Should the hoary institutions of mainstream American print media be concerned about the rise of web-only, technology-driven “explanatory journalism”? Judging by the highly anticipated launch of Ezra Klein’s Vox.com, which added its signature features Sunday night, they might be less alarmed than they were yesterday. That’s because Vox’s launch has shown the limits of its own vision. Technology is no substitute for information, as Vox’s early projects demonstrate.
Take, for example, its backgrounder of the Ukraine crisis. Vox claims to provide “explanatory journalism,” and sets up its backgrounders as a series of flash cards with highlighted terms, which link to explanations of those terms. It’s a smooth and readable interface, but the product itself basically comes across as targeting those without the attention span for Wikipedia. Klein has hired the Washington Post’s foreign-affairs blogger Max Fisher to “explain” foreign policy to Vox’s readers. And the Ukraine explainer has a somewhat surprising conclusion.
The backgrounder on the Ukraine crisis has (at least as I write this) 20 “cards,” each with a subheader meant to answer a specific question about the issue. Because the Ukraine crisis is evolving and escalating in real time, readers will wonder what to expect in the near future. Card 17 presents this opportunity, titled “Is Russia going to invade eastern Ukraine?” Good question. The answer, however, was revealing not about Ukraine but about Vox itself.
As John Tabin noticed last night, Vox’s answer seemed to change within the hour, from “At this point it looks pretty unlikely” to “there are growing reasons to worry that Russia may also try to annex some parts of eastern Ukraine as well.” Why the sudden change? Read on, and it becomes clear. The next card is titled, accurately, “You didn’t answer my question!” Indeed Vox did not answer your question. “This is very much a work in progress,” Fisher continues. “It will continue to be updated as events unfold, new research gets published, and fresh questions emerge.” (Vox added the 20th card to explain that previous cards had in fact changed without acknowledgement.)
So is Vox explaining the news, or explaining why it can’t explain the news? All signs point to the latter. But the 19th card–which was the final card, until the disclaimer was added as card 20–is where the reader will really feel cheated. Card 19 offers further reading about the Ukraine crisis. Thus far we have seen that Vox’s foreign-policy explainers are simply bullet-pointed versions of someone else’s reporting. But whose? Card 19 gives us an idea.
Suggestions for further reading about the Ukraine crisis include five major publications: the Washington Post, the New York Times, the New Republic, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books. Now, there’s nothing wrong with reading these publications–indeed, the New Republic’s Julia Ioffe is a great source for Russia-related material and the NYRB contributor Vox suggests is Timothy Snyder, certainly an expert on the region.
But if you’ve slogged through 19 cards for a Vox explainer, what was your reward? A suggestion that if you want your questions answered, you should really be reading actual reporters and experts. Vox, then, appears to be a collection of road signs, pointing you in the right direction. And those media institutions Vox sends you to are old, East Coast liberal establishment fixtures. Vox is not replacing the New York Times; it’s reading the New York Times to you. Old media is the essential lifeblood of publications like Vox. The latter desperately needs the former, while the former mostly considers the latter an expensive parasite.
This is not to dismiss new media challenges to old media–those are, in general, quite real, as are the weaknesses in the business model of the kinds of stodgy newspapers that writers must leave in order to innovate. It would also be more valuable if Vox were to broaden its own horizons. If you followed Vox’s reading list on Ukraine, you would have a decent start. But you would be confined the narrow worldview that produced the Vox backgrounder in the first place.
And you would be surprisingly chained to print publications–a bizarre choice for a site hoping to be an online-only trendsetter. For example, Vox’s explainer ignores the great reporting on the conflict from Eli Lake and Jamie Kirchick at the Daily Beast. And it doesn’t recommend checking out the running Ukraine live-blog at the Interpreter, Michael Weiss’s latest project. Perhaps online publications are Vox’s competitors and are therefore not endorsed with the gusto reserved for the New York Times. But that would only reinforce the impression that Vox is simply explaining the sermon to the choir.