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Ezra Klein Going Solo

ezra-klein-wapo

Ezra Klein is leaving the Washington Post to start a new media outlet of his own, joining a burgeoning trend.

POLITICO’s Dylan Byers (“Ezra Klein out at Washington Post“):

The Washington Post announced Tuesday that its star economics blogger Ezra Klein will be leaving the paper to start a new venture.

“When Ezra joined us in 2009, he was a wunderkind blogger with brash confidence and a burning desire to write a column in the print newspaper,” Post editors wrote in a memo to staff. “As he leaves us, Ezra is still a brash wunderkind, but now his burning desire has a grander scope: He is looking to start his own news organization, an ambition that befits someone with uncommon gifts of perception and analysis. Ezra’s passion and drive will be missed, but we will take pride in watching him chart out his new venture.”

The move comes after weeks of discussions between Klein and the Post brass over Klein’s future, including a proposal by Klein to start the new venture in-house with more than three-dozen staffers and a multi-year budget of at least $10 million. The Post declined that proposal.

Melissa Bell, the Director of Platforms at the Post, and Dylan Matthews, a member of Klein’s “Wonkblog” team, will also be leaving to take part in the new venture.

In a follow-up report with Hadas Gold (“Why The Washington Post passed on Ezra Klein“) Byers adds,

For nearly five years, the Post has steered a bounty of financial resources to its star economics columnist and blogger. It has allowed him to have a contributor deal with MSNBC, a column with Bloomberg View, and to write long-form for The New Yorker. It has provided him with eight staffers to keep Wonkblog, his popular policy vertical, flowing with up-to-the-minute charts and analysis. The PR department has promoted him in profile upon profile.

But when Klein proposed the creation of an independent, explanatory journalism website — with more than three dozen staffers and a multiyear budget north of $10 million — the Post said enough is enough. Indeed, Jeff Bezos, the Post’s new owner, and Katharine Weymouth, its publisher, never even offered an alternative figure, sources familiar with the negotiations said.

[...]

As early as this week, Klein is expected to announce a new venture — described in a memo to Post staffers as a new “news organization” — that will look to staff more than 30 people on the editorial side alone. Meanwhile, the Post, which for four years has benefited immensely from housing the Ezra Klein brand — Wonkblog averages more than four million page-views a month — will lose its star columnist and its claim to some of the most widely read policy analysis on the Internet.

Dave Weigel, Klein’s long-time friend and himself briefly a Post blogger before being fired over controversial revelations from leaked Journolist emails before being quickly rehired by Post-owned Slate, is bemused about the whole thing, as indicated by his headline, “Ezra Klein Leaves the Washington Post; Washington Wonders Whether the Post Ever Learns Anything.”

It’s been the talk of the notorious D.C. cocktail party circuit for a month, and now it’s official: Ezra Klein will leave the Washington Post after five years on staff. The paper decided not to invest in a massive expansion of his Wonkblog, which has grown to include eight reporters, a spinoff (the Switch), live events, and a morning newsletter. Klein, who’d found other sources of capital, would split, taking (for now) two WaPostaffers with him. The rumors had raised some temperatures in the newsroom, and you can feel that as you read the official memo.

[...]

Klein was 24 when he joined the paper, and is 29 now, around the same age as star political reporters Philip Rucker and Robert Costa, star columnist Clinton Yates, and star Style writer Dan Zak. Rucker and Zak actually joined the paper before Klein did. I mention them to emphasize how much talent there is at the paper, and to emphasize a “whuh?” at the use of “brash wunderkind.” Intentional or not, that’s easily read as a dimunition of a reporter/columnist who helped expand the paper online.

If so, it’s a diss at odds with recent history. At Politico, Dylan Byers and Hadas Gold wait until the second page of their Klein take to remind readers of the last time thePost let significant talent walk out the door. True, Klein had proposed a sizable new media venture within the now-Jeff Bezos-owned company, “eight figures” to start a new site, less than 5 percent of what Bezos spent to buy the Post. Byers/Gold credit “several journalists on Twitter” with an insight that lots of other journalists had all right: a “parallel between Klein’s departure and that of John Harris and Jim VandeHei—two former Post journalists who proposed a politics-driven media venture to their bosses but eventually left to launch POLITICO.”

