.

    Further, the site is — apparently — going to be organized around news and using that as a gateway to the explanations. So everything sounds like it’s going to be VERY targeted. That seems like it could work out quite well for them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  5. Rick Almeida says:

    I might be the only one, but the fact that Matt Yglesias is involved in any endeavor is pretty much enough for me to decide it can be safely ignored.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  6. stonetools says:

    Count me among the skeptics. I don’t think there’s much new here. Sounds like a digital attempt at a magazine like The Atlantic or the New Yorker. Still, I wish them well. I like both guys, and I’ve been reading them a while.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  7. C. Clavin says:

    But, I must say, the combo of news and a “comprehensive set of explainers” sounds awfully humdrum.

    This, to me, seems to be a classic case of over-thinking.
    Look…Sarah Palin says Death Panels. That doesn’t take a comprehensive set of explainers. It takes a journalist to simply state…there are no Death Panels…Palin is making that shit up.
    Or Ted Cruz says that he never wanted to shut the Government down…it was the Democrats who shut the Government down. Again…no comprehensive explainers needed. It just takes a journalist who is willing to call Ted Cruz a bald-faced liar.
    THAT is the problem with with journalism today. Journalists are more concerned with preserving their own access to DC power brunches than they are with doing their jobs. If Klein and Yglesias are really interested in something new…that would be a good place to start.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  8. john personna says:

    I think I trust these guys, generally, to have the restraint to do a fairly honest and impartial “encyclopedia” to support their news. And for that it is a neat concept.

    Of course, I could see Fox getting in the act, and developing a completely different news-encyclopedia for an entirely different market.

    It risks vertical integration for the information silo set.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. Neil Hudelson says:

    @john personna:

    Fox wouldn’t have to invent anything new. http://www.conservapedia.com/Main_Page

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. john personna says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    Yikes.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  11. JKB says:

    Well, I’m sure this won’t just be a vehicle to try to manipulate the “news” like Journolist was.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. DrDaveT says:

    Indeed, most good news and commentary outlets have been trying to do just that for over a decade now.

    That’s news to me. Care to point me at some of these mythical sites?

    Sounds like I’m the only person here who read the teaser thinking “Right on, go for it!”. I have graduated from contempt to dismissal in my opinion of what passes for journalism these days, and a lot of that is driven by the Three Laws of Journalism:
    1. It’s better to be first than to be accurate
    2. It’s better to be provocative than to be nuanced
    3. It’s better to talk about how the news will influence opinion than to talk about how the facts will influence reality

    Of course, all of those are driven by Law #0: news is a product, like toothpaste or pizza. Sell the sizzle, not the steak.

    If someone out there really wants to make sure that the facts and history that can help readers distinguish important news from churn, I say more power to ‘em. Of course, execution matters too, so it could still be useless.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  13. “But it’s odd to think of them running a news operation that’s about, well, everything.”

    Unless they hire, well, everyone. :-)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  14. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: The NYT and WaPo both do a lot of this sort of thing, as do sites like The Atlantic. There’s tons of real-time news analysis and backgrounders.

    @Kathy Kattenburg: Sure. But then what’s the point? Klein at least has some track record of building a niche team. Yglesias is a smart, wonky writer. I”m just not sure how scalable they are.

    And, again, I’m just trying to figure this out. I like both of them and hope this works out. As noted in the first post on this subject, I”m paying money to subscribe to Josh Marshall’s and Andrew Sullivan’s sites, just because I’d love to see smart and different succeed. I just don’t quite understand how it’ll work.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  15. Ben Wolf says:

    @Rick Almeida: You sir, win the thread.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  16. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner: If the Washington Post is your standard for how it ought to be done, we’ll have to agree to disagree. I’m a subscriber, but only for lack of better options. What passes for ‘background’ there may be better than other places, but it’s still awfully threadbare. The Economist does it better, but even they have room for improvement, even on a weekly cycle.

    The bottom line is that most news doesn’t (read: shouldn’t) change the big picture very much, and good reporting would make that plain, clearly distinguishing those rare developments that do change everything. But that’s not the product that sells.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  17. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: I’m not arguing that WaPo does this at the level of the individual article. I don’t think even Kleinglesias Post is going to do that. Rather, I’m arguing that WashingtonPost.com as a site does that, including through such vehicles as WonkBlog. An interested reader on a major topic will find plenty of useful news, commentary, and fact-checking on the site.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. pajarosucio says:

    I’m surprised to see that there is such criticism/pessimism about the project. I do not believe what is being proposed is already being done. Klein’s ability to simplify policy debates and provide some context to them is what has made him so popular. To do this on a much larger, more consistent scale seems desirable.

    For instance, during the debate over filibuster reform it would have been illuminating to have access to a Wonk-style history of the filibuster. Wikipedia is largely inadequate and rife with incorrect or sensationalized information. You’d have to comb through several books to find the information you’d want (as I ended up doing). To have Klein and Co. do this (and for each news issue) and to have it cataloged encyclopedia style for easy access later would be quite valuable. Maybe they will fail or it will be too grand of an idea to make work, but I don’t see this type of thing already in existence.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0