That’s an interesting insight and one that hadn’t occurred to me. But I’m not at all sure that POLITICO would have become the sensation that it did if the Post had somehow convinced its founders to stay in-house and launch it as a sub-brand. For one thing, I’m not sure Harris and VandeHei would have put so much in to it as they did their own creation. For another, POLITICO simply operates under a different rhythm and under different rules than a daily paper; the cultures may simply be incompatible.

Byers and Gold’s analysis of why the Post didn’t even try to come up with a counter-offer is interesting and plausible:

The split, which has become a point of tension in the newsroom and the talk of the town in Washington, underscores a larger tension in the era of personal-brand journalism. Big media institutions go to great lengths to feed the egos (and pockets) of their growing stars, cultivating their image and reaping the rewards of high traffic. But when that brand becomes too expensive, or so big it threatens to outshine the institution itself, the institution is forced to let it go.

Klein is only the latest marquee journalist to outgrow his organization and launch a new venture. Nate Silver, the star political statistician, left The New York Times last year to reboot his FiveThirtyEight enterprise in affiliation with ESPN. AllThingsD founders Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg left The Wall Street Journal to launch a new tech news site with the backing of NBC Universal. David Pogue, the former New York Times tech columnist, went to Yahoo, where he is spearheading a new tech vertical. Glenn Greenwald, the former Guardian journalist, launched First Look Media with the backing of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Andrew Sullivan, the blogger hosted first by The Atlantic and then The Daily Beast, is now funded directly by his readers.

To some degree, Josh Marshall was a pioneer of the trend, leaving prestige outlets to build his Talking Points Memo blog into a major platform. Bill Simmons’ Grantland and the similar project being launched by Nate Silver, both under the ESPN umbrella but under their own brands, and the new venture in the works for Glenn Greenwald are more recent archetypes. As noted, Andrew Sullivan’s taking his blog private after years at Time, The Atlantic, and The Daily Beast is another.

What’s especially interesting is that all of them started off as solo bloggers (or, in the case of Simmons, some guy writing a sports newsletter in his basement). With the exception of Marshall, all took the proverbial Boeing to work for major media outlets only to then outgrow the confines of the company, becoming a brand in their own right. So, in a sense, they came full circle. But, obviously, all emerged as much bigger personal brands than they could have become if they’d just stayed as guys with their own websites.

Even though it’s a topic that’s fascinated me during these almost eleven years that I’ve been blogging, I can’t claim to understand the business of news as it’s evolved in the Internet age. Even venerable brands like the Post are struggling to keep afloat. The old model of advertising supporting the reporting just doesn’t work anymore and, aside from a handful of niche outlets who can charge a premium to customers for a unique product, nothing has replaced it.

Honestly, I don’t know whether it would have made sense for Bezos and the Post to invest in furthering the Wonkblog and Klein brands. I don’t know how much money four million monthly pageviews translates into as against the costs of supporting the staff.  Beyond that, the nature of the Internet is such that sub-brands can not only eclipse their masthead but that people increasingly don’t care about the masthead at all. For the most part, individual pages of content stand on their own with the Post’s masthead above the content no more relevant than Buzzfeed’s or I Can Haz Cheezeburger’s.

For that matter, given his ability to attract big time investors, it’s not clear to me why Klein would benefit from staying at the Post. As crazy as it seems that a 29-year-old in the political journalism business has grown bigger than the paper that took down Richard Nixon a decade before he was born, it’s true. Considering that he started building his brand as a blogger at roughly the same time as I did—and that he was a young undergraduate and I was a former professor almost a decade older then than he is now—it’s really quite stunning. But he’s now one of the most powerful voices in domestic political coverage and a multi-platform solo brand. That very concept would have seemed bizarre a decade ago. But it’s our current reality.

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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:

    Best wishes and good luck to him.
    Of course he is not a Sullivan.
    And Politico needs to resort to payola to make payroll.
    Personally…I don’t see it…but I’ve been wrong before. Today even. At least once.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  2. john personna says:

    He’s going with @dylanmatt, who is associated with http://knowmore.washingtonpost.com/

    I consider that site ugly and pointless. I hope they aren’t planning similar. It’s the trend though. The meta-trend. “12 top reasons @ezraklein should have an ugly play for viral content”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  3. Andre Kenji says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Of course he is not a Sullivan.

    Off course not. Ezra is ten times better than Sullivan.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 1

  4. C. Clavin says:

    @Andre Kenji:
    In some ways, maybe.
    But I don’t think he has the personality to carry an entire site.
    Like I said…I could be wrong.
    I hope I am and I certainly wish him the best.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  5. C. Clavin says:

    Speaking of leaving…looks like Hannity is leaving NY.
    http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/01/cuomo-may-have-convinced-hannity-to-leave-nyc.html
    Apparently he isn’t smart enough to know that he’s still going to pay some NY taxes because FAUX NEWS is based out of NY.
    If this works I wonder what Obama could do to make him leave the country???
    Of course Hannity is famously a major league pu$$y…who always talks the talk but never ever walks the walk…so my bet is that nothing comes of it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 4

  6. Stonetools says:

    Wish him the best,but it’s a big risk. Frank Rich and Nate Silver made similar moves and when was the last time you read any of their columns?
    Still, if anyone can make a go of it, it’s Ezra Klein.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  7. MarkedMan says:

    Count me in as someone who read Wonkblog but didn’t give a hoot for the Post. In fact, unless a Post article is specifically linked in Wonkblog there is virtually no chance for me to even know about it.

    The Post is the epitome of what I like least about main stream media: if they report “Side A says, but Side B says” and pass no judgement on what the truth actually is, they will not be “blamed” by either side, or at least not enough to make subscribers cancel and advertisers leave. The Post takes this policy to such extremes it literally makes me laugh out loud. I haven’t read it’s geriatric “here’s my solution – everyone split the difference and the president leads!” columnists in years. I remember when they got an ombudsman (Ruth something?) I thought it might be the start of a change but instead her work consisted entirely of a** kissing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  8. john personna says:

    Twitter Followers:

    Silver: 650K
    Klein: 418K
    Rich: 55K

    I’d say Klein and Silver have the eyeballs to make things happen. I’m sure the things they point to get traffic. I hope they use it for good, and this trend does not continue:

    Why ‘viral mills’ like Buzzfeed & Upworthy are content marketing at its worst

    Kind of a inside joke, I think. An anti-viral essay in viralish form.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. john personna says:

    Suddenly, Upworthy Clones Are Everywhere And Millions Of People Are Reading Them

    On March 26, 2012, a new media startup called Upworthy launched. Now it has 50 million monthly unique readers.

    Almost all of its readers come from Facebook. The headlines, which Upworthy’s editors toil over, leave much to be desired and tug at heart strings. Although there’s little more to the stories than something visual, like an infographic or a video, many of the posts are shared by millions of people on social media platforms.

    Which is why I worry that http://knowmore.washingtonpost.com/ is the model.

    Though I suppose 50 million uniques is good work if you can get it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. Groty says:

    When a blogger leaves a traditional media outlet and it makes news, I think that may be a sign that there’s a bubble being blown in both punditry and in advertiser supported media.

    Facebook, Google, Yahoo! are already vacuuming up a lot of the advertising dollars at the expense of broadcast TV, billboards, newspapers, etc. But given the deluge of new ventures that rely on advertising – especially business models geared toward smartphones that did not exist five years ago – there’s going to be much more disruption in the pike.

    And on top of that, you’ve now got so much competition for consumer time – some that rely on advertising and some that don’t – such as: HBO, Amazon, Netflix, Showtime, video games, blogs, internet porn, Youtube, iTunes, Sirius, etc. that consumers will have to decide which models they’re going to allow to succeed and which consumers are going to let fail. They literally have too much choice. I doubt the market can support it all – especially the ones that rely on advertising when advertising budgets are increasing low single digits per year.

    I see a big shakeout coming. Of course it has been underway for a number of years as newspaper circulation numbers plummet, advertising rates for billboards drop, and Nielsen TV ratings drop. But there’s a lot more to go.

    I suspect Ezra was smart enough to already have the venture capital lined up before he quit. He’s probably gong to need every penny.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  11. Anderson says:

    In completely unrelated news, today the Volokh Conspiracy blog joined the Washington Post.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. Scott says:

    Wonkblog is one of the blogs I do read regularly. I’m a big data and analysis guy so it is right in my swim lane.

    Klein probably realized now is the time to take this chance. He is young, smart, and energetic. Soon he will be older, have a family, etc. and taking a risk is not as attractive. Good for him. I root for success.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  13. Stonetools says:

    @Anderson:

    Hey, those are your boys!
    At least that’s where I see you post most frequently.
    They are kind of an odd fit for the Post- although they might be a better fit for the Post’s current owner (Bezos). I wonder if it’s a case of being left leaning Klein out and right leaning Volokh in?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  14. Anderson says:

    Stonetools: hadn’t thought of it like that, but interesting – you may be right.

    I can never forget hearing Bezos on NPR one morning: “the real world’s a great medium, and it’s not going to go away any time soon,” he said. Mighty generous of him!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  15. wr says:

    @Stonetools: ” Frank Rich and Nate Silver made similar moves and when was the last time you read any of their columns?”

    I believe Frank Rich moved to New York Magazine, which was hardly an internet start-up.

    I do miss him. Hell, I miss a Times without Bill Keller’s execrable column…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  16. wr says:

    @john personna: Is this anything like the constant come ons to look at pictures of Stacy Kiebler — whoever that is — athletes’ girlfriends, actresses who have taken the plunge and the simple device that can stop snoring that decorate the space between the columns and the comments here?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  17. john personna says:

    @wr:

    I guess the headlines look similar, because they think we want “top this” or “list of that.”

    But the real “viral mill” technique is to reduce, squeeze out, any commentary on a story, to reduce it to a landing page with a big visual.

    To give an example, upworthy does just two paragraphs on Aaron Schwartz, and its main content is a “found video.”

    Compare to James’ old-school long-read above.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. David M says:

    Losing Klein and adding Volokh is not a good trade for the WaPo. Since 2009 the Volokh Conspiracy has unfortunately embraced some of the GOP looniness and lost some credibility on certain topics.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  19. Stonetools says:

    @David M:

    Volokh certainly has a different slant and would draw a different audience, which is why what’s happening may not be a matter of just money, but of a rightward realignment of the paper’s opinion pages. We will have to wait and see about that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  20. Andre Kenji says:

    @C. Clavin

    : But I don’t think he has the personality to carry an entire site.

    He is already carrying an entire site.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  21. Andre Kenji says:

    @Stonetools:

    Volokh certainly has a different slant and would draw a different audience, which is why what’s happening may not be a matter of just money, but of a rightward realignment of the paper’s opinion pages

    I don´t think so. They also hired the people of The Monkey Cage, and they are left-leaning.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. David M says:

    @Stonetools:

    My objection to Volokh isn’t to their slant. It’s to people like Adler (and others) claiming that Congress intentionally did not provide subsidies for health insurance purchased on a federal exchange. That’s a ridiculous claim, and doesn’t deserve anything but mockery and laughter as a response. Yet somehow it’s treated like a serious argument now over at volokh.

    They are all butthurt over the Democrats passing health care reform, and have been trying to invent reasons it’s unconstitutional for a while. That petty and partisan behavior should be an embarrassment to a blog like volokh, unless they want to continue to be known as a Republican law blog.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  23. gVOR08 says:

    When Nate Silver left NYT there was a lot of speculation about a culture clash. Supposedly the insider sourced, horserace, gut feel pundits were unhappy about Silver’s data based approach. Klein isn’t a big data guy, but I wonder if the rest of the WAPO opinion stable, especially Fred Hiatt, want Klein and his more fact based style gone.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  24. Stonetools says:

    @David M:

    I never thought of them as anything but a right wing law blog. Did you ever think of them as even handed ? Based on what, really? They were pretty much all libertarian and Federalist Society types.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  25. Ron Beasley says:

    If Klein was smart he would try to work something out with NBC/MSNBC and they should be glad to have him. The “traditional” media like the Post and the Times are dinosaurs. Only the TV/Cable networks can actually have a news gathering organization today. This is also true on a local level. I can’t think of the last time I went to my local papers website but I go to the websites of the local TV stations several times a day. The local paper has fired most of it’s reporters while the best local TV station has been increasing it’s news staff.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  26. Todd says:

    @C. Clavin:

    I have to agree with Andre about the comparison to Sullivan. I subscribed to The Dish when Sully went off on his own last year. I’m still undecided about whether I’ll renew.

    If whatever site Ezra Klein starts has any sort of a subscription model I can say without a doubt that I’ll pay it. Wonkblog is a daily read for me. I can honestly say I think I’d be less well informed without it. (which is something that can’t be said about most of the other politically oriented websites I read … including The Dish and OTB .. sorry James).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  27. Ron Beasley says:

    @gVOR08: Good point, I have never seen anything that would lead me believe that Hiatt has any use for facts.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  28. Andre Kenji says:

    @Stonetools:

    Did you ever think of them as even handed ?

    That´s not the point. The Volokh Conspiracy was well know as a superb academic blog by Libertarian/ Conservative academics, not as a reunion of hacks.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  29. Ron Beasley says:

    @hotel: Spam!!!!!!!!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  30. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @C. Clavin: Has “el Rushbo” left for Costa Rica in the wake of Obamacare? No? Didn’t think so.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  31. Andre Kenji says:

    @Just ‘nutha’ ig’rant cracker: Costa Rica has single payer.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  32. SKI says:

    @Andre Kenji: This. It was a multiple times a day read for me years ago. Now, with the amount of credibility-destroying insanity they post overwhelming the far less frequent quality pieces, I only drop by every week or 4.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  33. Tillman says:

    @Todd: Having just renewed myself, I find the distinction between Dish and Wonkblog (both of which I read, and if Ezra uses a subscription model, that’s more money I’m shoveling over the Internet) is the Dish provides greater perspective on news events and culture, while Wonkblog delivers on the details of proposals and how these are being used/not used/deliberately hidden in the political discourse. To me, it’s a matter of where you want your magnifying glass positioned when looking at something.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  34. Pharoah Narim says:

    Got nothing against personal against Klein but frankly his analysis bores me. Predictable, rarely digs up a perspective that actually cuts to the root of a problem (or finds the actual center of gravity of a problem). Its a shame he plays such a big part in (mis)defining issues of the day. Meh

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  35. Barry says:

    @Stonetools: “They are kind of an odd fit for the Post- although they might be a better fit for the Post’s current owner (Bezos). I wonder if it’s a case of being left leaning Klein out and right leaning Volokh in? ”

    When Bezos bought the WaPo, there was a great opportunity to sweep out the current scum (Rubin, Krauthammer, etc.). It looks like his failure to do so was a sign.

    And as for the money, Bezos has no problem funding speculative ventures at Amazon, and Klein does something which is rare in the mainstream media – analysis.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  36. Barry says:

    @Andre Kenji: “I don´t think so. They also hired the people of The Monkey Cage, and they are left-leaning. ”

    Got anything to back that, aside from ‘the facts have a well-known liberal bias”?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  37. john personna says:

    This New Yorker story says that Klein’s new venture does indeed depend on knowmore-style numbers:

    It seems unlikely that Klein’s new site will be running stories about aging porn stars singing Miley Cyrus songs. So how do you use Facebook and Twitter to drive large numbers of people to thoughtful posts about Obamacare or the war in Syria? Actually, Klein and Matthews have some experience in this area. Know More, the “viral-friendly portal” (BuzzFeed’s description) that Klein conceived and Matthews launched, in October, made a bit of a splash. “On some days … [it] draws more traffic than Wonkblog,” according to a leaked internal memo from Katharine Weymouth, the Post’s publisher.

    Last month, in a post discussing Know More’s success, Klein noted that content designed specifically for social media, especially Facebook, can “drive vastly more traffic than ever seemed possible …. Publishers need to spend a lot more time thinking about how to package non-social content to give it the best chance on the social Web.” Among the tactics that Klein recommended: routinely creating video promos to accompany significant articles, and “identifying key social accounts in the communities that might be interested in a given story and pushing to them directly.” “It would sure be a convenient coincidence if the form journalists used on newsprint also happened to be the best way to reach readers on Facebook,” Klein wrote. “Sadly, it doesn’t appear to be true.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0